Following a path chosen by many young people, at the impressionable age of 14, Debra Lykkemark found herself bussing tables at a local restaurant for spending money. With the seeds of her foodservice career planted, she began blazing her own trail forward, climbing the front-of-house hierarchy to the positions of hostess, server, bartender, eventually becoming a restaurant manager.
“I loved the business,” recalls Lykkemark. “I was supposed to go to university, but I decided I didn’t want to go; I would rather be a cocktail waitress. My mom was a little upset, but it all worked out, see? I told her it would!”
Indeed, it did.
Now CEO of a $10 million catering company Culinary Capers Catering and Special Events, Lykkemark’s adolescent inklings couldn’t have been more correct. Headquartered in Vancouver, British Columbia, the business’ reach stretches all the way to Beijing, and includes stints at three Olympic Games. She has been featured by Profit Magazine for several years as one of Canada’s top 100 woman business owners.
Lykkemark’s entrepreneurial spirit awoke in 1986, as she talked a group of friends into purchasing a coffee shop. Having just finished cooking school, her desire was to open a full service restaurant, but the funds weren’t available. Looking to expand their offerings, Lykkemark and her group of friends began catering from the coffee shop to local businesses.
“It was right around the time that Martha Stewart put out her first book, called Entertaining,” recalls Lykkemark. “She was a caterer before she became famous. It was also at the time that The Silver Palate Cookbook came out, and they were caterers from New York. It was the start of a new trend that was happening, so I decided to capitalize on that because I didn’t have the infrastructure for a proper restaurant.”
The catering end of the business took off, far exceeding the profits of the coffee shop. Eventually, a new kitchen was required to accommodate the volume of business; the coffee shop was sold, and the sole venture into catering began.
Lykkemark’s Vancouver sales team, the liaisons between the clients and their food-and-beverage experience, have a strong culinary background. Four of the six have worked as chefs for the company prior to joining the sales team. This powerful knowledge base is a big reason why Culinary Capers can deliver Lykkemark’s goal of restaurant quality food in a catering situation.
“I need the people that are selling to really understand the kind of equipment they will need to execute the menu, what is doable and what I not for different sizes of parties that often take place in venues that do not have a kitchen,” explains Lykkemark. “We really want the event to be unique and creative, so we’re not serving cookie-cutter menus. We create a personalized menu for the client around their likes and dislikes and what they want to accomplish with their event.”
Events like a recent fundraiser at the Vancouver Art Gallery showcase the knowledge and artistry of Lykkemark’s group. The $1,000-per-plate dinner featured local and sustainable food that was created to match the colour palate of the showcased art. Dessert featured 12 different components – a piece of artwork in itself – created just for this event.
Culinary Capers’ claim to fame includes catering for the Torino, Beijing and Vancouver Olympic Games. Despite doing $3 million in business in three weeks during the Vancouver Games, the company’s most notable success was in Beijing, which spawned a catering company and the two full-service restaurants Lykkemark once coveted – albeit on the other side of the globe. The two restaurants, called SWITCH! and SWITCH! Grill, feature fresh, modern cuisine that has garnered an international reputation for the Culinary Capers brand.
“The China contract for B.C. Canada Pavilion was five months,” says Lykkemark. “I had an amazing time and found a partner over there who was very entrepreneurial and a chef. And so we kept the catering company going after our contract was over. It’s going to be as large as my company in Vancouver by next year – it is growing so fast!”
Managing the company’s global footprint is a big focus of Culinary Capers’ business. With a goal of zero waste, the company has a comprehensive recycling program for paper, glass, cardboard, metal and plastic containers and cooking oil. The company has installed a new high-efficiency hot water tank, low-flow aerators in the kitchen and washroom sinks and uses biodegradable cleaning products. Food, paper and floral waste are composted.
The company’s efforts around composting may lead to yet another business – turning discarded salmon skins into treats for a very different clientele – of the tail-wagging variety.
“My executive sous chef came up with this idea,” says Lykkemark. “We use a lot of salmon, and he trains dogs on the weekend, and he was making pet treats out of the salmon skin that the dogs were crazy about. It’s really good for them because it’s full of Omega-3 and helps their coats and their joints.”
The product is currently in testing stages for food safety and shelf stability.
Plans for the future also include producing healthy food for vending machines in Vancouver businesses and schools. Lykkemark is hoping to help businesses and school boards break away from the snack-food varieties that are currently being sold with more meal-oriented foods like sandwiches and salads.
Lykkemark enjoys travelling with her spouse of 35 years, Michael Harries, who is managing partner and COO of the Vancouver company. She’s a fitness enthusiast, a firm believer that a healthy body can maintain the stamina required for running a business.
When asked if she could offer any advice to a young trailblazer such as her former 14-year-old self, Lykkemark replies: “The catering business is really a rewarding business, but it’s extremely demanding. Every job is different, and there are so many details. So you need to be really creative and like lots of challenge and lots of hard work.
“If you’re going to get into this business, find yourself a really good mentor and join organizations like the Entrepreneurs Organization, the International Caterers Association and the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association. All of these groups have staff and members that will share their expertise and experience with you.”
About the author
Steven Chester is the editor and social media community manager for Restaurant Central. His 13-year journalism background includes writing and editing for digital and traditional media. He is an expert in social media, online content and email newsletter development. Follow him on Twitter at @ChesterGoSocial.