Mentor’s own Food for Thought finds its niche in catering world, turns 25
By Janet Podolak, The News-Herald Tuesday, December 13, 2016
At 25, the Mentor-based caterer Food for Thought has carved a niche for its services that surprises even those for whom they’ve catered weddings and other big events.
The biggest surprise:
“We can take orders for lunch for 40 at 9 a.m. and have them delivered and ready to serve by noon the same day,” said Bonnie Matthews, president and co-owner of the company with Robert Hufgard.
“Most caterers want at least 24 hours notice,” Hufgard continued. “But the systems we’ve set up allow us to work much more quickly to serve fresh, made-to-order foods.”
Food for Thought prepares and delivers about 1,000 meals per day from Avon to Ashtabula. Customers range from corporations and nonprofit organizations to individuals for major events to small breakfast and lunch gatherings. They’ve catered for the Republican National Convention and at weddings for just 25.
Other little-known facts: Food for Thought adds no delivery charge for Mentor residents and gives a 5 percent discount to those picking up their own orders.
“We also can provide food for book clubs and groups as small as five,” he said.
Among the 3,000 recipes that are mainstays of its meals are many vegan and gluten-free dishes they’ve developed for their customers. Most everything is made fresh and from scratch, Matthews said.
Ordering from menus, which can be found at www.foodforthought-ohio.com, allows hosts and hostesses of holiday parties to augment their own creations with appetizers and side dishes from the catering company.
Food for Thought’s holiday menu, for instance, has scores of hot and cold appetizers, sold by the dozen, plus dips salads from large to serve 16 to individual sized. It also has traditional sides such as roast garlic mashed potatoes and turkey gravy, whole or sliced turkey, plus pastas, meats and seafood.
“We’ve developed these things by listening to our customers and finding out what they want,” Matthews said.
The seed for the company was germinated when she was a child who tagged along as her father created food experiences for the family.
“He was a salesman who traveled a good deal, and when he was home he wanted to eat at home. And had a passion for making meals a wonderful experience,” she said. Her mother, who viewed cooking as a chore, was happy to concede to her husband, and young Bonnie was his loyal assistant. Her dad’s passion was contagious, so when she became college age, she pursued a bachelor’s degree in restaurant management and business from the Rochester Institute of Technology. She was recruited by Stouffer Foods in Solon (now a part of Nestle Corp.) and joined that company straight from college.
She and Hufgard met in the early 1990s at Stouffer Foods.
Hufgard, a Mentor native, then operated a restaurant and beverage store in Mentor with his high school friend Matthew Citriglia. It was a successful business that also offered prepared foods to its customers.
“But we were under financed and had to sell,” Hufgard recalled.
He went back to school after the restaurant closed, earning a degree in psychology from Cleveland State University. Citriglia went on to become one of the country’s foremost wine experts.
“You have to make mistakes and learn from them to be successful,” Hufgard said.
He described the Matthews-Hufgard business operation for Food for Thought as “very conservative.”
In 1995, the two became business partners, forming Food for Thought. They own the 26,000-square-foot building they’ve occupied the last 11 years at 7574 St. Clair St.
“It’s nice to be in charge of our own destiny,” Hufgard said. The building has a 4,200-square-foot open kitchen that operates like a factory but with really fresh food.
“Orders come in the morning and fill our coolers,” Hufgard said. “By 5 p.m., they’re empty again.”
A warehouse area has all manner of serving dishes, tablecloths and staff uniforms, plus a dedicated fitness area for employees.
Hufgard and Matthews staged a picnic to celebrate the company’s 25th anniversary this summer, and the partners did all the cooking.
The partners believe in hiring those with more expertise than they have and empowering them to make decisions.
“We have many longtime employees,” Matthews said. Among them are two chefs.
The lifestyle options of working in a catering business compared to a restaurant help Food for Thought attract well-qualified food professionals who’ve tired of working the long days, late nights, and holidays required of restaurant work, Hufgard said.
“The majority of our work is weekdays from 7 to 5, with occasional weekends,” he said. “It’s a nice change for people who have families and want to see them more often.”
Both agree their caliber of employees is a key to the 25-year longevity for Food for Thought.
“Even though it involves a lot of logistics and routing, it’s still the hospitality business,” he said. “Our employees understand the sensory aspects of catering and have a love, appreciation and passion for this business.”
Food for Thought 7574 St. Clair Ave., Mentor 440-946-0383
© 2016 The News-Herald