RICE FORMS SUBSIDIARY FOR OFF-PREMISE 'HARD' CATERING

HOUSTON -- Rice Epicurean Markets here, a nine-store upscale chain that highlights fresh prepared foods, has created a subsidiary to accommodate its growing off-premise catering business.The subsidiary, known as Epicurean Catering Co., will specialize in what chain officials called "hard catering," more labor-intensive events that require a catering sales manager, waitstaff, smallwares, china, and

HOUSTON -- Rice Epicurean Markets here, a nine-store upscale chain that highlights fresh prepared foods, has created a subsidiary to accommodate its growing off-premise catering business.

The subsidiary, known as Epicurean Catering Co., will specialize in what chain officials called "hard catering," more labor-intensive events that require a catering sales manager, waitstaff, smallwares, china, and even floral arrangements and linens.

The chain is also searching for a central kitchen site, to help it cope with the increased food-production activity tied to its catering business. The kitchen will not only serve as the primary prep facility for the catering business, but also assist the various deli programs run by Epicurean Markets, according to Douglas Dick, vice president of food-service operations for Rice Epicurean Markets.

"Our delis are up to the wall in programs," Dick told SN. "And the catering always throws a wrench into the machinery. That's why the catering company was also formed, to pull away the events that grow beyond the bounds of a one-kitchen deli."

Dick will head the new catering company. In that task, he will be assisted by Luzia Turner, catering director. Leading the culinary efforts will be Tom Palmer, corporate executive chef for the supermarket chain, whose resume includes tenures at several country clubs, where he organized and executed numerous large-scale catering events.

"He's very well versed in banquets and in large catering events," said Dick. "He knows how to put up a production list, get people organized, and get it done. He's been a big asset."

Dick said the chain wants its catering operation to build its own image. "We want to differentiate ourselves away from the supermarket when it comes to hard catering," he added. To help highlight the distinction, Rice created a new logo for the Epicurean Catering Co. that has been incorporated into all uniforms and signage.

Dick noted the new company already possesses a team of some 50 chefs and refrigerated trucks that enable it to cater parties ranging from 10 to 2,000 people. As the catering subsidiary grows, it will also acquire additional equipment like chairs, tables and place settings, which until now has been rented.

Even with the value-added services, Dick said, Rice customers should not expect significant changes in pricing structure.

"What we want to tell people is that we still use the purchasing power of the large grocery store chain," he said. "We still use the human resource power of having about 60 chefs working for me so we would still be making [items] from scratch."

Currently, the catering operation uses a large kitchen in a slower deli as a central prep site. For very large events, the company works out of several Epicurean Market kitchens, where one might be dedicated to preparing the appetizers, another the entrees, and a third, desserts.

"What's nice about catering and the grocery store business is that their hours of operation usually differ," said Dick. "The catering is usually after prime time [for] the grocery business."

The company contracts with a private personnel supplier for waitstaff. The chefs, who are employed by Rice Epicurean Markets, receive additional compensation outside their regular salaries for any catering assignments they accept.

Dick said Rice's decision to create the catering company is the result of a natural evolution of its reputation as a catering destination.

"What sets our [new] company apart is that we offer one-stop shopping for our customers," he said. "Whether it's wedding cakes or flowers, we offer a service that is virtually turnkey for the client."