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[EO San Francisco] Culinary Entrepreneurship Beyond the Kitchen With John SilvaJohn Silva is the Founder of Culinary Eye Catering and Events, Always Fishing Hospitality Group, and Field Guide Consulting, entities that respectively specialize in creating unique catering experiences, offer innovative hospitality solutions, and guide professionals toward entrepreneurial success. A UC Santa Barbara alumnus and a new member of EO San Francisco, John’s entrepreneurial journey began in 2009, leading to the establishment of businesses that have not only made it to the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies in America but also demonstrated consistent financial growth. With a background in kitchens, interactive art, and psychology, he has built teams focused on delivering exceptional customer service through creativity. John’s ventures are underpinned by a philosophy of exceeding expectations and a commitment to high-level hospitality, ensuring that every guest’s experience is paramount.

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Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:

  • John Silva talks about how he started side hustles as a kid
  • The power of not trading hours for dollars
  • How John got into the world of catering
  • What are the similarities between art and food preparation?
  • Pivoting an event catering business during the pandemic
  • Creating a resilient and pandemic-proof business model that adapts to different political climates
  • How John‘s businesses evolved over time

In this episode…

The journey of a culinary entrepreneur is fraught with unexpected turns and the constant need for evolution. How can one transform challenges into stepping stones for growth, especially when global crises upend traditional business models?

According to John Silva, a visionary in the culinary world and the founder of multiple successful ventures, the secret lies in the ability to adapt, innovate, and find new avenues for growth when traditional paths seem obstructed. He underscores the importance of embracing a mindset that views obstacles as opportunities to rethink and revamp business strategies. John also highlights the crucial role of mentorship in navigating these challenges, offering guidance to emerging entrepreneurs and enabling them to leverage their unique strengths in the rapidly evolving culinary landscape.

In this episode of the Rising Entrepreneurs Podcast, John Corcoran sits down with John Silva to explore the dynamic world of culinary business. They discuss John’s strategic pivot during the pandemic, his venture into mentorship and coaching, and his insights on building resilience in the culinary industry.

Resources mentioned in this episode:

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Episode Transcript

Intro  0:03

Welcome to the Rising Entrepreneurs Podcast where we feature top founders and entrepreneurs and their journey. Now let’s get started with the show.

John Corcoran  0:13

Alright, welcome everyone. John Corcoran here, I am one of the hosts of this show. And you know, every week we get to talk to interesting entrepreneurs and founders, and executives, business people from all kinds of different companies. We’ve had a lot of interesting guests on this show, and today is no exception. Of course, this episode is brought to you by EO San Francisco, which is part of Entrepreneurs Organization, which is a global peer to peer network of more than 18,000 influential business owners in about 200 chapters worldwide. And if you are the founder, co founder, owner or controlling shareholder of a company that generates over a million dollars a year in revenue, and want to connect with other like minded successful entrepreneurs, an EO is for you. And the EO San Francisco chapter actually is one of the leading chapters in the world, helping people to learn, grow and achieve greater success. The EO SF chapter was founded in 1991 has over 120 members now in industry ranging from marketing to agriculture, tech and professional services, you can go to Francisco to learn more about what we do. And of course, this episode, also also brought to you by my company, Rise25, where we help b2b businesses get clients referrals and strategic partnerships with done for you podcast, and you can learn about us at Alright, my guest here today is John Silva. He is the founder of a number of different companies, including Always Fishing Hospitality Group, Field Guide Consulting, and Culinary Eye Catering. He is a proud graduate of UC Santa Barbara, which I was as well. So was excited to hear about that, and a new member of EO San Francisco. So we’re excited to have them here. And I always like to start John, with hearing about little side hustles that you had as a kid. And you said you were up in the Santa Cruz Mountains. And getting home from bus stops was a bit of a challenge kind of a multi mount mile process. But you were you were smart. And so you you create a little side hustles along the way, and you made some money on the way home, which is pretty smart. But tell us about that.

John Silva  2:11

Yeah, you know, I think it’s kind of fun being around entrepreneurs and also introduced by entrepreneurs, we’re always looking for those little pockets in between things. They really early on. And like, you know, like John said, I grew up in the mountains and get off the bus and have this, you know, multi mile hike up and down through and let your mind wandered, go through people’s backyards. And you know, finally was approached by some of these kind of like up the hill neighbors that, hey, on your way home, would you mind feeding our cats or watering the plants or bringing the mainland or we’re going on trip and it was just something that just developed him? I think because it developed so early on, it was it was sort of eye opening to see that people were looking for something from somebody around didn’t necessarily matter who it was. And yeah, it was one of my first little things just having money come in just walking home from school and took some of the some of the heat off of Santa Cruz, Mount hills.

John Corcoran  3:07

Yeah, for sure. And you’d actually learn some of this from you had a grandfather who was in the Air Force, kind of like me, same situation. And you would learn from him about the power of not trading hours for dollars. Tell me how you learn that.

John Silva  3:23

Yeah, you know, both of my parents are entrepreneurs. So having that is fantastic. But it’s hard to learn anything from your parents, you know, at least elicits you’re in part of your life. So I’d spend my summers in Oklahoma with my grandparents. It’s been a couple of months at a time. And my grandfather was just this incredible cornerstone for me, it’s so huge piece of property, you know, Oklahoma heat, not not quite as palatable as a California heat. And so he gives us chores to do and things like mowing these massive lawns and raking out, you know, on scum and it was just it was stuff, you know, and he always said, Hey, you have got all these things that you can do and I’ll pay you, you know, 10 cents an hour or whatever the range was I’d look at.

John Corcoran  4:08

Alright, well, probably a little bit more than 10 cents an hour. That sounds like depression era.

John Silva  4:12

Yeah, you’re talking about working with like, you know, some some old school Okies?

John Corcoran  4:18

Maybe it was 10 cents an hour. Yeah. And you’ll like it, and you’ll do it.

John Silva  4:23

You know, so I’d look at that log and go, Oh, man, that’s gonna take me, you know, few hours to do that. And, you know, at that rate, that makes no sense. So, just really, you know, early on, I’d go Alright, well, instead of me doing this, you know, for a long time and potentially making a lot of money. What if I, if I just do it, you know, what would you be willing to pay me just for the project alone? And he got to kick that kind of stuff. And I think that’s what he was trying to teach me at that point. So, you know, while I was checking off boxes really quickly and efficiently doing the work and my brother was working for, you know, time and money based off that You know, I was able to generate money a bit quicker.

John Corcoran  5:03

And you Something similar happened for you around high school age. So you started, I think you were an artsy kid, you started creating pottery, from your ceramic classes in high school and then turning around and selling it.

John Silva  5:14

Yeah, I was lucky, I went to college prep. So you can build your own schedule to some extent, once you were getting rid of all your needed work. So I had about a year and a half where I just spent time in art studios on campus doing pottery, and a bunch of military approached me saying, you know, they enjoyed what I was producing. And I started selling sets of bowls. And that kind of grew out into one of my first businesses outside of college. But it was that first hook in where I could realize that I was making something. And I was driving my own system of making stuff and selling stuff, and very, very appealing.

John Corcoran  5:52

Yeah, and, and then in college, you got into providing services for other students. So tell us about how you got into that.

John Silva  6:00

Yeah, you know, I think you put yourself out there. And if the if the pattern stays in place, so our student in psychology, you know, kind of a recovering oceanographer, I think, some of some point. And so while I was good at, you know, crafting and building a lot of my peers were not. So in the same vein, they’d come to me and they’d say, hey, you know, we need assistance here. Can you do this? And I just found that it was this other way that I could not only extend my network, which was kind of the benefit as a secondary, but on the first part, you know, projects and projects and money he needed done, I could get it done for you.

John Corcoran  6:40

Yeah. And how did that evolve into the world of catering?

John Silva  6:47

Yeah, very, very sort of nonlinear. My mom jokes around that when I got in trouble when I was young, she’d take away shows from me, you know, frugal, gourmet, Galpin and gourmet, Julia Child and Yan can cook all these things that I love to watch and watch people make something. And I think that was really what I gravitated towards. Getting enough trouble, you know, and all those shows, but disappeared. So in high school, you know, when I wasn’t doing my own stuff, and sports, I found my way into kitchens. And then that really went all the way through college. So I’ve done all kinds of crazy stuff in the culinary world. I’ve been, you know, a butcher, I’ve been a cookout at sea, how to Santa Barbara. I’ve worked in different catering companies and educational chef teaching food and food systems. I helped got grant funded through Kaiser, which were extending food and food resources like EBT, and WIC and food stamps to underserved communities. But I kind of always thought it was going to be an artist, you know, I thought I was going to get a job and was going to be like a ceramic instructor for the College of Marin, or something like that. And food, we did always drugged me back to the kitchen or drove me back to putting a plate in front of somebody.

John Corcoran  8:10

What are the similarities between those art and food preparation and cooking?

John Silva  8:17

Yeah, I love that question. It’s, it’s all the good stuff. You know, it’s the creation, which I think artists are always looking to take a medium and present it in a different way. But then it has this incredibly, just unique way of being very intimate, where the people are then consuming this food. You know, yeah, we’re looking at a course of events over the course of the year, if we do 380 events, and you multiply by the people that are at the events that we’re catering to a lot. It’s kind of like incredible moments that you’re creating. And I think it’s like anybody that’s an art that’s putting out a photo and somebody the goal is that, you know, they’re going to see it and be inspired by it or have some reaction to it. And so that’s transitioned to me and to the events that we produce in the food that we make. We’re just sort of creating moments..

John Corcoran  9:14

Yeah. When I think about this industry, and admittedly I haven’t worked in a kitchen since college actually worked in the dining commons at UCSB. But, you know, I think about there’s so many different variables and so much complexity, especially to a catering business you have, obviously you got to get clients that they’re not recurring, maybe some are recurring, but a lot of the clients are probably one time types of special events. Gotta hire staff. They’re dealing with open flames and knives and things like that. You’ve got perishable food, you got so many different variables. As you look back on it, why do you think that you were able to thrive you were able to have a business that was successful?

John Silva  9:59

This is something that is oddly a very fresh thought, talking to some other businesses that we’re kind of in the same world, and everybody sits really tight into this, this idea of, you know, what are your costs of goods? And, you know, how do you create margins on your food, and I never started with that thought in mind. Never, I was never really concerned about, you know, if I buy this organic produce, you know, it’s going to cost me more than this, I wanted it to be about the experience, so I wasn’t going off margins, I was going off of, you know, what are people looking for, and if they’re looking for something that stimulates an experience that they can walk away from, and remember, like, that’s what I want to do. And so, you know, that’s sort of what small dinner parties and then went into, you know, in 2019, the real large corporate, you know, 5000 person events we were doing, the clients weren’t just asking for good food, you know, and they were asking for an experience that connected people together. And I think that’s really the only reason that I’ve gotten to rm and I’m good at what I do, because I’m not a classically trained chef. I think 90% of my friends think that I go to work, and I’d stand in a kitchen all day in like, you know, make small canopies. But I haven’t actually been in my kitchen working as a cook for eight years, at least. But every day when I go in, and I talk to my team, and I go like, is what we’re doing going to shift somebody in a positive fashion.

John Corcoran  11:31

Does that? Have there have been times where that has that approach has gotten you in trouble? Like, is there ever been a time where maybe she, you know, you’re looking back and you’re like, Oh, crap, like, we spend a ton of money on, you know, perishable organic food, and we should have, you know, we end up losing money on a gig, maybe this is early on, are you experiencing like this at all, if at all?

John Silva  11:57

I, you know, I think I’ve chased some events where I was probably trying to tick my own creative box too much. You know, in terms of a business, those are bad decisions and sort of like this graduate.

John Corcoran  12:09

And having a certain type of event that you know how to do well, your team knows how to do well.

John Silva  12:13

Yeah, we cater to a movie shoot on Angel Island. Oh, cheese, or a barge and put it all there. And oh, man, we all this planning. You know, in my head, I’m going man, this is so cool. We’re gonna do this military movie. It’s all night shots. And we’re doing this and that. And I was going towards the, the unique of it. Yeah, totally diving deep enough into it and kind of find out that you didn’t get locked on an island with a bunch of large athlete gentleman that just want to eat all day. And you can’t get back on the land, you know, and like, really quickly, you try to figure out how to get back online to get more food. So yeah, lost money there, but have hilarious stories of trying to survive.

John Corcoran  13:03

Wow, that I that’s probably one of the toughest locations within an urban environment that you can you can think of. And you mentioned, so in 2019, you’re doing 5000 person events, then, of course, early 2020, COVID hits. First, just take me back to March 2020. What’s going through your head as you start to see this thing unfold?

John Silva  13:25

Yeah, March of 2020. I was, you know, is it my sister’s wedding in Maui. And I started getting phone calls about clients canceling their events. And I remember saying something like, oh, it’s probably this is probably like the swine flu version two. Was not that was not that, but I was also dealing with a bunch of just random, you know, business owner stuff. I was like, had a disgruntled employee that moved out of state that filed unemployment against me. And she, you know, she was saying, like, I wasn’t preparing word for and I don’t know how to do that when she lived in Florida. There’s like so many different things going on. So I finally you know, I fly back after this wedding, I go into the office, I sort of check in with everybody that’s been hit by all their clients. And, you know, within that first eight days, and this is going into that March 12 14th. You know, we sent back like $5.2 million in deposits. Wow. And then just kept watching it go from there. So, it was a year um, I didn’t actually know for sure I was going to come back to catering. I built a couple of businesses in that first year underneath the umbrella of my business and actually ended up either selling those off or giving them to staff so that they had something.

John Corcoran  14:45

And what were those? Because I saw other catering companies that did something similar, they created different.

John Silva  14:50

I don’t think anybody was doing anything hyper unique during that time we went into fulfillment system where we’re shipping goods, kind of all over the country, so packages of engagement kids, and global cocktail programs and odd stuff. Yeah. Through some partnerships and doing our own, we started a meal subscription program, which actually did really well. client acquisition, and especially when you’re not have like big dollar funding, right? Hard to get around, and then turn my kitchen into a commissary in San Francisco that was making money, got linked in with all my corporate clients and was doing, you know, cooking classes online for 200 people at a time. I didn’t stop them. So it was all stuff that worked, you know, financially, even. During that time, it was all working. It just didn’t work the way I want it to work. It wasn’t fun. It wasn’t, it didn’t like, feel good. I’ve

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