Georgina Damm’s Damm Fine Food has built a stellar reputation amongst the organisers of Melbourne’s major events. Rob Johnson finds out how she did it.
As far as David Atkins was concerned, there was nothing wrong with the catering for the Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix or the Superbikes Championship. “Both had been riding a wave of popularity,” he says, “but we sensed a desire from corporate clients to have a little more value from the catering experience.” But Atkins had two hurdles: one, he wanted to do more without having a major impact on his budget; and two, a major event like Superbikes presents its own unique set of challenges.
“Certainly in the early years we had things like big brand restaurateurs set up temporary restaurants on the site,” he says. “They had a lot of difficulties coming to terms with the issues of infrastructure—just the logistics of setting everything up—and the menus you have to provide with limited equipment. You have to be hands on, in difficult environments, where it’s often dry, hot, dusty, with serving areas that can be quite large at times. Staff are stretched because they work long days in these conditions, and they’ve got significant demands on them between track events across the circuit, so it’s difficult to stagger things. A different mind-set is required.”
It’d make sense to go for a large, well-established, old-school caterer with a long history of doing exactly the same events. Atkins didn’t. Instead he approached Georgina Damm from Damm Fine Foods. “I was well aware the Victoria Racing Club had selected her for the Melbourne Cup Carnival,” he says.
Another attraction was she was one of a new breed of caterers in town. “There is a band of caterers that have been around for 30 years or more, and the personnel behind those companies defines the reputation of the company,” he says. “Many people want an individual touch with their catering, and they like that style. I knew with Georgina that we were roughly around the same vintage and had like-minded ideas and concepts. I think the younger caterers are more adventurous, and willing to do more adventurous things.”
Matt Preston, creative director of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, confirms her reputation: “Georgina’s got a great profile for being one of the more innovative, new breed of caterers, as opposed to the large corporate-type groups. She’s small enough to get it. When we got her to do A Taste of Slow, it was because she got the concept.”
Over the past 10 years or so, Damm has built her business from a one-person operation in her mum’s kitchen to catering for major events like the Melbourne Cup, MotoGP, the World’s Longest Lunch and the aforementioned A Taste of Slow. But even though her reputation on Victoria’s festival circuit is assured, she insists she didn’t set out to be associated with large festivals and events.
“It’s not really the core of our business,” she explains. “Private and corporate catering outweighs it, but once you’ve done one festival, you find you get offered more. It’s incredible how quick people are to respond as long as you’re providing good food and good service.”
Georgina Damm was driven to start her own business by a burning desire to pay off her credit cards. “I had travelled and lived in New York, and worked for a company called Stand Up Stand Up, which is central to the New York comedy scene,” she says. “That was really my introduction into events, because they would do large televised events. I learned about the production side of things.”
After two years she came home with a big credit card debt and an interest in the catering and events businesses. Her introduction to catering had come much earlier, while she was studying for a marketing degree at the University of Canberra and living on a farm at Bungendore, 45 minutes outside Canberra.
“When I was there I learned about meat and how to cut up a carcass,” she says. “And living there, I learned about catering for large numbers, as you tend to do in the country. After that I moved to Melbourne and got a job with Peter Rowland Catering and learned the whole catering trade. So I started in the kitchen and learned everything I could. It was a part-time job while I worked out how to get a job in marketing.”
Back home after the New York sojourn, she started doing small jobs from her mother’s house—an engagement party here, a boardroom lunch there. “You’re a jack of all trades at the start,” she says. “It was just myself, doing quotes, answering phones, doing everything.”
It was the lingering smell of burnt food in her mother’s kitchen that kicked her business on to the next level. In 1996 she found a commercial premises in an old chocolate shop on Malvern Road in Tooronga. Her mum became her first (unpaid) employee. “Every morning I’d go to the market, and she’d come in and do the dishes and bleach floors and so on in the business,” she says. “It’s hard when you don’t have any capital, so you have to rely on family.”
Growth in the new premises was steady: “I did the figures well, and the only real cost was rent. All the rest were variables. I made sure I moved somewhere I could afford. I knew I had to do one function a week to cover the rent. After about two years I won an award—the Young Heroes Business Award—and out of that publicity it just snowballed. That’s how vital having editorial is. It just starts the whole snowball effect. It was a big clincher, getting myself out there.”
She quickly found the marketing degree was more useful than she thought it would be. “Even when I was knee-deep in potatoes, I made sure I spent some time every week seeking new business,” she says. “If I saw there was a launch coming of a new product, or something like that, I’d approach the company involved and ask them if they needed catering services. Eight times out of 10 they’d say no, but two of them would say ‘come on in and talk to us’. Most of them appreciated that I’d been proactive in seeking them out. And networking is really important in the catering business.
“If you can’t afford an advertising budget you’ve got to use your mouth. I’d go to trade and industry groups, speak at community events for free—I got municipal work by going to the local council and saying my business is in your area, you should hire locals to do your catering. It is being cheeky, but you’ve got nothing to lose, so why not push some boundaries?”
The big and small of it
About five years ago, Damm was standing in her office as her staff stared back at her, open-mouthed, with looks on their faces that suggested she was insane. You could hear a pin drop. She’d just won the pitch to cater the World’s Longest Lunch—an outdoor lunch for 1,200 people on one long table, with no wet weather plan.
They’d never done anything like this before. They decided it would be more manageable to treat it as four events, each for 300 people, running concurrently next to each other. “That was less daunting,” she says. “I had a supervisor for each one, staff for each one, a separate kitchen for each one, and no-one left their section.
“In these events it’s the back of house set-up where challenges arise. It’s not the food so much as not remembering to order staff toilets, or organise an area where staff can put their bags. There are little things like dealing with flies, or having sunscreen for staff. But mostly the amount of time it takes to load up trucks with food for 1,200 people. I allowed two hours, but in the end it took about five.”
But according to Matt Preston, it was the food that made all the difference. “The issue—and this is the real issue with these things—is its got to be bloody good,” he says. “You’ve got your reputation on the line. And when you’re working with someone like Adrian Richardson from La Luna, people need to taste the food you’re serving and say, ‘That’s an Adrian Richardson dish’, not an imitation of one. So that’s something we’re really hot on. It needs to be true and reflect the quality of the chef who’s attached to it. And that’s something that Georgina can do well.”
Which isn’t to downplay the abilities of her staff. David Atkins at the MotoGP points out that these large events require a particular breed of staff: “Generally younger ones who enjoy the atmosphere and revel in the long hours required. Georgina’s staff is very good. She has a very good customer service focus, which is the secret to successfully catering an event.”
Preston recalls the first time Damm Fine Foods took on the canteen at A Taste of Slow. The organisers were expecting some of the 6,000 visitors would bring food from elsewhere, and some would go to the canteen … “Anyway, she got slammed,” he says. “She served up 1,800 meals in three days. By halfway through the first day she was calling back to her office, saying ‘Send me all the stuff for Sunday now!’ And she had to provide a dinner that night, a special all-star affair, so they had to take down the canteen that evening to do a five-course dinner, then get it back up by the next morning. It was amazing.”
Despite her success with festivals and major events, Damm is keen to point out that focussing solely on major events isn’t really where she sees the business going. “If it’s something that’s of interest to you, then you should pursue it. But high volume isn’t what I’m about. My passion is for quality food and service, and we work very hard to achieve that, and it’s hard to guarantee when you’re feeding 5,000 mouths.”
And the business is at a point where she doesn’t need to accept every offer that blows in. “We’re a lot more specific now,” she says. “Once you get approached a number of times, once the phone started ringing, we found we ran the risk of ending up as a food vendor, rather than doing an event that was specifically about food. As a caterer there are levels where you can’t go below—even if there’s margin in it, it’s too damaging for your brand. It’s still the same name, so you have to be mindful of that.”