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Chef Chris Brown, left, runs The Stop Community Food Centre's catering service. He and Miguel Iraheta, right, prepare dinner for 15 at a private birthday party in a Toronto home on Nov. 12, 2011. (Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail/Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail)
Chef Chris Brown, left, runs The Stop Community Food Centre's catering service. He and Miguel Iraheta, right, prepare dinner for 15 at a private birthday party in a Toronto home on Nov. 12, 2011. (Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail/Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail)

Charity begins in the kitchen Add to ...

When Karen Pilosof hired The Stop Community Food Centre, a not-for-profit, to serve the hors d’oeuvres and cocktails for a reception at her home in Toronto’s Forest Hill neighborhood last week, she did so in large part because a chunk of the catering bill would go to a good cause. “I thought it would be nice to support them,” said Ms. Pilosof, who with her husband Richard Pilosof, a hedge fund manager, contributes to several charities throughout the city.

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By the end of the evening, however, Ms. Pilosof wasn’t thinking as much about doing good as she was about how great the sesame crêpe-wrapped Peking duck and the seared halibut with tomato compote and dehydrated olive powder were. “They were as good as any caterer I’ve ever hired,” she said.The catering business may seem like a strange endeavour for a charity group – it’s a notoriously difficult field even in the best of times. The business has shrunk considerably since 2008’s financial crisis, and even the most established caterers say they haven’t been able to raise prices since then.

“We always make a profit, but we’ve never made more than 10 per cent in a year,” said Michael Harries, managing partner at Vancouver’s Culinary Capers Catering, which does $7-million of business annually.Yet The Stop, whose community mission is to provide access to healthy food, is far from alone. In St. John’s, Stella Burry Community Services, a charity social services agency, has run a catering division since 2007. Toronto has several charity caterers, including Daily Bread Food Bank, which launched a catering arm last month as a way to beef up its food services training program. And in Vancouver, Potluck Café and Catering is celebrating its 10h year in the field; the not-for-profit expects to do $1-million in catering this year, much of which is directed straight back into its charity work.

For many non-profits that cater, a primary aim is to train people with barriers to employment – housing insecurity, mental issues, addiction recovery – in food services. Daily Bread’s effort started as a way to add a “real life” component to its existing food services training program, for instance, and in Vancouver, 30 to 40 per cent of the staff on any catering job at Potluck are trainees.

That social mission can be as much of a hindrance to gaining new business as it helps, however. “There can be a perception that it’s subpar,” said Heather O’Hara, Potluck’s executive director. “Quite honestly, our customers want really great food and professional service first, and then the whole value-added of our community impact. If the food is not up to quality, if the service is not up to quality, then it’s just not going to do it for them.”

Even harder, most of the charity caterers are required to break even, or better. “Because we’re a charitable organization, we can’t be in the business of losing money,” said Cheryl Torrance, who runs Daily Bread’s catering program. “If at any time it doesn’t feel like it’s something we can continue, we’ll step out of it.” (Many in the business say it takes about five years for a good caterer to become profitable.)

At The Stop, the goal is admirably focused: to make scads of cash that can be ploughed back into the agency’s core not-for-profit work. “This is a pure and simple money-making venture,” said Nick Saul, The Stop’s executive director.

The Stop’s catering program is run by Chris Brown, a top-shelf city chef who ran one of Toronto’s most innovative restaurants before the organization hired him. A big part of Mr. Brown’s job description when he came on board was to earn money for the charity. They tried cooking classes and make-ahead meal programs. None of them really seemed to work, Mr. Saul said. Mr. Brown often cooked fundraising dinners at the group’s community centre, however, and some of the corporate donors who turned up asked to book him for private events.

They started small, using only professional kitchen and service staff – friends of Mr. Brown’s, largely, who were between restaurants and jobs. Stikeman Elliott, the blue-chip national law firm, started hiring The Stop to cater lunches, receptions and client dinners, said Susie Freeman, the director of catering services for the firm’s Toronto office. The firm now hires The Stop to cater a dozen times each year, and would do twice that much business if Mr. Brown’s team weren’t so frequently booked, she added.

After a few executives with ING Direct Canada ate at an event The Stop catered, they not only made the organization its preferred local caterer, but also began to underwrite The Stop’s programming. This is another benefit, Mr. Saul said. “When you’re in a room doing an event, people wander back as donors.”

Business has doubled in each of the past two years, Mr. Saul said; they’re turning a small profit. And they’re gunning for the big guys now. Last fall, The Stop hired a full-time marketing co-ordinator for its catering team and is looking for a larger dedicated production space, he said. “Our chef has had to duck and weave to find space wherever he can, and it’s held us back in terms of our growth.”

And they’ll continue to pick and choose the events they cater as carefully as they can. One of the greatest difficulties for charity caterers, Ms. O’Hara and Mr. Saul said, can be fending off requests from other charities.

“It’s been difficult telling people that we’re too expensive for them,” Mr. Saul said. “Other non-profits will call us up and say, ‘We want you to do our AGM.’ Or ‘Can you do my board meeting?’ That is what will bring our business down,” he added.

“We can’t mess around – we’re trying to make money back for our community. This is not a charitable thing.”

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