Industry Watch

Amy Brown and Heidi Andermack (right)

Catering to growth

How the duo behind Chowgirls Killer Catering started off with a bang and never slowed down

By Erica Rivera
Saturday, March 1, 2014

Heidi Andermack and Amy Brown, both in their mid-forties and owners of Minneapolis-based Chowgirls Killer Catering, were unlikely candidates for careers in the food industry. Both majored in English as undergrads, and Brown worked for Random House for nearly a decade before meeting Andermack and deciding to go into business together.

Andermack and Brown already enjoyed entertaining and cooking for large groups, whether it was art openings, author events, or cocktail parties. Andermack's first job was making salads at a pizza place, and Brown held down restaurant gigs throughout college. While the two entrepreneurs considered opening a restaurant, they were also wary of the many complications that entailed. "We both liked the idea of catering because we could try it at our own pace and grow into it," Andermack says.

A straight-shooter and methodical task-master, Andermack took on the role of CFO. Brown, the quiet "penny pincher" was named CEO.

"To be honest, we didn't know in the very beginning how we would work together. We went into it blindly," Andermack says.

"Our management styles are different, but they jibe," Brown adds. Establishing a strong brand was crucial from the get-go. Chowgirls aimed to fill a neglected niche in the Twin Cities catering market by focusing on organic dishes. Andermack had been following a locavore diet for many years prior to the birth of the business, and it was important to her for that to be reflected in the food — whether it was Bison Meatballs, Butternut Bisque Soup Shots, Wasabi Crab Cakes, or Curried Moroccan Couscous.

Chowgirls' first Minnesotan vendors were Larry Schultz Organic Farm in Owatonna and Thousand Hills Cattle Company in Cannon Falls (see "Home grown," July 2013, page 26). Those businesses were in their infancy as well, and were more than happy to supply Chowgirls without restrictive minimum orders of eggs and meat, respectively.

For their launch party in 2004, the duo invited everyone they knew, spanning contacts from the arts community to the publishing industry. Shortly thereafter, Chowgirls landed their first paid catering event— for Minnesota Monthly magazine. "We started off with a bang and continued off of that," Andermack says.

Weddings are the bread and butter of caterers, and Chowgirls did plenty of them. Brown recalls many 14-hour days on her feet, orchestrating receptions. "Feeding 200 people in a barn with no running water," Brown says. "I aged about 20 years."

The number of guests Chowgirls serves has steadily increased over the years. Recently, Andermack has noticed an uptick in clients ordering plated meals rather than family-style or buffet service. "The economy is turning around, so people are able to have more luxuries at their events," she says.

Jen Bouchard was one such customer; Chowgirls catered her wedding in 2007. Bouchard wanted the French Bistro theme of the wedding incorporated into the food, so Chowgirls responded with edible centerpieces containing cheese, champagne grapes, and baguettes. Bouchard also remembered the Modified Salad Nicoise as being "out of this world."

"Guests from our wedding still talk about the food today," Bouchard says. "My parents' friends, our friends, it's the first thing they bring up when our wedding comes up."

Chowgirls' menu has always emphasized options that "just happened to be vegan" without sacrificing flavor, proving that party food "doesn't have to be loaded with cheese or sour cream to taste good," Andermack says, adding with a laugh, "Though we make those things, too."

Over the years, the catering menu has expanded to accommodate requests for gluten- and dairy-free eats. Cucumber Canapes with Beet and Apricot, Eggplant Torte, and Salmon Skewers with Pumpkin Seed Pesto are just some of the offerings that adhere to those dietary limitations.

As for where to serve their mouthwatering creations, Chowgirls has that taken care of, too. Andermack and Brown acquired the art gallery next to their Northeast Minneapolis kitchen and had it licensed as a restaurant. The Parlor is available for private rental and is often used for groom's dinners, showers, and birthday parties.

Chowgirls also hosts art openings on the first Thursday of every month and recently began collaborating with 89.3 The Current for Locavore Serenades, a monthly dinner featuring an acoustic set by a local artist. Thus far, Gary Louris (of the Jayhawks), Adam Levy (of the Honeydogs), and Lucy Michelle have performed in The Parlor.

"It's a really intimate event ... like a nightclub atmosphere," Andermack says. Attendance is limited to 50 people, and guests are given the opportunity to ask questions during the show via rotating DJs from The Current.

Clearly, Chowgirls has done something right. "There's been lots of growing pains and good decisions and bad decisions," Andermack says of the company's 10-year history. "We're at the point that things aren't as scary, they're more calculated."

Among their banner business strategies, Brown cited forgoing rental kitchens and instead customizing their own space. Delegation was also key to the growth of Chowgirls.

"I think we could have maintained our company as a small, best-kept-secret kind of catering company for 20 years if we'd chosen to," Brown says, "But I didn't want to work that hard until I was 60."

Instead, Andermack and Brown now rely on a staff of 80-plus people, as well as a steering committee. "I think the best thing that we've done is to let other people in and empower them to become decision makers," Brown says.

The steering committee ensures more than two sets of eyes examine each issue. It's also been good for company morale. "We have a really strong staff of people," Andermack says. "They really care. They're dedicated. They oversee the day-to-day stuff so we can look at the bigger picture things."

"It's a really great luxury of having a solid team of people you trust," Brown adds. She was especially grateful to employees for taking on the brunt of the physical labor and handling the most emotionally draining part of the job — trying to keep everybody happy.

"We don't have to stress about wedding drama anymore in our daily lives," Brown says. "That's been a huge improvement. I don't think it was very good for my livelihood or my family."

With three daughters between the ages of 4 and 10, work-life balance is crucial to Brown. Her children are also her motivation to make sure Chowgirls goes the distance. "I hope to have it as a legacy for my daughters," Brown says.

Thus far, that legacy is rock-solid. "They are such an asset to the Minneapolis-St. Paul community," Bouchard says.

Nancy Lyons, CEO of Clockwork Interactive, has also been using Chowgirls for years at corporate, client, and nonprofit events.

"They're the only call I ever make when food is involved," Lyons says. "I tell them who and how many and they come up with a great variety of food. The presentation is always delightful. They always do really innovative stuff. We always get compliments. They help make events successful."

Andermack credits that success to risk-taking: "You can spend a lot of time dwelling on all the details to the point where you never make it happen. I think you have to take a leap. It's never going to be comfortable."

As for the future, Andermack and Brown are looking forward to increasing Chowgirls' market share and to "maxing out" their brand. Up next? A series of cookbooks, each with a different theme. The collection of appetizers, entrées, and desserts will include catering menu classics, family recipes, and new innovations.

"It was always my dream before even having a catering company to do a cookbook," Brown says.

If Andermack and Brown get picked up by a book publisher, it will be the (dairy-free) icing on the (gluten-free) cake of their foodie success.