By Valerie Cheatham
It’s an especially tough economic time out there for small businesses, but two sisters, Lauren and Annie Murray of rural Fisher (the L. and A. of L.A. Gourmet), have managed to wade through those rough waters and come out with a very successful business. Who knew an $85 commercial dishwasher would have such an impact!
Lauren and Annie’s journey really began by watching and helping with their entrepreneurial parents’ business. They learned firsthand about a strong work ethic and the value of good customer service.
Lauren went to the University of Illinois (U of I) to study finance and a year later Annie joined her to study food science and human nutrition. Lauren changed her major to food science and human nutrition with a concentration in hospitality management. Meanwhile, the two dreamed of having a business of their own.
One day their father went to an auction and came home with a commercial dishwasher. The sisters started watching for weekend sales and stumbled upon a catering business that was going out of business. They bought all of the equipment, put it in their dad’s barn and kept dreaming.
A few years later, as they were finishing college, they got the equipment down and started the building plans for a kitchen. Little by little their father created the kitchen in part of a building on the farm and engineered the plans according to their needs. They also put together a business plan, obtained the information they needed to open a business, and filed all of the paperwork with the city. But, there was just one more big hurdle; they needed money.
Annie presented their business plan to a local bank. They had no collateral, but the bank took the chance anyway. Annie says, “I was so excited I hugged the banker and ran home to tell Lauren. When I got home there was a message from the bank. In my excitement, I hadn’t stuck around long enough to sign the loan papers!”
After graduation in May of 2006, Lauren sent out a press release in late summer announcing the opening of L.A. Gourmet Catering and they hosted their first event in September. Friends from college and many family members helped out that weekend, and many events after. Lauren and Annie literally did everything from cooking the food, hosting the event and writing the menus to washing the dishes and loading the vans. From the two of them doing everything, they now have a staff of eight full-time and 30 part-time employees.
“Never underestimate the amount of time, or the amount of work, it is going to take you to be successful,” remarks Annie. “We have both made a bunch of personal sacrifices in order to be successful. We didn’t have a Plan B if this didn’t work, but we are so glad it has.”
“We’ve had the good fortune to grow during a failing economy,” Lauren says. “We didn’t grow as fast as we might have 15 years ago, but we could have made mistakes if we had grown too fast. So I think we have been fortunate to grow slowly. There were eight catering companies in Champaign when we started and, because of the economy, we are down to three or four of us. Since it was slow, we thought we were okay because we had just started. Those companies had to let people go, but it was just Lauren and me during the worst of the recession.”
The sisters never took on more than they could handle, but enough to sustain the business. They have also never paid for advertising. Through good connections and word of mouth, L.A. Gourmet has blossomed.
One big change occurred when they started handling a few catered functions for the U of I’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. That led the way to more corporate events, and in 2007, they were asked to cater a U of I graduation event for 4,500 people. They already had a wedding for 250 people that day, but didn’t think they could turn down the opportunity. Handling both of those events on the same day gave them that extra boost of confidence.
“We had plenty of help,” explained Annie. “We had everything written down in a plan and once it was over we thought, ‘We can do this! We’ve got it!’ And we’ve grown every year.”
They have grown to doing anywhere from three to 15 or 20 events a week and estimate they have catered about 500 weddings in the seven years they’ve been open. They typically have one big event a month and never do more than three weddings on any given weekend.
Another dream, that will be a reality this fall, is the opening of a venue of their own design, Pear Tree Estates. Surrounded by corn and bean fields, Pear Tree Estates has an open truss system, antique bronze chandeliers and a stone fireplace. They want it to represent the country without being country. The 12,000 square-foot building is surrounded on three sides by a pond and has a large patio on the back for weddings. It will hold up to 400 people and has a full kitchen. They plan to run Pear Tree Estates as a parallel business with its own staff. Within a year, they plan to hire a chef and staff specifically for that venue.
Marketing with social media has been a challenge, but they both agree it’s been very important. Annie states, “I think if you aren’t on Facebook or Twitter it looks like you’re not busy. There’s also a perception that if you aren’t posting, you aren’t busy. This can be a challenge, because you may not be posting because you are so busy! But, it’s important. We have a client following and it’s interesting to see what comments we get from posting every day.”
Sites such as Pinterest and Etsy have really made the sisters think “outside the box.” They said they have been to several weddings and thought, this is off of Pinterest. In that light, they are always looking for, and imagining, new ideas for their events. Lauren explained, “If it’s not picture perfect you might as well not do it because there’s going to be a picture posted and you want it to represent your company. We didn’t worry about that five years ago. We wanted everything to be really pretty, but we didn’t photograph it before we left to be sure if someone tagged it, it would say what we wanted it to say. Ninety percent of brides shop online before they call you.”
One of their biggest investments initially was their website, www.lagourmetcatering.com. They continue to work hard to be sure the website represents their storefront. Social media draws a younger, but none less important, crowd. Annie handles Facebook posts and Paige Kirby, the event coordinator for Pear Tree Estates, handles Instagram and Twitter. Having more than one person posting keeps the perspective fresh.
According to the sisters, one of the best pieces of advice they ever received was to “hire your staff, not to be less than you, but to be greater than you! And, all of our staff is as good, or better, than us. That’s awesome!”