Cecelia Hamilton is the founder and owner of Heartfelt Catering, a Chicago-based catering business with a focus on simple, fresh, healthy southern-influenced cooking.
Could you tell us a little more about Heartfelt Catering? What inspired you to start this business?
Several years ago I was working on a personal project that required lots of creativity. I enjoyed that aspect – setting a vision of what you want and linking all the creative parts to make it happen. After that project was finished I decided to entertain at home, cooking more and inviting friends and family. Although I had cooked since I was a child, there were many things I didn’t know so decided I would take cooking classes to learn more about selecting and cooking cuts of meat, vegetables and other items.
The short story is this decision led me to the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago where I enrolled in the culinary program and finished it while working my full-time human resources job. When I enrolled in the program I knew I wanted to make a career transition. I liked all the creative aspects of the program, the catering business allows me to use creativity in so many areas: the way we combine ingredients to make delicious food, the way we execute on-site events that include food and decor, the way we create customized packages for clients, making their events even more memorable.
It took a few years for me to leave my Corporate HR job but something inside said, “It’s time!”
How has Heartfelt Catering changed over the past few years?
I initially started the company to focus on small group catering 10-50 guests, and within the first year, we were handling 100+ person events. That change occurred much faster than I anticipated but I had resources I could tap to assist me through that growth. We’ve launched into other food offerings – – all using fresh herbs and spices to make them flavorful, while reducing sodium and fat.
What has been your biggest challenge to growth?
Early on I tried to do everything because there were things I didn’t quite know how to do. I’ve learned to delegate, making sure the team knows what to expect so that I can pull away from the day-to-day. I’m still involved in the daily operations but not on the cooking floor as much.
Have there been any major surprises (positive or negative) in the past few years?
We’ve had some wonderful positive surprises related to how well our food is received by children and teenagers. While our menus were designed for adults, children and teenagers have enjoyed the food. We’ve been preparing food for third and fourth graders for the second year, and they always look forward to the meals. We prepare fruits and vegetables, choosing those that are naturally sweet and letting them know why we selected those dishes for them.
What was the largest event you ever catered?
The largest was 200. That’s typically our maximum because our food is prepared from scratch. We want to maintain a level of integrity with our preparation. When I get to the point where we can scale this preparation beyond 200, we will. For now, if we go over the 200, we partner with another catering company who has the same food philosophy we have.
If you could impart just one nugget of advice to other catering business owners, what would it be?
I think everyone is a little different. I started the company as one owner and have maintained that over the years. I can definitely see the benefits of having a partner to divide and conquer. If anything, if you choose to go in the catering business, consider a partner who has skills, attributes different from you and someone you can work with. For me to get those skills, I outsource to other small business owners. I like this model because it gives them an opportunity to grow too.
What does your ideal client/project look like?
Ideal clients are people who are looking for a wonderful food experience, where fresh, clean, natural food is paramount in our menu. These clients want a variety of flavors, textures and wonderfully prepared and displayed dishes. They can be corporate or personal (social) clients.
What is your favorite dish?
I don’t have a favorite dish but I absolutely have a favorite meal. It’s Thanksgiving! This meal is what I first started preparing with my mom when I was a kid. It holds such great memories for me. While my mom would prepare some of the traditional sides, I’ve adjusted some of the side dishes to include mostly vegetables, swapping out the higher fat foods like mac and cheese and candied sweet potatoes for roasted mashed cauliflower and roasted spiced sweet potatoes.
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