Tue, February 20, 2024

Covid causes catering business to pivot to new business model

Blue Collard Catering took on the Covid-19 pandemic and so far, they are winning.

In a decades-old house at 113 Waterloo, just off Richland Avenue (U.S. Hwy. 1), is a most unusual “food store,” the dream child of a most unusual Aiken native.

Blue Collard Catering owner Christian Carlisle slices a couple of perfect-looking tenderloins. Only the freshest foods get in and go out the door at Blue Collard, says Carlisle.

First of all, there are no Blue Collards, except in the imagination of owner Christian Carlisle. But his busy fine foods take-out business specializes in the best lean meats, fresh fruits and vegetables, cakes, guacamole, sausage made in their kitchen, goat cheese logs, jalapeno burritos, tomato and cheesecake pies, nearly all made from scratch a few steps away in the kitchen or sourced locally from Christian’s friends.

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And they are all packaged to stay fresh no matter how long your drive home is.

Scratch made salads, “very” old-fashioned Cane Cola, Vegan sides, cooked collards, specially spiced green beans and many other vegetables and meats that Christian shrink-wraps in his kitchen keeping them fresh for about as long as you can remember they are in your refrigerator.

Look around; everywhere are coolers holding shrink-wrapped pulled pork for authentic barbeque sandwiches back at your house, airlessly wrapped brisket along with meat pies, beef brisket enchiladas and manicotti.

Breads, stone ground yellow and white grits. “We make our own Italian sausage because we couldn’t buy any that were good enough,” says Carlisle in his friendly, down-to-earth “we got this” attitude.

OFF-BEAT OFFERINGS
He even has a little fashion for sale with t-shirts, ball caps and other clothing with the one-of-a-kind Blue Collard logo – which Christian created. He also has a cooler of single beers, unusual colas, and a cold bottle of Soda & Tonic that tastes like it already is a gin and tonic. “The cookies are unbelievable the way they sell,” Christian said with obvious delight. There’s no scrimping on the chips in the chocolate chip cookies nor in any of the other ingredients in half-a-dozen cookie flavors.

Blue Collard is also a Vegan refuge where he produces several combinations of foods with the Vegan and vegetarian in mind. “That’s similar to why we do a seven-layer caramel cake; because some people want it. It is dying out because it is very difficult to do. My first one didn’t work. We learned that it takes two chefs at the same time to keep it together. Now it creates a bond in the kitchen when we are able to do things for people that few other people bother to do anymore.”

PIVOTING IN THE PANDEMIC
The pandemic has been a trial and a blessing for Blue Collard, says Christian. They never were a sit-down restaurant; it was always curbside pickup – and that business took off when so many restaurants had to close. But it also conjured up dozens of unpredictable complications with undependable deliveries. “I would tell folks, ‘We’re making whatever is on the truck today, especially if it arrives today.’” That is why they started closing on both Sunday and Monday, because they never knew what would be on Monday morning’s truck. Being closed that day gave them the space to plan what they could make the rest of the week. Clients like it too because they started inventing a more diverse menu.

Locally aged chanterelle mushroom add a special depth to Blue Collard stroganoff filet this week in the market

For example, Blue Collard used to sell about 10 cakes a week. Since the pandemic arrived, they now make about 150.

Keeping his staff, and clients safe was, of course, the highest priority during the pandemic, followed by staying open to protect everybody’s income. So far Blue Collard has not had to lay off a single employee and nobody has gotten sick. He had a little turnover because of employee family decisions, but was able to hire others to keep a changing hours of operation going.

Another Covid innovation was eliminating the advertising budget. That sounds drastic but he’s counting on word-of-mouth of his very loyal clients and in giving his creations away. Christian and his staff attend local church and social charity festivals, including the Council on Aging. “We helped create Hops & Hogs, contributed to Octoberfest and our local Mardi Gras. I don’t want to name them because I’ll leave some out but it is our policy to bring large amounts of food to at least one charitable event each month.

“We lost our catering business to the virus and the Masters void was a blow, but we have been able to spread our brand through the charitable events. Every week we donate between 650 and 1,500 sandwiches and people are very grateful and they show it when they come shop and when they wave and thank you on the street.”

FRONT PORCH AND GOOD FOOD
If you are at Blue Collard and Christian isn’t busy (not likely) ask him to sit on the front porch and tell you about his parents. In front of the rocker he prefers is an old hand-made bench that his dad carved. It was the Carlisle family tradition on Sunday night that they would have dinner sitting on the bench and watching the Disney Sunday Night Movie.

“I thought of that as a way to get families back together during the pandemic. We’ll cook your dinner and then you can bring it home and eat together as a family. It may seem a small thing, but people respond to it.

“We have people sit and eat on the front porch who don’t know the story. But they are eating together as a family, and they tell us how the old family home with a porch brings it all back to them.”

In a short time, Blue Collard has already grown in several facets and their leader says he sees much more to come. He is already delivering trucks full of meals to the three airports in Aiken and Augusta. He also makes regular deliveries to the Charleston airport for the Saudi military trainees near there. Blue Collard also sells their wares at The Good Earth in Augusta and Cold Creek in Aiken. “I want to see us increase our impact in Augusta,” says the entrepreneur thinking of new opportunities.

MENTORS HELPED ALONG THE WAY
Christian says he first worked in a restaurant as a teenage for Malia Koelker at her acclaimed “Malia’s,” in downtown Aiken. He also learned his craft under Bear Woodrum at the super-busy Shoney’s on Aiken’s Southside, Sam Erb the West Side Bowery, and Jan Waugh at Number 10 Downing. All of them taught him new and different lessons for the food service and hospitality business.

He took a swing at the corporate life with The Gap in Columbia and he’s glad he did. He did not enjoy the job, but he says, “I learned the things you have to do to operate a successful business. I didn’t think like a businessman before that.”

“Now I just work because I love it and I want employees who feel the same way. I bring the money home to my wife,” Jenny and their 10-year-old son, Tyler.

The purpose is to make life easier to enjoy together,” he said, now really enjoying his rocking chair and front porch view as he reviewed his career so far. “Whether it’s a family dinner, a small get-together or an event, it’s cool to be a part of that, to be welcomed to somebody’s house. You run into people around town, people stop you and tell you things like, “You helped my family through the pandemic. In our line of work, you do these food things for your guests and usually I’ve made a friend out of my day.”

Blue Collard, 113 Waterloo St., Aiken, SC 29803, (803) 679-0115 www.bluecollard.com
Facebook – search Blue Collard Catering

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