I recently spent some time in Kansas City with one of the nation’s most exclusive caterers. Lon Lane’s Inspired Occasions is a beacon of creativity and charity in this beautiful city, serving their affluent clientele while at the same time supporting the local community.
Kansas City is a vibrant, beautiful city. I was completely blown away by the architecture, the arts and the physical beauty of this jewel of the Midwest. The people here are cultured and well traveled, their tastes refined. While I wouldn’t call it a foodie town, I have to say that, as a foodie, I was over the moon most of the time and had one of the most impactful dining experiences ever while I was here. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Kansas City is second only to Rome in the number of fountains, a fact that they are deservedly proud of. I encourage everyone to visit at least once.
I went up there to help them, but ended up learning a few things along the way.
Here are the top 10 things I learned at Lon Lane’s Inspired Occasions; valuable to anyone, in any business.
- Exceptionalism is never an accident.Develop a culture of excellence where every member of the team is signed on to the mission of the organization.
- Simple things can be phenomenal. One of the most ubiquitous items on his menus is a simple bite called an onion puff. This understated bite is exploding with flavor and are snatched up quickly from trays as the servers filter through an event. If your mindset is that only complicated or exotic things are acceptable, then you will miss out on some of life’s greatest pleasures.
- Presentation can make the mundane sublime. We eat with our eyes first. Even the simplest platter brightened with fruit and flowers becomes exotic and engaging.
- Developing the trust of your clients gives you room to truly serve them. In any business, trust is the most important hurtle. Once trust is established a true relationship forms and becomes less transactional. As we moved effortlessly through the homes of some of America’s most recognizable names, we were free to design events that almost seemed as if the hostess did everything on her own. Without their confidence that we were working in their best interests the events would have been very different indeed.
- Some of the most amazing feats are pulled off by small armies of dedicated people. Formal training doesn’t necessarily make for a more efficient organization or a better product. The gorgeous food stylings that come out of the kitchens at Lon Lane’s Inspired Occasions are created by a group of cooks that love the food they prepare, not, as expected, a fleet of high-touqued euro-chef’s working in silence with tweezers and Chopin playing softly in the background. I would put the passion and creativity of kitchen leader Zelda up against any CIA graduate you can find.
- A strong system will outlast the best people 10 out of 10 times. Nothing falls through the cracks at Lon Lane’s Inspired Occasions. Each event is produced with the intentionality that only a “Type A” personality could muster. The guiding system here is proof that you don’t need a gaggle of geeks in the basement to have an efficient system. This is as manual a process as I have witnessed in my visits to caterers around the country and yet it is hyper efficient, as evidenced by the low error rate of events going out the door.
- Check, check, and recheck. Redundant accountability is the key to flawless execution. Having a great system is useless if there is no way to verify the results while underway. At each step of the way the questions are being asked to ensure that the client is receiving exactly what they expected, that the products are of the highest quality, and that the goals of the company are being met as well.
- Waste not, want not. My grandfather may have said this a thousand times while I was growing up. This actually got to be a running joke while I was there but it is as true today as it was when Benjamin Franklin penned “a penny saved is a penny earned.” At Lon Lane’s Inspired Occasions they grow their own herbs and vegetables, watch the amount of wrap that goes around the pans that go out, and practice good stewardship of the resources at hand. I remember one time that I “cater wrapped” a pan, where you pull the wrap out, set the pan on top of it and then pull the wrap over the top to create a perfect seal all the way around. After watching me do this, one of their kitchen staff gently asked me why I was wasting all the wrap and unwrapped the pan, cut the wrap in half and ended up wrapping two pans with what I had applied to one. It seems ridiculous, but when we watch the pennies, the dollars will take care of themselves.
- Sell people what they want to buy. One of the reasons food businesses fail at such a high rate is that they are not selling what people want. Seems pretty simple, but it can be traced directly back to the gnarly root of pride. Many chefs feel that they will set the direction the food culture is going and people will catch up eventually. What I witnessed is a company that listens to their clients, and moves with their tastes. This isn’t to say that they aren’t a trendsetter and lead their clients on new and exciting food journeys, they most definitely are, but it is only after a thorough understanding of their clients tastes that the train leaves the station.
- Give back to your community in a way that is contextual to who you are. As a food company, Lon Lane’s Inspired Occasions gives back in some very expected ways as well as some not so expected ways. One of the amazing groups they sponsor is Catholic Charities of Kansas City that brings refugees in, sets them up with a plot of land and some seeds and teaches them how to grow their own produce. This is a remarkably synergistic approach that is in no way a handout. These people are developing a skill that will not only feed their own family and produce income, but they are adding fresh, organic produce into the Kansas City marketplace through farmers markets and agreements with food service establishments. If you would like to support this very worthy cause, or champion one in your area, please visit: http://www.catholiccharitiesks.org/page.aspx?pid=511
I have to say that it was pretty hard to leave Kansas City, but I left with some valuable lessons learned and a new respect for the heartland.