While other businesses use social media to rev up their marketing presence, Chef Vaughn Williams of Urbana Catering Concepts cooked up a different tactic – he’s conquering the Triangle catering scene one stomach at a time.
The 43-year-old is something of a nomadic gourmet, dropping off meals at salons, offices, barbershops and other businesses throughout the Triangle and Triad. Williams coined the phrase “shop-drop” to describe this portion of his catering business. And it’s as much about marketing as it is boosting sales.
“We started the shop-drops three years ago to try to fill the gaps during the slow times,” Williams said. “It’s turned into a business within a business. We get referrals to larger parties from people who have tasted the food at a shop-drop.”
Before starting his catering business a decade ago, Williams was a top chef at Planet Hollywood in New York City and the executive chef at the high-end Italian restaurant Fontina Grille in Washington, D.C. He was named one of the city’s “14 Hottest Chefs” by The Washingtonian magazine in 1999.
Moving back home
When a fire gutted and closed Fontina Grille in 2002, Williams moved back home to North Carolina for a job as head chef at Champps at Triangle Town Center. Then, he decided to reinvent himself as a caterer.
“I just got to a point where I needed to step away from the restaurant side of things,” he said.
Williams started catering weddings and other events on the side and eventually went full-time with Urbana.
Thursdays and Fridays have become dedicated to shop-drops. He starts by preparing meals at the kitchen he rents at Fork and Barrel on Falls of Neuse Road. Williams and two other hired drivers then travel up to two hours away delivering 50-60 meals per day. While the effort is successful in delivering positive word-of-satisfied-mouth, Vaughn admits taking his vehicles to the limit. He managed to rack up 280,000 miles on his Honda Element in just three years, forcing him to buy a new car this year.
“It’s tough on the cars,” he said. “But I can’t stop now, there’s just too much demand.”
‘Glorified church plate’
Jammie Mcneill, a hairstylist at Serenity Hair Gallery in Cary, started using the shop-drop service a year ago after Williams catered a private party for her. “It’s very good food,” she said. “He’ll come and drop a plate for me, and he usually sells several to customers and other stylists in the building. It’s something I really look forward to every week.”
Williams heaps a large portion of food into each box and sells it for $10. “It’s technically for one person, but I like to tell people it’s enough for one person to eat twice,” he said with a laugh. “It’s really a glorified church plate. I want to give them gourmet food at a reasonable price.”
Williams describes his cooking style as American with Italian, Mediterranean and Cajun influences. Customers expect a variety of surprises and standards: turkey salad sliders with feta cheese, chicken and waffles, balsamic chicken, baked curry chicken wings, garlic green beans and a host of other eclectic options.
“With the shop-drops, I realized I needed to be out there more and make real connections,” Williams said. “When you’re self-employed, you have to make it interesting. It’s tough to stay motivated. This forces me to be creative and keep in touch with people.”
Williams said his next project would be to create urban-inspired “pop-up” restaurants. He’ll rent a space and host a sit-down restaurant experience for one or two days. He said he has plenty of interest from regular shop-drop patrons. “It will be another way to get the word out about the food,” he said.
Once a month, he also commits time to feeding the homeless through the Meet Me at the Bridge ministry in Durham. “It’s important for me to give back,” Williams said. “It’s just such a great feeling when someone realizes that I’m giving them the same thing I’d give a paying customer. They get the same level of food.”
Eventually, Williams would like to trade in his hectic schedule and settle into running a bed and breakfast somewhere in North Carolina.
“That will be a little easier on my car,” he said with a chuckle.