Have Party, Will Travel: Caryn Hasslocher

It may be a rainy September evening outside, but inside the McNay Museum’s halls a festive crowd of about 300 has assembled to celebrate the 80th anniversary of one of San Antonio’s oldest CPA firms, Carneiro Chumney. In the Stieren Building lobby people crowd around the well-appointed bar and hors d’oeuvres tables, then move on with their goodies to meet and greet, spilling into the Octagon area that connects the building to the old McNay mansion. While the guests mingle, serenaded by a guitarist, Caryn Hasslocher and her crew from Fresh Horizons Creative Catering are busy putting the finishing touches on the rest of the festive space inside the Leeper Auditorium. Food stations are set up both in the middle and against two walls, while elegantly decorated tables line up the two longer sides of the hall. Though the event is officially a cocktail party, the menu easily meets dinner standards with roast beef and turkey carving stations, a selection of mashed potato dishes, an abundance of cheeses, breads and veggies and eye-popping desserts.

Because the client firm’s color is blue, Hasslocher personally incorporated low-key blue elements throughout, including one or two blue flowers in the table centerpieces. As a special touch, the firm’s logo sculpted in ice stands vigil between the two entrance doors, facing its larger video version projected on the opposite wall. The lights are low, the atmosphere full of anticipation. When the Carneiro Chumney managing partner, Robert McAdams, strolls in to check on the situation, he is clearly impressed. “Everything looks fabulous,” he tells Hasslocher. A few minutes later, all the guests are invited in, and the party shifts into high gear. To make the “fabulous” happen, some 25 Fresh Horizons employees have been working for two days, preparing the food, assembling the equipment, designing the layouts of the buffets, choosing the linen, etc. Of course, supplies had to be ordered a week ahead, and contracted services, such as valet parking, music and photography, had to be arranged for well in advance. “We don’t only provide food,” explains Hasslocher, “we coordinate everything. We deliver ‘turnkey’ service.”

For the client, that means worry- and labor-free entertaining, but Hasslocher and her crew “entertain” like this many times a week. Altogether, Fresh Horizons handles about 800 to 900 events a year, from corporate parties like the McNay soiree to weddings, holiday receptions, business lunches, outdoor barbecues, afternoon teas and every other kind of festivity people may dream up. Obviously, Hasslocher, as the owner of the company, cannot be personally present everywhere, but she tries to stay involved in as many situations as possible. “We have a capable sales team of four,” she notes a couple of days later, sitting inside her company’s headquarters on Broadway, “and I work with all of them as well as with the culinary team. Our goal is always to create the event that the client wants and that we are able to produce. You have to be able to produce what you promise. However, because I’ve been in business for 28 years and many people know me, they often ask to work directly with me.” After a particularly busy week and weekend, she is clearly tired. It turns out that just two days earlier, while they were catering a major gala for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society at the Spectrum Club at Rogers Ranch, she and her staff were informed more or less at the last moment that they couldn’t use certain areas they were counting on for food preparation. The weather was rainy, but under the circumstances they had no choice but to work outside. In the end, they had to summon additional tents just before the event and set up the catering kitchens under the tents. Talk about stress! The party didn’t suffer any, but it’s just the kind of thing that happens once in a while in her business.

Fall is a Busy Season

For caterers, fall is the busiest time of the year as people return to normal activities after the summer hiatus, but things really heat up during the holidays. In December, it’s not unusual for Fresh Horizons to handle up to 40 events a week. “We have to book carefully,” says Hasslocher. “Not all events are full-service. Some are delivery or pick-up (meaning her company only prepares the food), and in that way we can handle more business.” Corporate holiday celebrations seem to cluster in the first part of the month, with private social events taking over in the last couple of weeks. The company does not limit itself geographically and will go into surrounding cities as well. In fact, on Dec, 5, it will cater a dinner at the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station during that institution’s Wine Culture exhibit and Spanish Winemaker Weekend. Other corporate/institutional clients include UTSA, UTHSC, the American Payroll Association, Home Spring Realty, the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and many others. And then there are weddings. They tend to happen throughout the year with concentrations in the spring and fall. “For many people a wedding is the largest event they have ever planned, and it’s a big thing,” says Hasslocher. “A lot of what we do is helping them understand the intricacies involved and helping them spend their money wisely. It’s a very emotional time, and it can be trying for both the brides and their mothers. Sometimes, the bride wants one thing, her mother wants another. Our job is to show them what the options are, to give them workable solutions.”

For a caterer, there are also new challenges as today’s brides and grooms often come from different backgrounds and want to mesh their cultures in both the ceremony and reception. The combinations are many — Catholic and Jewish, Hindu and Christian, Baha’i and Buddhist, in addition to various ethnic heritages. To accommodate them, executive chef Sandra Mason and her staff borrow recipes from the families involved or do a little research of their own. It’s no wonder that over the years Fresh Horizons has developed a solid reputation in the community as a reliable and versatile caterer, which has brought both the company and its owner awards and recognition. For instance, The Knot Best of Weddings magazine’s survey of brides (by region) placed Fresh Horizons among the top regional wedding vendors in 2008-09. Hasslocher herself was named Overall Outstanding Small Business Leader of the year in 2000 by the North Chamber of Commerce and received the Business Leadership Award from the San Antonio Business Journal a couple of years later. One happy repeat customer is the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. “They always do such a wonderful job,” says GSACC vice president of special events Linda Corkill. “One of their major strengths is Caryn, her personality and commitment to excellence. Their product is consistently good, and that’s real important for us because we do so many events. We can rely on them with 100 percent confidence.”

Taking a Chance On Catering

Having grown up in a family of restaurateurs — her father founded the chain of Jim’s Restaurants — Hasslocher knew her way around food and service long before she became a catering entrepreneur. By college time, however, she chose to get an associate degree in fashion merchandising and worked in that field for a couple of years before marrying fellow San Antonian William Johnson in 1974 and with whom she would eventually have four children. The young couple traveled to Honduras on vacation and ended up settling there on a newly purchased ranch. Two of their children were born in that country. It was also during that time that Hasslocher developed an interest in Latin American cuisines. When the political climate in the region began to change with the Sandinistas’ takeover of Nicaragua, the family decided that mom and the kids should return to San Antonio for at least a while. As the “while” stretched into several years, during which the spouses visited each other across borders, the couple grew apart, finally divorcing in 1983, just a few months following the birth of their twin daughters Jessica and Jennifer. Two years earlier, Hasslocher had decided to leave her father’s business, where she had been working since her return from Honduras, to strike out on her own in a new direction. “Back then, catering as we know it today was still a fledgling industry. Services were provided mostly by regular restaurants,” she says. “I began researching the market to see if there was a need for a business such as I had in mind, and I went ahead. Today it’s a multi-billion dollar industry.”

Her first outfit provided only on-site party services, but before long the demand dictated a shift to off-site, meaning bringing catering to wherever the client wanted to stage the event. In 1997, she bought the present building complex on Broadway, where an industrial-size kitchen is located, plus warehouses, offices and backyard space for the company’s five trucks. More are rented if needed. In keeping with the growth of the overall industry, the daily and weekly pace has accelerated as well. “In the early years we didn’t have as much last-minute planning as we have today,” says the businesswoman. “The lead time for planning has shrunk since the use of the Internet became common, and everything moves faster.” Despite some perilous time after 9/11, her client base has grown, and the company has expanded into the convention business as well. What continues to be a challenge, especially in the current economy, is “finding a balance between high and slow times in order to maintain staff even as business fluctuates.” She says she saw the downturn coming back in 2007.

On a personal level, however, there are few worries. For the past seven years, Hasslocher has been married to Anthony Koch, a rancher and “serial entrepreneur,” who currently runs Alamo Iron Works. Her face breaks into a warm smile as she describes him “as a brilliant businessman, wonderful father, wonderful husband. I’ve been blessed,” she says. And she soon will be catering the wedding of her last unmarried daughter, Jessica. Son John works as the bar services manager at Fresh Horizons. Eldest daughter Elizabeth Kossick has followed in her mother’s footsteps by becoming the Latin cuisine specialist at the Culinary Institute of America San Antonio. Like the good businesswoman that she is, Hasslocher is always looking for new areas to move into and new products to offer. Chocolate fountains and a coffee bar serving the now popular cappuccino and espresso are recent additions. Also under consideration is “disaster catering,” something the company ventured into after Hurricane Ike devastated some coastal areas. And she may reintroduce her own banquet space. But first, she must get through the hectic holidays.

Does she have a business or perhaps a life philosophy that guides her? we ask.

She seems a little surprised by the question, but it takes her only a second or two to come up with her answer: “I follow the golden rule, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ It’s the best. If one must err, let it be on the side of compassion and understanding for others.”

Author: Jasmina Wellinghoff

Photographer: Liz Garza Williams

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