Sommers Caters To Corporate Tastes


    GRAND RAPIDS — Around Molly & Me Inc., Molly Sommers is The Great Organizer.

    As general manager and co-owner of the local deli and catering company, Sommers has organized as many as 11 catering events in a single day, overseeing everything from menu selection to same-day food preparation, to delivery and dining set up.

    She handles all the business details, including company sales, employee training, client contact and accounting.

    When she started Molly & Me Inc. with her mother, Kathie Sommers, in August 1998, the company did only in-home dining parties. The two women had years of experience cooking and serving at various church functions and the catering business more or less evolved out of that, Sommers recalled.

    She learned the basics of running a business while managing party stores for five years and as membership director and general manager for Cascade Hills Country Club. As needed, she helped out in the club’s dining room as well, while maintaining a small catering business on the side.

    One of the club’s members, who owned President Inn, suggested she check with the hotel’s manager about catering events at the inn. One thing led to another, and soon Sommers’ company was operating out of leased space at the President Inn, catering wedding receptions and corporate functions booked at the inn’s 15,000-square-foot banquet facility.

    Her little company generated net revenues of nearly $200,000 the first year and continues to pride itself on food made from scratch.

    In January 2000, she moved company headquarters to the city’s West Side, into a former deli at 1212 Walker Ave., where she reopened it as a gourmet deli and picked up more corporate clients.

    Including the mother-daughter team, the company now employs seven people full time and 25 on an on-call basis. It has on staff a baker, Molly’s cousin, and a florist, Molly’s mom, who does both fresh and silk flower arrangements.

    The company offers breakfast, lunch and dinner catering throughout the Grand Rapids metro area and can accommodate events ranging from an intimate at-home dinner for two to get-togethers of up to 450 people. Corporate clients constitute the bulk of its catering business at this time.

    “It’s extremely difficult for a deli to make it on its own. The catering company carries the deli. You definitely have to have both,” she noted, adding that the catering end of the business generates twice the revenue of the deli.

    With the lease on the Walker Avenue store due to expire Dec. 31, Sommers saw an opportunity to get back to the Plainfield Avenue area where her company originated.

    “I think being over on Plainfield we’ll maintain our corporate clients and begin to get into the public sector again, adding in-home parties, wedding receptions and family reunions,” she said.

    This week marks the official opening of the Molly & Me Deli in the former 2,500-square-foot Bun Basket location at 3446 Plainfield Ave. NE. It’s open weekdays 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturdays 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

    Sommers will continue directing catering operations through the Walker Avenue facility until a new 1,400-square-foot kitchen is completed at the Plainfield facility in late December or early January.

    After the first of the year, when all Molly & Me operations are under one roof, Sommers expects her business will boom.

    In fact, she anticipates business will quadruple at the new Plainfield Avenue location because it offers the company more exposure and more walk-in traffic. Walk-in traffic generated by former Bun Basket patrons has remained steady since Molly & Me moved to the Plainfield site, she said.

    “We’re going to skyrocket,” she predicts.

    Beyond the bottom-line details of running the business, Sommers enjoys working with clients to create unique menus and particularly likes getting involved in the creative processes of food styling and presentation.

    “Playing with someone else’s food is good therapy,” she quipped.

    No two client requests and no two parties are exactly alike, according to Sommers. If a client has a specific budget, she’ll work with it. If a client has specific ideas in regard to menu items, she’ll work with that too.

    “If they have an old family recipe they want us to use, we’ll use it,” she said. “The majority of catering companies won’t do that. They typically have set menu items to choose from.”

    Is she concerned about the impact of the economic slump on her business? Yes and no. In February, her company lost three profitable clients to corporate budget cutbacks, then high school graduation parties rolled around and boosted business four months later.

    Her catering business actually picked up in the wake of Sept. 11, which she attributes to companies’ desire to keep employees closer to home. Some of her clients are staying on site to conduct their meetings by audio or videoconference, and they’re ordering in while they’re at it.

    Sommers envisions the company five to 10 years from now operating out of a 10,000-plus-square-foot banquet facility/conference center with both a deli and a lounge to tap into the before-and-after food and beverage needs of people attending conferences, conventions, wedding receptions and other events at the facility.

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