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Jackie Zimmermann/MEDILL

Employees at FIG Catering, 1850 S. Blue Island Ave in Pilsen, work to prepare menus using local, seasonal products.

Focus on organic, seasonal foods fuels growth at FIG Catering

by Jackie Zimmermann
Nov 26, 2013


Jackie Zimmermann/MEDILL

Christine Smaglia, 30, helps with morning prep at FIG Catering.

After dating for a mere eight months, Justin Hall and Molly Schemper decided to take their relationship to the next level – they opened a business together.

“A limited liability agreement is so much more thorough and legally binding than a marriage,” joked Hall. “We’re basically 50/50 partners in everything we do.”

Eight years later, Hall and Schemper are married, and their company, FIG Catering – which creates personalized menus centered on organic and seasonal foods – hopes to pull in between $1.3 and $1.5 million in sales for 2013.

“We’ve almost doubled in size every year,” Hall said, except for 2013. The couple decided to limit their bookings this year in order to slow annual growth to 20 to 30 percent and preserve the quality of their product. They also choose to only schedule one wedding a day instead of trying to double up on one of their most lucrative services.

“We are just trying to focus on what we do well opposed to just getting a big pair of pants and seeing if we can fit into [them,]” he said.

Hall and Schemper’s partnership has grown into a business that employs 11 full-time and four part-time employees. Additionally, the company relies on a pool of roughly 35 servers to help staff events.

FIG, or For Intimate Gatherings, specializes in parties ranging from two to 150 guests and caters home gatherings, corporate events and weddings. According to Hall, the company’s focus on smaller gatherings helps them differentiate from the competition.

“One of the main reasons we stop at 150, besides for our name, was that we find there is a point where food quality hits events logistics,” Hall said. “Our main focus in our business is the food. It’s what we’ve built everything around.”

Hall and Schemper grew FIG from a shared initial investment of $2,000 in 2005 and have never relied on a bank or payroll loan to help offset expenses. The only financial assistance they have received came two-and-a-half years later when Schemper’s father offered a $25,000 loan to help them establish a storefront at 1850 S. Blue Island Ave in Pilsen.

We’ve never wanted to rely on loans, Hall said. “I’m more comfortable keeping cash.”

Without the help of a payroll loan, Hall says FIG sometimes “eats money” during the slow winter months; however, wedding contracts and busy summers help offset the financial loss. According to Hall, it can cost anywhere between $40 and $125 per person to hire FIG; however, prices vary drastically based on time, location and food choices.

While the company’s effort to maintain sustainable growth helps keep FIG from outgrowing its resources, it can make getting an event on the books a bit more difficult.

“Being a small business, FIG’s availability is often limited,” said Geoff Pan, 32, who hired the company in 2013. “I had to Twitter-stalk Molly to have her cater our wedding.”

Pan first encountered FIG at his friend’s wedding in 2011, and when it came time to research a caterer for his own nuptial, his friend prompted him to get in touch with the company. After emails and tastings, Pan and his fiancé determined that they could count on the company to create a menu tailored to their personalities.

“It was all delicious, but my favorite item was the fried chicken and waffle bite,” Pan said. “I had mentioned to FIG about how much I enjoy the chicken and waffles at Longman & Eagle.”

Rosalia Scholle, 46, was first introduced to FIG when the company donated cooking classes to an auction thrown by her employer, Lincoln Park Cooperative Nursery School. Impressed with the way Hall interacted with the participants, Scholle has since used FIG to cater a memorial service for her mother and holiday parties at her house.

Instead of just offering gourmet meals, Scholle’s holiday parties also included cooking lessons so her and her guests could continue to make their FIG favorites. “I still make the polenta and pumpkin cake I learned to make many years ago,” she said.

The company is Green Seal Certified – a third party certification that ensures a company maintains sustainable practices – but because the owners don’t feel comfortable profiting from their ideology, FIG doesn’t advertise as a green business.

While Scholle knew the company focused on using seasonal and organic foods, she didn’t realize FIG’s dedication to being a sustainable business until she hired them for her mother’s memorial service.

“I had a box to throw out … and Molly asked if it should go into recycling,” Scholle said. “I realized that there really wasn’t a lot of waste I could see at the party.”