This week in Meet the Pro, we spoke to Madres Kitchen co-founder Kristen Cole in Seattle. Madres Kitchen is a women-owned, full-service caterer who specializes in creating local and seasonal event menus with the bounty of the Pacific Northwest. Founded in 2005, Kristen and co-founders Heather Chitty and Marci West got their start by catering corporate lunches and turned their desire to create a better bagged lunch into a full-service catering and event planning business. Check out Kristen’s conversation with Fresh Chalk CEO, Liz Pearce.
How did you meet your co-founder and what was it like in the early days of Madres Kitchen?
We met while working together at a software company in 1999. I left the company to attend culinary school and started working restaurant jobs. When I fractured my hip, I took a desk job at UW and ended up reconnecting with Heather, who by then also worked at the University. We decided to venture out to start a business to “do something interesting with our lives”. This was in 2005. We started by catering lunches at UW with freshly baked bread, prepared that day, and with the best ingredients. We had a little commercial kitchen space up in Maple Leaf until 2010. Heather’s son Zak, was 2 or 3 years old, Marci’s son was a tween and I had my first baby in 2006 - just as we were getting settled in. There was an office area where our kids would chill (or not) while we bustled about. I remember nursing Darien while on the phone with a client and typing on my laptop. I did most of the cooking and food prep then, so I was constantly juggling. We eventually hired some really great employees to help in the kitchen. Part of the interview process was asking how they felt about taking a turn with baby duty during a shift!We spent a few years at a commissary kitchen in Capitol Hill, and in 2014 bought our own kitchen.
What was on the original Madres menu?
Oh boy. We had clever names for about 15 different sandwiches and salads. We went to the farmers market weekly to buy ingredients. We used paper lunch bags instead of boxes to reduce waste during a time when plastic wrapped everything was everywhere and the boxed lunch was all the rage. Each lunch came with a sandwich prepared on fresh bread, a side salad, and a little toy or dessert. Our baker at the time, Aaron Barthel (who now owns Intrigue Chocolates), handmade chocolate truffles and bread for the box lunches. He’s amazing!
You’ve been in business for 15 years, what were some of the challenges you faced?
Early on we started getting requests for parties and weddings and these clients wanted staff and rentals. With lunch deliveries you don’t get to experience the joy of the event or see the happy faces when they eat the food you sourced from a local farmer and spent so much time preparing. The biggest challenge in the beginning when transitioning to a full service caterer was acquiring enough stuff to do it well. You cannot imagine the amount of stuff it takes to prepare food in one location and serve it somewhere else and have it be gorgeous!
When the recession hit in 2008, we struggled. We barely made it through the downturn. I was a mom of a newborn and a toddler and Heather and Marci held down the fort. We kept on keeping on--selling events and making food as best we could. The Madres’ team has always been a family and we were so blessed to have strong teammates to pick up the pieces when we didn’t know how to.
We hired one of our servers to become a part time sales person who also worked on our website and messaging. We started to go out and ask for business and ended up with repeat customers and broadened our customer base to include corporations in addition to weddings and UW events. After the recession when we came up for air, we realized we were doing something incredible.
How big is the team and when did you feel like “you made it”?
In 2017, we more than doubled our business and did more than $1-million in revenue for the first time. Growth that fast was really difficult. We were constantly putting out fires.
After 2017, we wanted to do just as many events, but without all of the stress! We hired Marie with Clear Solutions. She spent hours with each department talking through what we do, how we do it, and why. She helped us document and establish processes so that we could make it repeatable and she helped us work through a million kinks. We are (almost) chaos free!
We hired great people to handle the workload and Heather got out of the office and made networking a priority. She established relationships with venues and event planners. These relationships are our favorite part of catering. Today, Madres Kitchen has 9 employees: 4 in the kitchen, 2 in operations, 2 in sales, and one in event production. We also purchased a new kitchen in the Queen Anne neighborhood. Heather and I troubleshoot and do a little bit of everything…
What makes Madres Kitchen different from other full-service caterers?
We are - in a lot of ways - a one stop shop. You don’t have to worry about timing the flowers, the rentals, the food and the bartenders from multiple companies. If you hire Madres to do it all then we take on the responsibility of making sure everything is set up and ready to go at the right moment.
We worked with a NY-based event planner to turn 415 Westlake into a killer Game of Thrones themed holiday party. The demands were high and the wish list kept coming in, but we created this amazing Feast Table with wood boards piled high with food. The tables were set with gold rimmed glasses and plates. There were faux furs draped over the chairs, up lights that looked like fire and a dragon shot luge. Marci made Sansa’s lemon cakes and this insane red velvet dragon cake for the dessert bar. It was a lot of work! And so much fun and the client was thrilled.
What kind of food do you serve? How does your team influence the menu?
Flavorful! We only use fresh, locally-sourced ingredients, so the season plays a big role in our menus. From there, our chefs pull from their diverse backgrounds, travels, and deep experience to create a variety of dishes. The diversity of our team (who are from El Salvador, Mexico, Congo, Guatemala, and USA) keeps our food fresh and flavorful, relevant, and open minded. Steven has been in restaurants for over 30 years and grew up in the South. His French and Asian cooking are insane and he can always lean back on his Southern roots. Luis is from Mexico, so that mole you’re eating is authentic and made from scratch. His wife’s family is from India, so he learns by cooking with his mother-in-law and he knows where to shop for those hard to find spices. Maria is also from Mexico and along with her cooking skills, she has an incredible sense of design sense and attention to detail. Joyce, our event producer, and our sales ops teams are so organized. They keep everyone in check and they make sure nothing gets missed. Their zest for perfection ensures every event is smooth. It goes on and on!
What types of pros do you work with and recommend?
We do weddings, corporate events, bat/bar mitzvahs, birthday parties, memorial services, holiday parties, and more.
See the full list of Pros that Kristen recommends on Fresh Chalk!
We want to hear from you! What are some of your favorite event venues, caterers, florists? Add your recommendations to Fresh Chalk to earn good karma and promote your favorite businesses.