How I Grew My Business

A caterer’s secret: Keep changing with the times

June 26, 2012 

  • Pop quiz Bob Freeman’s Five Tips for a Successful Business: Adapt: Change your business model as the times change. Avoid debt: Put your money back into the business and stay away from loans. Be “customer-oriented”: Treat customers with attention and respect. Network: Always be on the lookout for potential customers. Learn from your mistakes: It’s important to make mistakes, but it’s more important to learn from them.

Bob Freeman is a 40-year veteran of the catering business in Charlotte. What does he see as the secret to long-term success? He says it all comes down to one thing: adaptation.

“Staying in business means being able to change with the times,” Freeman said.

SMS Catering is based at an 8.5-acre ranch on Norland Road in Charlotte. The Observer’s Eleanor Kennedy talked with Freeman and his son, Robert, who went to work for him full-time in 1997, about what keeps a business going over the long haul.

On turning a hobby into a business:

Bob Freeman’s first event was a barbecue for the Young Republicans in 1972. After 12 years of catering in his spare time, Freeman decided to open his own company. And, since he’d put “every penny” into the business during those years, his new company was debt-free from day one.

“I had a business, in essence, paid off. I didn’t have to go to the bank,” Freeman said.

That’s a mindset he’s kept for more than 30 years.

On adapting the business to an economic downturn:

The Freemans are members of numerous networking clubs in Charlotte. And they’re always looking for new business and customers to take on.

For most of his catering career, Freeman focused on corporate events. But when the recession hit and corporate business declined, it was time to adapt. Freeman’s son and business partner Robert Freeman suggested they take on more weddings and family reunions, events that “are going to happen anyway.”

On building customer loyalty:

“When a customer calls he is treated like a customer should be treated,” Freeman said. He says he’s never missed a job or been late to one. That commitment has helped him build relationships with customers that have lasted more than 30 years.

“They will not even talk to another caterer,” Freeman said.

On working with a family member:

Robert Freeman says he and his father have had their share of disagreements in the 14 years they have worked together. His advice for fathers and sons who work together: “Act more like brothers.”

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