Dane County Small Business Awards: Blue Plate caters to its promise

0614 Blueplate Ezine Panel

Blue Plate Catering turns 30 this year, and for CEO and owner Jodi Fowler and her staff, 30 years of fulfilling promises has led to consistent revenue growth in the 11–13% range. Only the pandemic year of 2020 interrupted that string of success, but Blue Plate has shown how reassuringly special a caterer can be.

So special that Blue Plate Catering is one of five companies to win a 2022 Dane County Small Business Award. To select this year’s DCSBA class, IB convened a judging panel of past award winners to evaluate each nominee on three main criteria: company growth and success since inception; the benefit package provided to its employees; and the contributions and impact the company makes in the community.

Reference book

From the humble beginnings of catering fewer than one wedding a month, Blue Plate catered 169 weddings in 2021, and will exceed that number in 2022. “Catering can be a very scary thing for people,” Fowler notes. “You make a phone call to place an order for your large event and then spend the approaching days hoping the food will show up on time and be great.”

For three decades, Blue Plate Catering has kept its promise at events big and small, allowing it to grow organically, notes General Manager and owner Tim DiMenna. A well-executed event attended by hundreds of people does wonders for word-of-mouth advertising. “This has led to many referrals, which has been the engine of our growth,” he states. “If we do a great job catering your wedding, you and all your friends will recommend us or think of us the next time they have catering needs.”

David Porto, owner and director of events for Blue Plate, notes that catering isn’t easy. Setting up a satellite operation at every event can be quite a challenge, and he says that knowing what is and isn’t feasible has helped the company consistently exceed clients’ expectations.

As is the case with longstanding small businesses, commercial success allows it to do more for employees. The woman-owned company is able to go beyond the typical bare bones benefit package offered by some caterers. As Fowler points out, jobs in the food service industry are often thought of as a steppingstone en route to a person’s “real career,” but Blue Plate offers the potential for a serious career, and management wanted to offer a benefits package that rivals non-food related companies.

Obviously, health insurance is the most important benefit, but paid vacation, sick leave, 401(k) and individual retirement account matches, professional development opportunities, and flexible work hours are examples of Blue Plate trying to be a leader in its industry in terms of employee attraction and retention.

And they are not just there for bragging rights, but to be used for the sake of a healthy, productive staff. “We always encourage our staff to take full advantage of all the benefits offered,” DiMenna notes.

Communal contributions

The Madison community gets the same treatment, especially during a public health emergency. Partnering with other businesses, it led the Feed the Front Lines Movement to provide thousands of meals to hospitals, clinics, and first responders during early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. As Fowler recalls, it was an inspirational example of necessity being the mother of invention. “We were all spinning from the vast devastation of COVID, trying to navigate truly uncharted waters. Our kitchens were completely shut down. Service and health care employees all over the city were being put in the line of fire. People were dying, and then the call came from our health insurance carrier that all of our employees, now on unemployment comp, were going to have to go onto COBRA. We were devastated.”

Fortunately, an idea began to form. Blue Plate Catering still had a kitchen that the company could afford to use, and it had a couple of dozen trained employees who wanted to work. Could they be put to work for the good of front-line workers and salvage their health insurance? Feed the Front Lines was the answer — with a little help from business friends who signed up to support the effort. “Employees in jeopardy of losing health insurance were a priority, then came anyone who was struggling to pay rent, etc.,” Fowler explains. “As the Feed the Front Lines wave grew, we even had team members who came in to help, unpaid, as their own donation to the cause. We went from being completely paralyzed by COVID to actually thriving with one common goal — together, we can help. We turned something so bad into something so good.”

Even before Feed the Front Lines, Blue Plate partnered with several local nonprofit organizations and provided catering to help them raise funds for their respective causes. Two of its cherished relationships are with local organizations — Porchlight and The Beacon — that help battle food insecurity. It also partners with a number of clients throughout the year to ensure that a minimal amount of food is wasted.

Managers feel humbled to have built a business successful enough to be able to give back and will continue to do so as long as they can. Based on the COVID experience, DiMenna says, “It made (and continues to make) us proud to live in a city where so many are concerned with the needs of others.”

Peer review

The 2022 Dane County Small Business Award judges included Jeanne Carpenter, owner of Firefly Coffeehouse; Fatou Ceesay, owner and manager of Cairasu Home Care; Jon Konarske, publisher of In Business magazine; and Jason Potter, CEO of Farwell. To be selected by a panel of peers lent extra meaning to Blue Plate Catering. “We are honored and humbled by this award,” states Fowler. “For the past 30 years, we have started and ended each day trying to take care of our clients and our team to the best of our ability. It’s amazing for that hard work to be recognized this way.”

Editor’s note: The public can network with this year’s winners at an award program and reception on Thursday, July 21, from 4 to 6:30 p.m., at the Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State St., Madison.

Coming up:
Thursday, June 16: Grakei Maids LLC
Tuesday, June 21: Impact Association Management
Thursday, June 23: Sign Art Studio
Tuesday, June 28: The Creative Company

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