A conversation with Jennifer Delaye
CEO of JDK Catering Inc.
Q: Under the JDK Group, your business has expanded to encompass a range of party-planning services. Would you say catering is still the backbone of JDK?
A: It is and it always will be. But we have never looked at catering as food alone. To this day, we look at it as if we are sharing our clients' most important experiences. Our job is to create an experience for them and exceed their expectations. We always did that through food, but at every event we thought, “What could be different about this?”
Four years ago, prior to the recession hitting, I realized catering could not withstand the economic pressures coming our way. I said, “We really need to brand these different aspects of events on their own.”
The second company we started was Essential Party Rentals. Since we accumulated a huge inventory of awesome stuff over the years, the barriers to entry into this business were low.
A year after that, we started Imagine Event Design & Production. At bar mitzvahs or weddings at country clubs and hotels, we're able to come in and add that third dimension to enhance the entire room.
The fourth company we started was Weddings by JDK. Those clients research a certain way, they look for their products and partners in certain avenues, so we went right into that market and spoke their language.
In June, we started our fifth company, Metalaye (Enterprises). We partnered with a local hotel to do all food and beverages and the restaurant at the property (the Clarion Hotel & Conference Center Harrisburg West in Fairview Township).
Having been in food service for more than 20 years, was the recession the biggest challenge you encountered?
The biggest challenge I encountered, through growth, change and two economic recessions, was focus. We became the largest caterer in central Pa. But we became everything to everybody. We would do everything from a corporate deli drop-off tray to a wedding.
Right before the recession, I had the highest revenue I'd ever had in the history of the company, and I lost money. I had one whole line of business that was losing money, and it was the line of business I got started in: the corporate drop-off market. We would do 20 or 30 of those a day, and they required all of our resources.
The toughest thing I had to do was decide who JDK Catering was going to be when we grew up. So I put that piece of business – roughly a million dollar's worth – back in the market. When we walked away from that, I had the time, the energy and the team free to focus.
It turned out to be the best thing we ever did, but at the time it was absolutely the biggest challenge I ever faced.
What was the most rewarding experience you've had as a caterer?
The most rewarding experience every day is working with some of the most creative and talented people in the industry, and I sit on the board of the International Caterers Association and the Catersource Advisory Board. The most rewarding event was Gov. Corbett's inaugural. That was a huge challenge for us and one of the best experiences.
What is your favorite part of being in the catering business? Do you enjoy the same things as when you started, or do you enjoy different aspects of it now?
It's been the same and it will always be the same: I love adventure, I love innovation, I love change. No two days are ever the same in this industry. That is what drives me every day. Staying relevant to clients, creating an experience they're going to talk about forever — that is my greatest challenge, my greatest reward and what I live for every day.
Given the expansion of the JDK Group, is there more growth on the horizon?
There is. Metalaye, the hotel venture, is our latest and most exciting. It's been many years since I had a restaurant. I started in 1988 with concession stands on City Island, Riverside Village Park, then started a restaurant six months later with Riverside in Town.
Getting back into that, I don't want to do a regular restaurant. I want to show guests how you can have great, fresh, local food in a really unique way. That's been my latest challenge.