Chef Steve Griffiths
FON 119, Catering
April 4, 2009
Father Knows Best
An Interview with Tim Ferman
Dad's Catering, the name alone conjured up a vivid image that I thought should be the company's logo prior to my interview with Tim Ferman. Whenever I heard the catering company's name, a balding, mid-aged fat guy, wearing a "Kiss The Cook" apron, holding a beer in one hand and a pair of tongs in the other, standing in front of a barbeque grill, automatically popped into my mind. But since I have had the pleasure to talk to the co-founder and proprietor of Dad's Catering, I know better. Dad's Catering is not all about picnics and backyard cook-outs-unless that's what you want it to be. Tim Ferman and his sister Linda Ek have owned and operated Dad's Catering since 1976. Recently, I sat down with the patriarch of this award winning company to discuss what it takes to own and operate a successful catering business.
Dad's Catering which started as a family owned butcher shop here in the metropolitan Phoenix area, has grown over the past thirty-three years to be one of the most sought after catering companies in the valley. Recently Dad's Catering won the award from Phoenix Magazine as Caterer of the Year 2008. They have also won the same award from The Knot, New Times, Arizona Brides and Arizona Wedding Chronicle for consecutive years since 2000.
It all began one day when the family's banker walked into the Ferman's butcher shop and asked Tim if he would cater his company's annual picnic in the park. Tim asked the banker what he meant, and when he explained he needed someone to barbeque hamburgers and hot dogs for the bank's employees, Tim agreed and just kind of forgot about the request. A few weeks later when the banker returned, he told Tim he had got the job. Tim quickly asked, "What job?" After the banker refreshed Tim's memory, Tim thought he better ask about the particulars just incase he would need help or an extra car to transport the food. What happened next is how Dad's Catering got started.
The banker told Tim the picnic was for the entire company not just his branch and that they expected 1,700 people to attend. After the initial shock wore off, Tim and his family sat down and figured out how to pull off the giant event. Not only was the picnic a success, they commissioned 40 more parties from that event that were equally successful. After that, Tim and Linda decided to open their own catering company separate from the family's butcher shop. The brother and sister were standing together one day when someone asked what they were going to name their new business. When they looked up and saw their father walk through the door, simultaneously they said, "Dad's."
Tim Ferman has stepped easily into the role of "Dad" to give the company a face far from the image I imagined. The fifty-five year old soft spoken, well mannered, man's type B personality probably has something to do with the company's success. However, Tim gives all the credit to his sister, wife and staff. Yes, I said sister and wife, but that's not all. The company is primarily all family. Both Tim's adult children and Linda's adult children work for the company. Anyone who has been in the business for any length of time knows you should never work with family, but Tim seems to think that is why they have done so well. Plus, they all built the business in very close quarters. Today the Phoenix based business operates out of a state of the art kitchen in a giant 14,000 square foot building where they house all of their equipment, props, china, linen and décor, but that has only been for the past few years. Dad's Catering spent 30 years planning, designing, preparing and cooking for events in a small 3,000 square foot building which required incredible organization.
Tim says his management style and philosophy are all about respecting the employees and never asking them to do anything he would not do himself. Even though today Tim spends most of his time answering the phone and being the first contact for excited brides, harried corporate secretaries and distraught people who just lost a loved one, he is willing and able to perform any job for his catering company. A duty he often does, because another one of the company's philosophies are to never refuse a job. "We built this company on jobs no one else would take," Tim proclaimed proudly.
When I challenged that philosophy and read Tim a recent posting on notalwaysright.com, I knew I could get him to agree with the author of the posting. On the site under the catering tab, a Connecticut caterer wrote out the phone conversation she had with a prospective client trying to hire her two days before the would-be-client's party and the week prior to Christmas. The caterer was dumbfounded by the request and then was insulted when the would-be-client said, "It's only one more party, why can't you do it?" Customer service professionals posted many comments calling the would-be-client every name in the book. Tim simply said, "I'd take the job."
"If you think this job is going to flow perfectly the way you want-don't do it." Tim says calmly. Tim also feels that you can plan, be prepared, execute an event flawlessly but he only knows one thing, something will change and you need to be ready. Being flexible and expecting the unexpected allows you to handle anything, even last minute events, not to mention the monsoon season in Arizona.
I suppose when you are the President and CFO of a company, saying no to a job is out of the question, especially when the equation for financial success is so clear-cut. "One-third for food, one-third for expenses: rent, utilizes, catering truck payments, etc., and one-third staff salaries and wages. If I do my job properly and the salaries are a third of the last one-third, our net profit is usually 8 to 12 percent." Tim said, challenging the articles I had brought to his attention stating caterers net a 66% profit.
I asked the caterer whose education into the business came strictly from trail by fire, what advice he would give to someone starting their own catering company. "The stress from this job is high, but if you take one job at a time, commit, and do what the people want, it is a good profession." Tim said it took about ten years to truly feel comfortable with any type of catered event, but today he feels his catering company can handle absolutely anything. A desk littered with thank you letters from satisfied clients attested to that statement.
Before I concluded my interview, I needed to mention my preconceived image of a catering company named "Dad's." Tim admitted in the beginning as the company started venturing out of the barbeque type catering and into the more formal social catering arena, they tried to change the company's name. However, when it caused business to drop rather then increase, Tim and Linda knew "Dad's" would always remain the company's name. That means, move over Wolfgang, it just might be "Dad" to handle the next Governor's Ball at the Oscars.