He Started a Catering Business as COVID Hit and Grew It Anyway

Jeff Dutzel of Dutzel's Catering and Events

He Started a Catering Business as COVID Hit and Grew It Anyway

Being a successful doer isn’t the same as being a successful entrepreneur. Just ask Jeff Dutzel of Dutzel’s Catering & Events.

“People always say I must have a passion for cooking,” he says. “But I have a passion for smart business.”

Learn how this savvy entrepreneur combined work experience, business know-how and enthusiasm for people to create a growing food and hospitality venture.

Setting the stage for food business success

While in high school, Jeff worked in catering at a local grocery chain. In college, he worked in concession management and was then a subcontractor opening concession stands for the KC T-Bones. And yeah, he did a little catering on the side. But once he earned his college degree, he focused on teaching. Jeff worked as a high school marketing instructor and became an assistant principal.

Except people kept asking him to cater events.

“In 2019, my assistant principal position was eliminated,” Jeff says. “I decided that if I didn’t have a position that I wanted by May 1, I would commit everything to full-time catering. I knew I had enough business doing weddings to survive personally, and I could build up the corporate side. On May 1, 2019, I decided to leave education.”

Jeff networked to build his business, and in March 2020, he attended the International Caterers Association convention.

“I went to learn how to grow, and I got all these great ideas,” Jeff says. “Then COVID hit. That was interesting.”

Roll with the business-ownership changes

It was time to pivot! Jeff was still working out of a shared kitchen and had no full-time employees, so his overhead was low. He created weekly heat-and-serve meals for families and pushed an Easter heat-and-serve dinner. Once restrictions started to lift, events picked back up — but instead of 200-guest weddings, it was 50-person gatherings. Slowly but surely, business increased.

“I had a part-time person to do office stuff, but that grew to full time,” Jeff says. “I had to hire a kitchen manager, then an operations manager. We’re now at about 30 employees, six full time.”

Jeff built his team with intention — and a dash of humility.

“When we started elevating our catering, I knew I wasn’t the person to do that because I’m not a trained chef,” he says. “That was part of my strategic planning: I hired someone from the industry who had experience with menu development. I like putting teams together and watching them succeed. I know I’m not the smartest person in every department. So I find the right people and help everyone succeed and grow.”

Avoiding common pitfalls in food business

Dutzel’s Catering & Events is branching out this summer. Its new arm, Dutzel’s Hospitality, is providing food for the H. Roe Bartle Scout Reservation outside of Osceola, Missouri. That means adding 35 new team members to feed 1550 people each day in June and July.

Jeff grew up going to the camp and continues to be involved in Scouts. But when he earned the contract, not everyone on his team was thrilled. After all, what’s a high-end caterer doing slinging sloppy Joes?

“In our catering business, July is slow because everyone corporate is on vacation, and it’s so hot,” Jeff says. “This work is a whole different staff. I based this decision on, “Is it going to be profitable?’”

This mindset is one of the takeaways Jeff took from ScaleUP! Kansas City.

“Every decision needs to be made with the bottom line in mind,” Jeff says. He sees many people in the food business overlooking this key tenet.

“You need to know your numbers,” Jeff says. “I see people doing catering for eight people. How are you making money? So many people have a passion but don’t understand the business side. Don’t sell yourself short, and know the value of your work.”

He knows of what he speaks. Jeff was reticent to charge the same fees as other caterers, thinking he needed to compete as a budget caterer and that no one would pay higher prices. But it turns out that customers were more than willing to pay fair prices for high-end service.

“If I had taken that advice years ago, I would have been able to scale faster instead of being content where we were,” Jeff says. “Now, I’m not afraid to say ‘no.’ We have a minimum. Before, I didn’t want to turn anything away. Now we know what we’re good at. Know your worth and don’t short-change yourself. It’s OK to say no.”

Business growth with networking and certifications

Knowing the market and people throughout the community has empowered Jeff to build his business the way he wants. He’s active in the Mid-America LGBT Chamber of Commerce, Lee’s Summit Chamber of Commerce and Independence Chamber of Commerce.

“Any chamber event you go to, you might not get business that day from that person, but you’re building relationships,” Jeff says. “One day, they’re going to know somebody who needs you, and hopefully you’ve built that relationship, and they’ll refer you. Use that network to build relationships, not just sell.”

Being active in the Mid-America LGBT Chamber of Commerce has led Dutzel’s Catering & Events becoming a certified LGBT Business Enterprise through the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce. The process included lots of documentation, a site visit and interviews. But because Dutzel’s is a member of a local LGBT chamber, the fees were waived.

“You can use that to your advantage, whatever that certification is,” Jeff says. “There are a lot of corporate businesses that want to do business with diverse suppliers, whether it’s women, LGBT, Hispanic.”

Advice for other entrepreneurs

For Jeff, the best part of his job is seeing what his team can achieve.

“I love walking into an event and seeing what my staff pulled off, seeing that wow factor,” he says. “To know I put people in a place and gave them the resources and tools to empower them to pull it off is great.”

Jeff knows that he’s not going it alone. And being involved in industry organizations has made a real difference.

“The International Caterers Association is probably one of the most impactful organizations we’ve been a part of,” he says. “It gives the opportunity to go to conferences and online webinars and build those relationships with caterers all across the country. So when you do need advice, you have a friend to call who isn’t your direct competitor. I have so many people I’ve met that I can reach out to.”

Jeff is also quick to point out that ScaleUP! Kansas City gave him many takeaways that have helped shape his business. He hopes to continue to take advantage of other Resource Partner programs, like the Helzberg Entrepreneurial Mentoring Program (HEMP).

There’s an organization or program in the Kansas City metro that’s ideal for helping you build your business, too. Check out KCSourceLink’s Resource Navigator to learn more about the 230+ business resources right here in KC. Not sure where to begin? A free Personal Action Plan can give your business the jumpstart it needs by showing you your next steps and the exact KC-area experts to contact who can help you reach the next level.

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