Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Catering Internationally

Debra Lykkemark, CEO of Culinary Capers Catering and Special Events based in Vancouver, is a shining example of catering internationally. Lykkemark launched Culinary Capers Catering on the international stage by first participating in three Olympic Games. With that under her belt, she then launched a second company in Beijing, along with a very fun and successful restaurant called SWITCH! But Lykkemark hasn’t been limited to that! In order to give readers the essence of Lykkemark’s experience, EE wanted to share her interview with you.

EE: You launched Culinary Capers Catering on the international stage by participating in three Olympic Games – Torino in 2006; Beijing in 2008 and Vancouver in 2010. What led to your involvement in the Olympic Games? 

DL: I have to thank Frank Puleo from Catering by Framboise in New York for encouraging me to get involved in the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics and the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.  Frank had been catering at the Olympics since the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games.   My hometown of Vancouver was putting a bid in for the 2010 Winter Olympics.  Frank advised that I should work on getting a contract to cater at both the Torino and Beijing Olympics as it would give me the opportunity to make valuable connections with the Olympic Sponsors and to better understand the catering needs of the different country and their hospitality houses.  This experience would give me an advantage when it came time to bid for business, should Vancouver win the 2010 Olympic bid.

EE: Would you give us a brief overview of your Olympic experience?
DL: For the 2006 Olympics, we won the contract for BC Canada Place, which was a rustic Canadian log house built in Torino to promote Canadian Tourism and the Vancouver Winter Olympics.   The contract was for six weeks, and we catered every day for events ranging from sit-down dinners for 50 to receptions for 500 guests. 

In Beijing, we won the contract for the BC Canada Pavilion.  The focus of this pavilion was to promote business relationships between Canada and China, Canadian Tourism and the Vancouver Winter Olympics.  This contract was for five months as many of the trade missions took place in the ten weeks before the Games began.  In addition to this, we picked up a contract to cater for Adidas every day during the games and a number of one-off catering jobs for sponsors and embassies.   

In Vancouver, as Frank predicted, our Olympic experience and connections paid off in a big way.   Over the 18 days of the Games, we did 578 events, served 59,279 guests and had an average of 500 service, kitchen and operations staff working daily.  We catered all day for The Royal Bank of Canada, Shaw Communications and for the Sochi Olympic Committee and Russian Sponsors at Sochi House.  We also did multiple events for the BC Government, Olympic Sponsors as well as local companies and clients that were entertaining during the Games.  We ended up doing five months’ worth of business in 18 days!

EE: What was your inspiration and business logic for actually opening a second catering company in Beijing?

DL: Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that I would open a business in Mainland China.  In fact, when I won the contract for the Olympics and had to go to Beijing for five months, I was really concerned that I would not enjoy the experience.  Instead, I fell in love with the culture, history, the energy of the city and the people in Beijing.  I found the people to be very hard working, eager to learn about Western culture and the biggest surprise was that many of them could relate to our sense of humor.

To be successful catering in Beijing for the Olympics, I felt it was important that I hire a Western chef who had experience cooking in Beijing.  I was concerned about getting good quality and safely handled food.  To prepare for the contract, I travelled to Beijing a number of times to line up suppliers, local staff and accommodations for the staff I would bring from Vancouver.  On one of those trips I met Chef Billy Kawaja, who had been the Chef at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing for a few years.  He was Canadian, so he also was familiar with the style of food we were doing for BC Canada Pavilion.  I hired Billy as my Executive Chef for the Pavilion.   We worked together very well, and when the contract was over he suggested that we should partner and keep the catering company going, and he would remain and oversee the business.  The economy there was doing very well, and Beijing was ripe for a good Western-style catering company. So we decided to give it a go.

EE: What steps did you take to open up in Beijing? (This is a big question, but perhaps you can distill it down into specific milestones or the critical process.)

DL: To get the contract for the Olympics, we had to source an off-site Western kitchen.  In order to accomplish this, we had to partner with a local company that had a restaurant kitchen that we could use for the Games.  This worked well for the first year and a half until we grew out of it. At that point, we found a very well equipped kitchen in an art gallery which we could lease and not have to share, but it required that we also operate the attached restaurant.  As a result, we opened a very fun and successful restaurant called SWITCH! in addition to Culinary Capers Catering and Special Events.  Unfortunately that situation came to an end when the art gallery decided it needed to expand, and we were given six months to move.  We decided to lease space and build our own kitchen and offices.   We moved the restaurant to a new location, but after a year decided to close it and focus on the catering which was growing very rapidly.

Billy and Debra at SWITCH!
 Since then the catering company has continued to grow and evolve.  In addition to catering for events, we have started a school catering division and have contracts to prepare lunch for six Montessori schools with approximately 200 children per school and a large international school with 1200 children.  We are also doing a lot of catering for luxury car brands which often involves travelling with the car companies to other cities for their signature catered events.

EE: How have you adopted international trends into your cuisine and design services?

DL: Beijing is a very cosmopolitan city and is home to over 100 embassies.  We have catered for the U.S., Mexican, Swiss, Canadian, Brazilian, Australian, Dutch and Danish Embassies.  When we cater for these embassies, we are often preparing food from their countries.  We had the opportunity to work with Alice Waters at the U.S. Embassy where we prepared her recipes and served a beautiful organic sit-down dinner for 200 VIP guests.  Billy works very closely with the kitchen team creating dishes and menus that will please both an Asian and Western palate.  Culinary Capers Vancouver is also a good resource for recipes and ideas as we have been catering since 1986 and our city has a large Asian population.  Our International school catering division requires us to feed students from around the world, and as a result we are doing many different types of cuisine including Chinese, Korean, Filipino and Japanese as well as Western cuisine.
EE: What are the challenges and pitfalls of operating an international company? In other words, HQ is in Vancouver; full-scale operation is in Beijing.

DL: When it comes to challenges, China is definitely not for the faint of heart.  Everything is different, the language, the writing, the culture, the food and the style of government.  Due to all of these factors, Beijing operates as a completely separate company, and my partner Billy lives there and runs the operation.  Billy’s wife Flora bought into the company a few years ago. She is Chinese and from Beijing and has been an immense help with getting permits and licenses and negotiating leases and contracts.  Vancouver’s role has been mentoring and providing necessary support.

From Left: Flora Geng, Billy, and Debra
Another challenge is the learning curve, as a lot of the staff and clients with which we are working have very little experience with catering and events. As a result, lots of coaching is required to educate them about the possibilities.  On the upside, the opportunities for growth are amazing-Beijing is achieving revenues in five years that it would take ten or more years in most cities.
EE: What tips would you offer other event professionals seeking to work in the international marketplace?

DL: Make sure you are really passionate about what you are doing because it is likely going to be tougher than you think.  I would not recommend doing it without one of the partners having a number of years of experience in the country.  Ideally, find a local consultant or partner that you can trust and has the local business and cultural knowledge to help you avoid costly mistakes.  If you are opening a division of your company, seek advice from an accounting firm and law firm with experience in international business deals on how to legally set up the new company and at the same time protect your original company.

 Culinary Capers Catering Beijing Great Wall of China Luncheon 


EE: One final question that is a little off-track but relevant to our readers. Where DO you find inspiration?

DL: Inspiration comes from so many places – travelling, industry conferences, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, brainstorming with colleagues and clients, dining at restaurants, reading fashion, food and travel blogs and magazines and constantly trying new things.  As a caterer, inspiration becomes second nature, as every day you have to problem solve and adapt to different locations, clients and styles of events.  Catering is incredibly inspiring, never boring that’s for certain!

EE: Debra Lykkemark is certainly a source of inspiration for all of us at Extraordinary Events. Our hats are off to you, your partners and your team, Debra!

Debra Lykkemark is CEO of Culinary Capers and Special Events with offices in Vancouver and Beijing. To learn more about the company, visit Debra may be reached via