Passion. It’s something that never leaves us. In life we can find passion any and everywhere. Wither its passion we find in a person, or the passion we find in a career, it is all around us. Meet Elaina Vazquez, the girl boss behind Boutique Bites, a luxury catering business in Chicago- a woman behind the business, and her passion for food, travel and all things Chicago!
Who is Elaina?
I’m Puerto Rican, I come from an entrepreneurial family and I love to eat. So naturally, I’m a little sassy, very ambitious and obsessed with food. I’m the youngest of 3, and there was never a dull moment in our household. My husband still doesn’t know how my family and I can all talk at the same time when we’re having a conversation. Being from a Latin background and upbringing, this is very normal to us. My parents are excellent cooks and we had a homemade dinner pretty much every night. The kitchen was where everyone hung out during family parties. I knew that’s where I wanted to be from the time I was very small. And that feeling never really left me. I attended The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY The CIA solidified my passion and desire to be a chef. It was an intense 21 month program that prepared me for all the hard work ahead.
How did boutique bites start?
I was working at Joel Robuchon at the Mansion in Las Vegas and was getting tired of restaurant life. I wanted to be involved with parties and events but didn’t know how to get started, so I approached a very well connected friend with the idea that I cater a dinner party for her and her husband. Crazy, I didn’t make any money on that first party. But the dinner was a hit, Brian Atwood was one of the guests and I ended up booking a few parties from that dinner (for profit). That’s all I needed for my motivation to kick into high gear and to take the leap of quitting my job and starting Boutique Bites. I’ve always known that I would have my own business, so it was just a matter of finding the right idea and acting on it. That can be the hardest part sometimes. I was inspired to start Boutique Bites because I wanted to bring restaurant-style and quality food to catered events. My heavy fine-dining background laid the foundation for my love of aesthetically beautiful food. I saw how the presentation of a dish at a restaurant would get people so excited, and I wanted to do the same for catering. That’s really how Boutique Bites was born.
Walk me through a day in the life of a caterer?
It really depends what events we have going on. On any given day, my kitchen team is prepping, packing and loading the vans for multiple events. We have an in-house staffing and rental coordinator. So she handles booking all the staff for our events as well as managing the rental order and delivery for each event. My sales girls are the ones in constant contact with our clients, and they make sure every last detail is in place. Depending on how many events we have that day/week, it can get pretty hectic. The packing and loading is what takes the longest – making sure we don’t forget anything. Lots of lists take place in catering.
When I started BB, it was literally just me doing everything – answering the phone, cooking the food, packing, loading, doing the event, etc. As I was able to hire more team members, my role has really transitioned over the last few years into being more of an owner. My primary focus now is on business development and growth. Day to day I check in with everyone on my team. I review proposals before they go out, and collaborate with my chef on all menus. But after that, I really trust my team to pull it all together. So the rest of my day is usually filled with vendor meetings and walkthroughs, sales and business development meetings with my CFO, tasting anything that comes out of the kitchen, asking what’s for lunch exactly at 11:30am, mini dance parties based around whatever Pandora station we’re listening to that day and discussing TV shows. We get lots of work done, I swear!
Taking a look at your dishes and table settings, I am amazed. Where do you get this vision from?
I’m inspired on a daily basis by really random things. My husband is also a chef, so I definitely draw a lot of inspiration from him. It’s nice to be able to talk to each other about different ideas and concepts. I get inspiration from fashion, books, magazines or stores. Everywhere really. Sometimes I’m inspired by color, other times shape, and nature plays a role as well.
Any recent Inspirations?
My husband and I recently traveled to Bali and it’s been a while since I’ve taken that many planes internationally. All of a sudden my passport was really inspiring to me, I got giddy every time it was stamped. So I started thinking about throwing a party where all of the guests receive a “passport” upon arrival and that acts as their guide for trying all the food and beverage at the party. But instead of going to different culinary countries at the party, we take you on a tour of Boutique Bites’ greatest hits. I came back to work and discussed it with my team, and we’re actually incorporating this theme into an event we’re hosting in the spring. It’s fun to get inspiration from something you normally wouldn’t and then act on the idea and bring it to life. That’s what Boutique Bites is all about.
No one tells you about the trials you face when starting out, what is one thing you learned along the way?
It’s hard to pick just one because I have learned so many lessons. I would say it’s that mistakes will be made by yourself and by your employees, and it will cost you money. That’s just one of the costs of doing business. And that’s really hard at first when money is scarce, but typically when you or someone on your team does something that actually costs the company money, you learn very quickly not to do it again. It’s all a learning process, but I’ve gotten very good and identifying the problems before they come up or having an effective conversation about them right after so that we can do better the next time.
Why did you bring Boutique Bites to Chicago from Vegas?
I actually started Boutique Bites in Las Vegas when I was living there. But ultimately decided that Chicago was where I wanted to establish and grow my business. For one, I had so many restaurant, business and friend/family contacts in Chicago.
One thing I’ve learned is that if people like you, they want to help you. It’s really that simple. And I really just love Chicago and living here.
It’s very much “my city”, so there was a home-court advantage aspect to my decision as well.
How has the Chicago food market helped Boutique Bites?
This is a city that has a ton of really great restaurants and diners. People who live here know and love their food. That has actually been a big advantage for me and BB. My restaurant-style approach to catering was very well received when we were starting out, and helped get word of mouth and referral business started.
You do a little bit of everything (Set up, party plan, etc) how would you define your business?
I would say we’re a creative + customized catering company. A lot of people don’t realize just how much work goes into catering an event and that the caterers are typically one of the first vendors to arrive and always the last one to leave. Since we are a highly customized company, we really dig for information from our clients. We take into account their theme, color palette, personality, etc. And then we work internally to bring all of that to life. We make tiny burger boxes that our mini burgers fit into and can print any pattern or phrase on them. The same with our mini cones for our french fries. We also design and build our food stations to coincide with the theme of the party. We work with our clients to choose the tables, chairs, linen, plates, silverware, glassware, bars, etc. We really have a hand in the design and concept of the entire party.
What are some trends you see in the food industry?
There’s always a dessert trend going on. Cupcakes were popular forever, and now it’s the rise of the donut. Ramen restaurants have also become really popular in Chicago and my clients are definitely interested in integrating these flavors into their menus.
What are some future plans you have for BB?
I would love to see Boutique Bites grow into more of a household name and even national brand. I also have more of a social mission within the last few years. We have started partnering with charities and programs that focus on the next generation of youth. Embarc is one of my favorite organizations to work with. (https://www.embarcchicago.org/ ) They set up excursions for their students to introduce them to careers and cultures outside of their neighborhoods. We recently hosted 20 students for the day and taught them about working in the catering industry – from the proposal process, to cooking and serving the meal, and setting the tables, they helped with every aspect. We all then sat down to the beautiful lunch that they helped prepare. It was a wonderful experience and we will definitely be doing a lot more work like this. As my business grows, I’m more interested in building a company that I love, creating jobs, and making our clients happy through our creative and delicious food!
Any new items you are working on you can talk about?
As far as menu items, this happens pretty consistently. My chef and kitchen team are always working up and testing new menu ideas. Especially hors d’oeuvres. We’ve become known for our “stylish minis”. It’s one of the ways guests can tell instantly that we’re catering a party. I’ll often hear someone walk into a party and say, “oh yes, Boutique Bites is catering”. We definitely have a signature look and feel that’s reflected in all of our work. Currently we’re thinking ahead to summer and fall 2015. Catering is like fashion in that sense – we are usually working on proposals for events 9 months to 1 year in advance. So it’s really about thinking ahead to integrate trends, flavors, and an overall look. We’ve been working on incorporating game meats into our menus – squab, duck, quail, elk, even partridge (especially around the holidays). I have a client who hires us to cater a “game dinner” for him twice a year. We do a seven course dinner using only game meat and really high-end wines. It’s so fun to execute these out-of-the-box events.
Why Chicago & how has it contributed to your success?
Chicago is my favorite city to live in. Besides my family being here, I love the neighborhoods and restaurant scene.
You also can’t beat Chicago in the summer. Even though Chicago is a big city, the community is really tight and interconnected.
Our growth happened very organically and gradually through word of mouth and connections.
Favorite foodie spot?
What is one spot a non-chicagoan has to try?
What is one piece of advice that has stuck with you?
That you get out what you put in. There is really no easy path to being a chef or owning a business. You have to put in the work to get the reward. As my husband would say, it’s a lifestyle.
One quote you live by?
The secret of getting ahead is getting started – Mark Twain
Any advice for our aspiring readers?
I would say don’t be afraid to go for it.
I could have talked myself out of so many ideas I’ve had, including pursuing a career in a male dominated industry, moving to different cities where I didn’t know a single person, starting my business, expanding to a much larger space, and the list goes on. There really is no such thing as comfort. I’ve learned that just when it starts to feel comfortable, that means a big change is coming.
So take that chance on your idea and do it whole heartedly.