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Feeding groups and feeding troops

How Country Caterers BBQ’s expansion into government contracts and disaster relief has made them ‘more than just great barbecue’

By Wendy Bautista

From their 100 acres of land in Keystone Heights, Tom and Cathy Perryman, owners of Country Caterers BBQ (www.countrycaterersbbq.com), have turned a family restaurant into a turnkey event/catering company that expanded into disaster relief and government contracts feeding the troops.

Ice cream to catering

“Years ago, we bought a little ice cream shop and turned it into a restaurant called Tasty Cave,” says Tom. “When I did that, I also obtained a mentor who taught me about catering. I began shadowing and doing jobs with him, and eventually expanded the restaurant to include catering.”

The Perryman’s clearly and fondly remember their first catering job—it was for Clay Electric Cooperative, whom they still provide services for 35 years later. “That many years ago, there weren’t many caterers,” says Cathy. “We were somewhat of a novelty, which was great.”

They eventually sold the restaurant and went strictly to a catering business, but it wasn’t long before the needs and desires of their customers changed their business forever. “We went from ‘just food’ to acquiring our own equipment; tents, tables and chairs; and moonwalks and other amusement-type things because the customers wanted them,” says Cathy.

“When we first started, Cathy and I had a pick-up truck and a makeshift cooker,” says Tom. “Today, we have 20 rotisseries, 25 flat grills, 15 vans, tractor trailers, trailers, semis, and all this equipment, with some we built ourselves to make jobs easier and to suit our needs.”

Those needs include being able to prepare all of the food wherever they may be.  As no food items arepremade, they bring in all the cooking equipment needed for each event.

A catered affair

With a staff of  about 70, to include their children Teresa and Tom Jr. (Tommy) the Perryman’s achieve close to 1,200 parties a year, which averages to about 25 to 30 events a week and an average revenue of about $4 million a year.

While the hub of their business is barbeque, the scope of what they can do is much larger than most people think—and its pig logo may be the culprit. “While we are known for our gourmet barbeque ribs, pork, slaw, beans, and potato salad,” says Teresa, “Unless you know us, you don’t realize we can do a large variety of meals other than just BBQ like, meatloaf, spaghetti, seafood, gourmet foods, and the like.

“We can do the same events as the fancier hotels do downtown for upscale weddings, banquets, corporate picnics, corporate events and holiday parties—even with a pig as our mascot,” jokes Teresa.

Tom and Cathy also pride themselves on being able to offer turnkey events to customers. “If the customer just wants food, they can get just food. If they want to just rent tents, they can just rent tents,” says Cathy. “If they want it all, they can have it all—it really is all about what they want and/or need for their event.”

This turnkey mindset is also what helped them branch into aiding in disaster relief and obtaining government contracts.

Discovering new avenues

In 1990, during Desert Storm, they acquired their first government contract to feed the troops during amilitary exercise at Fort Stewart. “I remember that we had just bought a fax machine and were still learning how to use it, but we had to get the signed contract to them by midnight,” says Tom. “We faxed it over just before midnight and started feeding thousands of troops the next morning for the next three weeks, 24 hours a day.”

After successfully completing Fort Stewart, they started looking for other jobs that were similar in volume and began acquiring work with power companies such as JEA, Florida Power and Light, Sumter Electric Cooperative, and other commercial companies around Florida. It was then they realized that the training exercise resources could be used in hurricane disaster relief.

When the hurricanes hit in the early 2000s, they were ready to assist. “We would go in with these companies, set up, and be there to support the community and feed the linemen and the tree trimmers and the people that were there to bring the community back to life,” says Cathy.

It was after completing these events successfully that Tom and Cathy began to explore government contracts.

Good work if you can get it

Teresa, who was working in retail management at the time, was asked by her parents to come back and help work the government contracts. “Mom had just acquired a GSA (U.S. General Services Administration, www.gsa.gov) contract, but was just not sure what to do next and asked me to figure it out,” says Teresa. “I soon figured it out and we started winning contracts. Our first major contract was in Wyoming feeding soldiers from Nebraska, 24 hours a day for 30 days during a military training exercise.”

When they returned, they received a phone call from someone who found them through the GSA directory. He had a customer, who was looking to use a GSA contractor, but he was not on schedule, he said would you be interested in priming the contract under your GSA schedule and letting me supply you all the life support resources for the exercise. Of course, Teresa said, “Yes,” and their second major contract ended up lasting 56 days and served 150,000 meals.

“Life support resources include sleeping tents, shower and laundry trailers, toilets, fuel and water tankers, power generation, cots, dining facilities, tents, tables, chairs, lighting—all the items you need to set up what we call ‘base camp,’” says Teresa.

Knowing those same resources are used after an emergency as well, they took some of the contract money and reinvested it into the company. They purchased more life support resources for themselves so they can be the one vendor clients can call that has or can get all the resources—be turnkey.

“We’ve been fortunate enough to continue working for a year and a half in Ohio providing base camp resources,” continues Teresa.

Working the deal

Teresa has spent the last five years focusing on government contracting and post-disaster contracting. She admits to writing hundreds of bids—winning some, losing some, but learning the ins and outs of contracting in general as she went along.

Obtaining government and commercial work, especially when it comes to hurricane relief, takes time, with a lot of backend work. “You have to find the jobs, bid on them, hopefully win them, and then secure them,” says Teresa. “You have to do a lot of work prior to a hurricane because once it hits, you don’t have time to be doing all the details. All I have to do is pull the file and the plan is already laid out, which I can’t execute unless a hurricane hits.”

With many of the foundations laid, she is looking now at expanding. “I have made critical industry connections and am a more knowledgeable bidder now,” says Teresa. “We did a few small jobs to get the big jobs, and did some big jobs so we could go after the even bigger jobs.”

Country Caterers is currently pursuing a second GSA contract. The second contract will position them to be able to bid on more base camp exercises, giving the ability to provide operations, logistics and management support to the U.S. military on a larger scale.

They have also used their GSA contract at the city level to secure post-disaster contracts and other city work. Through the Federal Business Opportunity (FBO), they acquired a post-disaster FEMA contract. “If and/or when a hurricane hits, I come in right after the storm to support FEMA’s search and rescue team, setting up a smaller scale base camp,” says Teresa. “They will use me for various life support resources. It’s a great contract, but, unfortunately, there needs to be a hurricane to execute it.”

Re-energizing focus

Even though they are active in government contracts, they can’t—and won’t—forget about the local market. “We maintain a nice balance between our government work and our local market because it’s cyclical and you don’t know what next month holds,” says Tom. “We don’t focus on just one thing at a time; you can’t. You have to be able to do all the different types of jobs to sustain work 365 days a year—diversifying has been a key to our growth and continued success.”

Over the years they have noticed that their different lines of work “flip-flop.” “Some years the government work will generate 80% of our revenue and the corporate/local side will produce only 20%,” says Cathy. “And other years it flips, and the corporate/local side generates 80% and the government work generates 20%. We just fill in the months with what available to us.”

Teresa, being a numbers kind of a person, thinks it will flip flop again soon and is concentrating on re-energizing the local market. “Our core customers haven’t gone anywhere, they just haven’t been able to do as much as in the past,” says Teresa. “By ‘maintaining’ relationships with our customers through the good times and tough times, we hope to continue their support and commitment as in years past.”

It takes adaptability

“If the customer wants it, you need to be able to adapt and get what they need,” says Tommy. “There is no, ‘I can’t get that for you.’ Only, ‘Yes I can.’ That is one of the reasons why we are where we are today.”

“We may not always get it right, but we don’t fail,” says Tom. “There are times that we could’ve done better, but I haven’t met a company yet that’s perfect. We do make mistakes, but when we make them we admit them and work to correct them for the next time.”

“I can pretty much tell you the growth of the business is because of my parent’s original vision,” says Teresa. “That and my father’s motto of ‘Large or small—we cook them all!’ I am very proud of my parents’ accomplishments; they are my heroes.”

All of this together explains why Country Caterers BBQ has been such a longstanding premiere catering company in Jacksonville and is more than just great barbecue.

Wendy Bautista is the editor of Advantage Small Business Magazine. She can be reached at Wendy@advantagebizmag.com or 904-222-8140.

 

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Business vitals

Owner: Tom and Cathy Perryman

In business since: Late ’70s, incorporated Country Caterers BBQ in 1981

Projected growth: “We will definitely continue to do government contracting work, and will keep the emergency disaster relief contracts active—but you can’t call that part growth unless a hurricane strikes or you land a contract, unfortunately,” say Teresa. “We will also continue to grow our local customers, but the major vision is to have a facility in town to house our own events.

“We would like to own a 20-30 acre facility which contains a banquet space for 1,000 or more people, halls, grounds, etc. where we could do more than one event at a time and sustain all of our customer’s different needs. For our local business, that is the one element that customers need that we have not been able to provide for them. It would be the final episode of our turnkey event solution.”

How you can do it

“Buy and build your company, but constantly reinvest in your company,” says Tom.  “You might have to sacrifice for a few years, but you want to be smart about where you spend your money.”

“There will be times when you are going to fail in one way or another,” says Cathy. “It’s how you pick yourself up and move on that makes you successful because we haven’t always done it right. You have to meet the customer, follow through, do what you say you are going to do and if you still fail, then you correct it.”

“I wouldn’t say there was one thing that made us successful,” says Tom. “It really is the ability to never give up and to persevere. Look around; everything is an opportunity. It’s how you learn from those opportunities, do better, grow, and meet the ever changing demands. I guess it’s about having stamina.”


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