John Crisafulli, head of San Diego-based Behind the Scenes Catering and Events, shares his secrets of success--a mix of education and hard work--which have led to him working internationally on huge special events including the Olympics
What happens when a fledging event professional so dedicated that he held down two—and sometimes three—catering jobs while in college? He winds up running a multimillion catering and event firm that works internationally.
At least that's the story of John Crisafulli, now president of San Diego-based Behind the Scenes Catering, who launched his catering career at the tender age of 14.
"I started as a catering assistant in 1984, working backstage at concerts for a local caterer in San Diego," he says, a job that was regarded "as the coolest job of any of my high school friends." It worked out well: "I ended up buying that same company in 1991 even before graduating from college, and built it into the company we have today."
Today, Behind the Scenes produces between 300 and 400 events a year, providing services including catering, décor, production, logistics management, and bar and concessions services. Revenue of more than $13 million a year comes from clients ranging from corporate and social hosts to media organizations, concert promoters, government agencies, nonprofits and sports venues. The company has been an integral part of catering operations at the Olympics since 2000, and just finished serving 270,900 meals for the 2014 Games in Sochi.
Although Crisafulli has hands-on experience in virtually every area of catering—"When we started the company I did it all," he says, "Cooked, served, cleaned drove the vans to the event sites, and managed the books"—he also gave education his all. He earned his bachelor's degree in finance, then followed it up with an MBA from the University of Chicago.
His says his education is essential. "My business acumen is by far my greatest strength in my job performance. You can be incredibly creative and passionate about the events industry, but if you cannot harness that enthusiasm so that you can make money on the events you are managing, you will never succeed," he says. "Being able to forecast costs and expenses and manage and track financials is an incredibly important part of being successful in the industry."
No surprise, the other essential for success, he says, is hard work.
"Be willing to do the hard work and put the time in," he says. "The most successful employees I have started off as front of house servers or administrative assistants, always willing to go the extra mile for a client or project. These employees are the ones that I now trust to project-manage our large-scale events like the Olympic Games."
Behind the Scenes Catering and Events 9888 Waples St., San Diego, CA 92121; 858/638-1400; www.btscenes.com
PICK YOUR PARTNERS
"While paying attention to the details is so important in event planning and execution, it is just as important to surround yourself with professionals that share your passion for the industry. Once you have qualified and well-trained professionals to work with, your job becomes so much less stressful, and there becomes more time to focus on the details and creativity that goes into planning and executing an event. For so many years, I tried to do everything myself, and would not delegate to my team as much as I should have. Once I learned to trust their judgment and talents, I now have time to focus on building the relationships with our clients and bringing new ideas to the table."
THE FACE IS FAMILIAR …
"I have an incredible ability to remember the smallest and sometimes insignificant detail of an event, such as what a client or guest wore, but I have a terrible time with people's names. Second, I really wish I were better at playing golf. So many clients and colleagues play and I get invited all the time, but I often decline in an attempt to avoid my exposing an embossing lack of skills. This is shortcoming I hope to improve on in 2014!"
HOW THINGS CHANGE
When he started, "Even cell phones were virtually nonexistent. We used to send our staff out with quarters for the payphones on the side of the road so they could call if they had a problem. Today our industry is run with technology---iPads, computer software, 3D design integration. It is truly fantastic. We can service more clients and offer more services, and at often better prices than we offered more than a decade ago."