If you’re looking for Elaina Vazquez, you’ll probably find her in the kitchen, creating and testing new recipes for her luxury catering and events company, Boutique Bites. Food and entertaining are her two great loves; the Chicago-based chef combined her passions in 2008 when she opened her very own business.
Prior to opening Boutique Bites, Elaina was working tirelessly in the restaurant industry. The young culinary school grad started her career in Chicago—first at Tru, then at Avenues, located in The Peninsula. But it wasn’t until she moved to Las Vegas in 2007 that she started catering. While cooking in the famed kitchen of Joël Robuchon at the Mansion in the MGM Grand, she came up with something brilliant, something delicious: the idea for Boutique Bites. Elaina returned to sweet home Chicago shortly thereafter to bring her dream to life. By intertwining fine dining with catering, Elaina has made a name for her savory food and expert presentation. Boutique Bites is quite accommodating, too. The well-trained team is able to provide everything from event setup to menu design.
Elaina’s wildly successful company is soaring, but the entrepreneur has both feet firmly planted on the ground. She makes it a priority to work personally with her clients, even attending the weddings and events to ensure that everything runs smoothly. Today, the fabulous chef tells us all about Boutique Bites, the world of fine dining, vivid food photography, miniature hors d’oeuvres and so much more.
Current title and company: owner and executive chef at Boutique Bites
Year you started Boutique Bites: 2008
Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, NY
What was your first job out of college and how did you land that position?
My first job out of culinary school was at Tru restaurant in Chicago. During culinary school I decided that when I graduated, I wanted to work at the best restaurants and learn as much as possible. When you’re just starting out you have to stage at restaurants before you are offered a position. A stage is essentially a “hands on” interview. You spend a full day and night in the restaurant working so the chef can see your skills. After my stage at Tru, I was offered the position and started the next day.
Before opening your business, you were an executive chef working at some of the best restaurants in America. Why did you decide to make the transition from restaurant chef to entrepreneur?
I have always been one of those people who wanted to be involved in many aspects of a project, not just one. Ultimately, cooking in restaurants didn’t fulfill me because I wanted to do more. I wanted to book the private events, talk to the customers, help set up the dining room, etc. Starting Boutique Bites allowed me to have a hand in every part of each event, from initial client contact, to cooking for the event, to executing the set-up at the event itself. This is what gives me the most satisfaction.
What inspired you to launch a luxury catering company that includes event planning services?
I’ve always been interested in starting my own business and working for myself. I played around with the idea of starting a catering company for a few years. I was working in fine dining restaurants to build my skills and resume. The concept of marrying fine dining and catering was unique and filled a void in the world of catering. That’s how Boutique Bites was born. We take a restaurant-style approach to every event, and my clients really love this. Naturally, we started providing other services for the event, including all of the rentals, setup and staffing. I am careful, however, not to market myself as an “event planner.” We do food, and that’s what we’re really good at. My team and I can dream up and execute imaginative custom menus and presentations. I like to leave the rest to the real wedding and event planners with whom I love working.
After you decided to start your own business, what was the first step you took to make it a reality?
I developed the concept for my company in Las Vegas while I was working at Joel Robuchon, and my first step towards really getting it off the ground was moving back to Chicago. I had such a great professional and personal network in Chicago (my hometown) and knew that I would need a lot of help to execute my idea the way I wanted to do it. Once back in Chicago, I started researching who my competition would be. I studied their websites as a consumer, and started figuring out how I could be different. The first and most obvious way that I found was through food photography. Surprisingly, most of the catering companies when I was starting out did not have an emphasis on great food photos. Food has always been so visual to me. I only buy cookbooks that have good photos, because that’s really what “sells” me on the dish. I called up a photographer friend who I had met while working at The Peninsula Hotel many years before (always keep your contacts!) and told him about my idea. Within two weeks, we had a three-day photo shoot set up. These were the photos that I used to launch my first website and brochure, and they were incredibly helpful for new clients. I would say that my food photography really set me apart right off the bat.
How did you learn the ins and outs of running a business? Budgeting, filing taxes, marketing, web development, store planning, etc.?
I’m very lucky that I have an entrepreneurial family. My dad has owned his own business for over 20 years and has been an immense help to me. He and my brother are both lawyers and basically handled the business startup for me in terms of becoming an LLC, filing taxes, etc. Once we had that in place, I went to work on my marketing strategy. I use a PR company to help me with marketing. While media placements aren’t nearly as strong as word of mouth, it does lend a certain credibility to your company for potential new clients. From there we put together plans to build out my first kitchen and tasting area. This took about 8 months from start (permits, licensing, etc.) to finish. The rest was—and still is—learn as you go. I have learned more about problem solving and strategizing in these past four years than at any previous job I’ve had. Owning your own business is like a living, breathing beast (I say this fondly) that really needs a lot of attention, dedication and care. No one else will care about your business as much as you do, so you need to put in the time and energy to make sure that your brand is being represented properly all the time.
How did you market Boutique Bites when you were just starting out?
A great catering company is really built on word of mouth and reputation. When you’re first starting out, this is your biggest obstacle. When there isn’t much word of mouth going on about you, no one knows who you are! This, on top of the fact that I was trying to position myself as a luxury caterer in a difficult economy (hello 2008!), was difficult because we weren’t interested in taking any and every client. Coming from a fine dining background, I envisioned catering beautiful, multi-course dinner parties and working my way up to high-end weddings and events. So I decided to create a business brochure that would instantly let people know that we were a high-end company. I gathered all of the gorgeous photos that my photographer had taken and called on a good, computer-savvy, marketing friend of mine to help me put together our first brochure. On a trip to Aspen for the Food & Wine Festival a few years prior, I had picked up a Tropicana Orange Juice brochure that really caught my eye. It was produced so well. It was shiny, the perfect size and had such beautiful, vivid photos. I read it from cover to cover and I’m not even that interested in orange juice! I only tell you this side story as a tip to keep items that catch your eye even if they don’t have anything to do with your field. I always keep anything that I find interesting and unique because I often go back to these random items for inspiration. So I took the Tropicana brochure to my marketing buddy, and he was really able to understand what I wanted to create. Two weeks later the brochure went to print, and I tell you when they arrived, I don’t think I’ve ever been so proud of anything. When we started handing them out, people instantly stopped and took a closer look. They read my bio and all the information within the brochure. Soon I had people calling who had seen my brochure at their friend’s home and so on. For me, this was a great first marketing builder.
What is the best part of your job? The most challenging part?
The best part of my job, hands down, is all the wonderful people I get to work with. We have the best clients who really trust us and allow us creative freedom with their most special occasions. I love the “friendors” (vendor friends) that I have made along the way, from the planners and photographers to the florists and stationery designers, and so many more. And I love, love, love meeting other entrepreneurs. I never realized when I started my company that it would also allow me to meet so many other talented owners to bounce ideas off of and call on for advice. The most challenging part for me has always been bearing the full responsibility of the company. I don’t have a partner, and for years I always wished that I had started with one just so I could have someone to lean on, someone who knew and felt exactly how I feel. Someone else who stayed up worrying all night that not enough money was coming in or that the word wasn’t getting out fast enough. Now, though, I’m glad that I don’t have a partner. While Boutique Bites is very much a collaboration, the final decision ultimately comes down to me, and I like that. It is my vision, after all.
Describe your day-to-day work life. What is the typical work schedule in the life of Elaina?
Each day is different based on whether we have an event that night, prepping for one later in the week, doing a photo shoot or television segment, etc. I typically start my day around 7:30am working on emails, prep lists, menus, and organizing what needs to get done that day and the next. I’m BIG on lists. I have lists for my lists. Crossing stuff off gives me great satisfaction. I usually leave my apartment between 9 and 10am to head to the office. From there, we hit the ground running. There is always so much to do. We’re working on proposals, menus, recipe development and testing, and “minis” development (as we affectionately call it). A big part of our business is cocktail parties, and we have become known for our miniature hors d’oeuvres. So we have lots of sessions on developing new “minis” and creative ways to present them. If we have an event that week, there is a lot of cooking and tasting going on in the kitchen. And then, of course, there is the packing, loading, driving, unloading, setup, and execution on event days. My core team and I work at least 15 hours on days of large events like weddings. Then we go to bed and do it all again the next day.
How have you grown your business since you first launched? In what ways, if any, would you still like to see it evolve?
My business has grown tremendously—but appropriately—since we first launched. I stress the word “appropriately” because I think it would have been very damaging to try to grow too quickly right off the bat. You need to know your limitations and what you can take on while still keeping your niche. Of course, we are constantly pushing ourselves, because that really is the only way to grow. In terms of staff, we are still very small. I have a full time event coordinator and chef and the rest of my employees are part time or on-call. We can take on only a certain number of events because we won’t take 2 large events in the same evening. I am personally at every wedding, so we implemented a rule to only take one wedding per day as well. This has been really good for us because it helps maintain quality control and really builds trust with our clients. After visiting the website, talking on the phone, receiving a custom proposal, and coming in for a tasting, they are not just sold on our food, but also sold on the fact that they want to work with me personally. I get asked constantly, “Will you be at our event?” And they like that my answer is yes. It puts them at ease. Of course, there are times when I can’t be, and we’re very upfront about that. In terms of how I would like to see Boutique Bites evolve, I have so many ideas and plans for the company. I see it growing into a national brand. I see television and books in our future. I see us traveling to other areas of the country and world to cater events with our special touch. I have never been shy about writing down and sharing my dream and goals. Once they’re out there, it’s even more of an incentive to get started working towards them.
What advice would you offer to budding entrepreneurs?
1) Pay Your Dues. If you have an idea for the type of business you want to start, work for companies that will give you great experience. Be prepared to work long hours and learn as much as you possibly can.
2) Make and Keep Contacts. I still call on and work with people from my first job out of culinary school. The hospitality industry (like most others) is a wonderful web of interconnected people in all different cities. As long as people like and respect you, they will always help you. You’d be surprised how many people will be excited for your new endeavor and will want to be involved.
3) Go For It. Keep working toward your goal and refining your plan. When the time comes to make the leap, take it. Even if your first business doesn’t work exactly how you want, you will learn a tremendous amount for the next one.
4) Don’t Give Up! There will be good months and many bad months, especially in the beginning. I reached a point where I thought no one would ever know about my company, and then I got a phone call for a 500 person event because the client was at a different party I catered. If you believe in your idea and keep working at it, it will catch on!
Best moment of your career so far?
Cooking dinner for Brian Atwood at the first dinner party I catered in Las Vegas. He was a guest, and it was a very nice surprise to meet him since I love shoes! And my second favorite moment was celebrating my company’s four-year anniversary with family, friends and colleagues on leap year this February. The dinner with Brian Atwood took place exactly four years earlier on leap year. It was cool to see how far we have come.
What one piece of advice would you offer your 23-year-old self?
Chill out and enjoy the heck out of life for three more years because once you start your business, it will be all work! And of course, that you can do anything you want to if you keep at it and work really hard. Dedication is key!