Culinary Capers Catering and Special Events: Innovative Catering Solutions in Canada and Abroad

If Debra Lykkemark were told 25 years ago how far her business would go, she never would have believed it. “I started with two partners in a tiny coffee shop with an even smaller electric oven,” laughs Lykkemark, CEO and founder of Culinary Capers Catering and Special Events (CCC).

Today CCC has become one of Vancouver’s busiest off-premise catering companies and is renowned for its professional approach and commitment to making deliciously fun food. Lykkemark partnered in 2009 with Executive Chef Billy Kawaja to start up a second catering location in Beijing, China. A year later the duo also opened CCC’s first restaurant, SWITCH!, in Beijing’s bustling Art District 798. Dedicated to quality on both sides of the Pacific, the CCC team focuses on providing the client with exceptional service and exquisite food.

Like many great things, however, CCC started out small and growth was gradually fueled by both necessity and Lykkemark’s ambition. The tiny coffee shop first expanded into corporate catering because Vancouver’s corporate community was booming. From catered sandwiches and breakfast baked goods, CCC planted a foot into the higher end of catering with the help of an on the ground marketing team of one. “My husband, Michael Harries, left his job managing a courier company to help me with marketing, and I told him flat out he had one year to prove he could grow the business, because if he wasn’t successful, I couldn’t afford him,” laughs Lykkemark.

Never one to waste time, Michael designed a special corporate catering menu and hit the road around Vancouver distributing CCC’s menu to potential clients. Soon business was booming and the CCC team relocated into a new catering space. To celebrate the move and prove itself as prime choice for more than corporate events, CCC hosted an open house for current and prospective clients. “There was a sushi station, a special carving station, an antipasto station inside and a barbeque station in a tent behind the building,” says Lykkemark. “We even turned our walk-in fridge into a dessert station.”

Getting a Foot in the Door

The simple approach of direct interaction with clients worked and soon CCC was busier than ever catering weddings, family events and conference galas. In 1996 CCC landed its first large-scale event when it won the contract to cater a 4,500-person gala for the NHL All Star Game. Up until that point CCC had never catered anything larger than 500 people. In addition, the gala was held immediately after the game and patrons and NHL players arrived by the busload, all at once.

The pressure was on and CCC proved itself by calling in every tool in its arsenal and coordinating with trusted partners to ensure the event ran smoothly. “We have been working with Sysco almost since our inception and they loaned us a refrigerated truck and even allowed us to return unused cases of products,” says Lykkemark. “Together we did an amazing job and it proved to our clients that we were capable of tackling even the most high-profile events.”

Lykkemark has prioritized the role of delegation and integrity in tackling every major challenge throughout CCC’s history, The company has been working with Vancouver’s Pedersens Rentals since the very early days to supply it with everything from glassware to premium linens.

“Pedersens is a great partner to us, always on time and they provide us with exactly what we need every time,” asserts Lykkemark. “If their service wasn’t that great I would have just bought my own rental supplies by now.”

Growing Together

Lykkemark’s professional philosophy encourages the hiring of professionals with widely varying skill sets to cover all the bases. “I certainly didn’t get here on my own and I personally believe that delegation is the key to any successful entrepreneurial effort,” states Lykkemark. “One of the best hires I ever made was recruiting my executive chef in Vancouver, Margaret Chisholm. Margaret came on board 15 years ago and has been a key factor in our growth and our success. Margaret was named Chef of the Year by the International Caterers Association in 2011.” From hospitality to sales and marketing, the CCC management team brings a diverse range of experiences to keep the company flexible and responsive in any economy.

With one major event under its belt and Vancouver’s convention business booming in the late 1990s, CCC’s services were in higher demand than ever. The team relocated yet again into a new 11,000-square food-catering kitchen in 1999 to keep up with demand. “We originally thought it would be way too big, but we definitely have grown into the space,” says Lykkemark. On the eve of the millennium, CCC catered 65 total events, 35 of which were staffed.

Around the same time the wheels were being put in motion for Vancouver to host the Winter Olympics, and CCC jumped at the prospect of catering at such an important event. “Everyone believed the prospect of Vancouver winning the 2010 Winter Olympic bid was very high,” reflects Lykkemark. “In order to prepare we pursued the bid and won a contract to cater for the British Columbia Canada Place at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino. It was an absolutely crazy, scary, exciting and thrilling experience to cater in a foreign country. We had an amazing experience.” The CCC team remained in Torino for a few months to serve up British Columbian fare from opening day until the final ceremony of the Paralympics.

Having been bit by the Olympic bug, CCC also pursued and won the bid to cater for the British Columbia Pavilion at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. Having tackled Italy with zeal, the team didn’t waste a minute before establishing contacts in Beijing for logistical help. Eventually, CCC found a partner for both the Olympics, as well as in business. “I didn’t really know what to expect in Beijing, but we knew we needed an executive chef with experience working in Beijing and a familiarity with the food suppliers there,” recalls Lykkemark.

Ultimately, Lykkemark found a partner within the Olympics and beyond. “Billy Kawaja is Canadian and had previously been the chef for the Canadian ambassador to Beijing. We worked so well together during the 2008 Summer Olympics that he approached me about continuing the catering in Beijing beyond the Olympics. Of course I accepted,” laughs Lykkemark.

The very next spring, CCC catered a five-course meal for 120 patrons on the Great Wall of China, which won two international awards for Best Catered Off-Premise Event. Since then, the Beijing team has done many fantastic events including catering on the Dragon Boats at the Summer Palace, preparing and serving lunch for 6,500 people in a stadium and even assisting Chez Panisse’s renowned founder, Alice Waters, and her culinary team in producing and serving a five-course, all organic dinner for 250 high-profile guests at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

“2010 was quite the year, because in addition to having a young and growing business in China we also had the 2010 Winter Olympics in February in Vancouver,” proclaims Lykkemark. “Our Vancouver team spent all of 2009 bidding on contracts and preparing our staff and commissary kitchen for the massive amount of catering we would be doing. During the Olympics, we did all day, every day, hospitality for Sochi House, the Royal Bank of Canada and Shaw Communications, as well as one-off events for local clients and international clients like Nike and NBC. Over the 17 days of the Olympics, we catered 578 events. This included serving 59,279 people. It required 500 full-time staff including chefs, servers, bartenders and operations staff.”

New Directions

In September 2010 the CCC team opened SWITCH! in Beijing’s vibrant District 798 to serve up a delicious international menu with its signature CCC flair. In just over a year, the restaurant has grown into a veritable neighborhood staple and the future looks promising for Chef Kawaja to extend his reach with a second location. “We are in the process of renovating our second location, which is adjacent to the Embassy district and to Sanlitun, the thriving shopping and restaurant hub of Beijing,” states Lykkemark.

To support the growing catering operations and account for the lack of a Pedersen’s Rentals location in Beijing, CCC is also in the process of opening its own party rental company. CCC originally planned on using the supplies for internal events, but the demand exists in Beijing. So, CCC is planning to open a rental company this year to supply industry professionals as well as private clients.

In the coming years CCC’s Beijing operations will likely grow very rapidly due to the strong economy in China, as the Vancouver crew concentrates on developing cost-effective services for its loyal customer base. In lieu of the economic downturn, CCC Vancouver launched a special turkey lunch catering service for the holidays that manages to pack in all the flavors of the holidays with CCC’s signature flair at a lesser cost than catering a staffed event. Clients place orders, wait for CCC to deliver all the components, party, and leave the clean up to CCC to handle the next day.

CCC’s responsive catering solutions will help the company settle into a role as Vancouver’s premier off-premise catering specialists. Meanwhile, in Beijing, Chef Billy Kawaja will help establish the company as a reliable purveyor of innovative cuisine as a reflection of Culinary Capers Catering and Special Event’s mission to provide passionate service and exquisite food. •