Classes, Funding Help to Nourish Make My Lunch

by Christie Chisholm, New Mexico Business Weekly, January 6, 2011

Callie Tolman was bored.

She was working as an emergency operator at the University of New Mexico Hospital. The job provided her with ample background if she ever decided to write the next big medical drama, but she found herself sitting for long periods of time doing nothing.

Looking for a challenge, two years ago she hatched a business plan. A year ago, she put it into action.

Tolman is the owner and sole employee of Make My Lunch, a do-it-all catering service that also offers meal planning and grocery pickup and delivery. Focusing on local and organic foods when possible, she makes everything from fruit and vegetable platters to ethnic and regional cuisines, such as Italian, Mexican, New Mexican and Asian.

She cultivated her skills during more than 20 years in the restaurant industry, working as a server. But she started cooking long before she ever had a job in a kitchen. When she was a child, her dad taught her and her siblings the culinary basics.

She quit her UNMH job in October 2009 and started her business in January 2010 with $10,000 cashed out of her retirement and a $2,400 grant from WESST.

While Tolman’s profit margin is still small, her business is on firm footing, and she’s anything but bored.

If there’s one term that succinctly describes Make My Lunch, it’s “budget-minded.” This is apparent not just in the options available to customers, but also in Tolman’s approach to business. She charges $5 to $20 a head for catering events, and $20 an hour for meal planning. With all her work, she has a “no job is too small” attitude. If $100 is all a client has to work with, Tolman will take it.

“I want to support those people,” she says, “because I’m one of those people, too.”

Catering makes up the bulk of her business. To date, she’s had one meal planning job.

With a limited amount of startup funds, Tolman wasn’t able to spend much money on marketing or design, so she kept it simple. She asked friends to design her business’ logo and brochure, and help with hauling food and supplies to and from events.

She’s never bought an ad, because she thinks it’s a waste of money. Make My Lunch’s only marketing happens through Facebook, Twitter, the company’s website and MySpace. Tolman has more than 1,000 fans on Facebook, about 520 of whom are from Albuquerque.

Beyond social media, her business grew through word-of-mouth. For example, the bar Launchpad hired her for an event and was happy with the work she did, so the owner hired her to work an event for another of his businesses. Eventually, Tolman started doing catering for some of the employees of the businesses as well.

Angela Nieto is one such employee. After seeing the work Tolman did for Launchpad, Nieto hired her to cater a birthday breakfast brunch for her mom and fiancé in March 2010. With made-to-order omelets and pancakes, shrimp cocktail, pan-fried potatoes, mimosas and a pear compote Nieto says the guests were “clamoring” over, the event was a success.

“[Tolman] is reasonably priced and never sacrifices quality,” Nieto says. “She helped me with everything from planning the menu to shopping for the groceries. She is very flexible and able to accommodate any budget or circumstance.”

Tolman has about 36 clients, including Bernalillo County and the state film office. She provided catering and craft services for three movies that filmed in New Mexico last summer, and prepared food that will appear in a commercial being released this month for SWENDO (Southwest Endocrinology).

One of the biggest boons to her business was a free individual development accounts class for lower income brackets that she took through WESST. Tolman took several free classes on starting a small business, but the course at WESST, which taught her about financial best practices, has been the biggest help. The course started in October 2009 with 10 weekly meetings, and continued with a year of monthly meetings.

The class also led to the grant Tolman received from WESST. Students were invited to participate in a four-to-one savings matching program. Tolman put in $600, and WESST put in $2,400.

Another huge help to her business was a $12,000 loan she received from nonprofit The Loan Fund, which she found out about through STEPS (Southeast Team for Entrepreneurial Success). To qualify for the loan, she had to prove her business was profitable. Having two cars to use as collateral helped, too. She used the money to buy a mobile food truck, where she does much of her cooking.

Tolman hopes sometime this year to establish a distribution center for local produce, which she’ll access for catering but will also be open to the public. She’d also like to teach meal planning and healthy eating habits to people who are on government assistance. That was her original idea for the business; the strategy proved difficult, but she hasn’t given up on it.

And one day, she wants to open her pocketbook and hire at least one employee—“for cleanup,” she says with a smile.

A year in, Tolman doesn’t have any regrets about quitting a job with benefits to forge her own path.

“I can always go back and work in an office,” she says. “I don’t have to compromise my happiness.”

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Vital Stats: 

  • Company: Make My Lunch
  •  Owner: Callie Tolman
  •  Address: 318 Isleta SW, Albuquerque 87105
  •  Phone: (505) 450-9507 
  •  Website: makemylunchcallie.com
  • Employees: one
  •  2010 revenue: nearly $20,000 

 

Strategies:

1. Don’t spend money for things you don’t have to, like ads or business and finance classes. Social media can do things ads can’t, and high-quality, free classes are plentiful.

2. Enlist the help of friends and family—no woman is an island.

3. When starting out, no job is too small. Be willing to work with even the smallest budget.