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April 2005
Catering Business Dishes Out Services

      While other kids might have been doodling in school, one imaginative fellow used to draw intricate plans for volleyball and basketball courts and miniature golf courses. Little did R. Robert “Bob” Freeman Jr. know that he was laying the groundwork for his future catering business, SMS Catering Services.

SMS Catering is the largest and second-oldest private catering company in Charlotte. Located on eight and a half acres in the Eastway area of Charlotte, the full service catering facility features outdoor activity areas like the ones that Bob Freeman used to love to draw, as well as a game room and 4,500-square-foot glass-enclosed banquet room. Up to 1,300 partygoers can also enjoy the ambiance of several fountains, an open-air patio that can be enclosed and heated, wide-screen televisions, stage events and plenty of parking.

 

Initially served as a side dish

Bob Freeman, president, owns and operates SMS Catering with his son, R. Robert Freeman III, general manager. For Bob, catering began as a hobby 35 years ago. From 1972 to 1984, he worked full-time as district assistant in the 9th Congressional District for former U.S. Congressman James G. Martin (later Gov. Jim Martin).

During those years, Bob cooked barbecue and catered meals for groups of friends and acquaintances. On his lunch break, he would plan the menus for upcoming events. His chef friend, Tom Muller, provided the practical wisdom about menu planning and meal preparation. Bob also spent considerable time researching meal preparation techniques.

Bob’s first big catering event was in 1972 on a Lake Norman lot owned by WSOC-TV. It was a barbecue held for the Mecklenburg County Young Republican Club of which Bob was chairman. Bob’s plan was to produce far more tickets – 5,000 of them – than he knew the various representative groups of people could sell. That turned out to be a successful idea, as more than 400 people came to the event, and several began asking him to cater their events.

“The key is to get a significant number of tickets out,” Bob says. “I was very fortunate because every penny I made I put back into the business.” If he did four catering jobs a month, Bob was happy with the extra money on top of his regular job. After 12 years, Martin was running for governor and Bob had a small business and no debts. It was time to grow the business.

At the time, Bob catered from a house across the street from where his facility is now located. He was determined to buy the property, and build a large building on it, but the banks were uneasy about loaning money for restaurant-type businesses. The owner of the property, Vince DeLuca, decided to offer Bob financing, and at one less point than the current interest rate – which was 14 percent then. Bob didn’t forget it, either. He made every payment on time. And when Vince was diagnosed with cancer, he came to Bob and asked him to plan an event for his funeral. Bob agreed, and then told him, “If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be here today.” And he did the event at no charge.

 

The name says it all

The name SMS Catering Services came about after much thought and research. Bob looked at the member listing of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce to try to get ideas, but found nothing. He liked the look and sound of SMS. The letters SMS had the style potential Bob was looking for. “It made a good-looking oval logo,” he says. But to others, it appeared that Bob had a secret backer – possibly Jim Martin. Bob liked that idea, too, even though it wasn’t true. But it turned out that the letters made good business sense. Bob used them for his motto – Service Means Satisfaction.

“That’s one of the main things we strive for – customer service,” son Robert contributes. The father/son team offers a customer-friendly Web site and one stop shopping. They sell food and beverages in addition to offering the facility services. Customers can have their whole event planned through SMS Catering without having to make numerous phone calls to get equipment, entertainment, flowers, limousine service, etc.

“We’re a one-stop shop,” Robert says. “‘One Call Does It All!’ is our slogan. The customer just writes one check and we take care of the rest.”

Their repeat business is a sure sign of customer satisfaction. About 80 percent of their customers come back to them again. One reason may be that Bob and Robert are always available. Even when they are busy, they still answer the phone. Customers rarely have to leave a message, and if they do, one of the Freemans will likely call back within the hour. In addition, they know their business and take it seriously. Like food planning, for instance – they have never run out of food.

“We know down to the ounce what it will take to serve people,” Bob says. “And in all these 35 years, we’ve never been late.”

 

Knowledge is an essential ingredient

The younger Robert carries a repertoire of degrees. He graduated from Appalachian State University in 1997, earning Bachelor’s degrees in management, marketing and hospitality. He also got an MBA degree at the end of seven years of college. And then he went home to work with his dad.

“Out of all the things he could do, he wanted to come and work here,” Bob says, admiringly. Bob hadn’t come to the table empty-handed, though, either. He holds degrees in psychology and social studies from Western Carolina University as well as a Masters. As a high school teacher and guidance counselor, as well as campaign coordinator for Martin, Bob had opportunities over the years for planning and organizing.

The combined Freemans’ thinking power were essential in cooking up their pièce de résistance in the catering industry. As it happened, Bob couldn’t help but notice the problems in serving warmed food associated with electricity, or the lack of it, when catering on-location events. One of the most important tasks in catering a memorable event is providing hot meals. But electricity to heat the food warmers is expensive and sometimes unreliable. And gas burners are dangerous in close proximity to fine linens and paper products. So Bob began working on inventing a cordless food warmer that would be both safe and reliable. He spent about eight years on his own, then another four years with Robert, developing the product to met their needs.

The resulting Freeman “SafeServ” Cordless Food Warmer (Patent No. 6575154) is being produced by their newest company, SMS Industries. The fully patented portable UL Approved and NSF certified machine uses propane gas canisters in a unique design to keep foods hot without creating a fire hazard indoors or out. It also keeps food at food-safe temperatures using infrared heat. The height can be adjusted for warming, carving or holding entrees.

“It’s a nice, gentle heat that keeps fried foods crispy,” Bob says, “and most importantly, it keeps it at a safe temperature.”

The Freemans are working on producing a more compact version of the SafeServ for about half the cost of the original. They say that food show vendors will have their warmer paid within six months with the money they save on electrical hook-up charges.

Their SafeServ invention suits their needs, too. About 90 percent of SMS events are held on-location With the food being cooked fresh on location, using mobile kitchens and cookers. Bob, Robert, and their five full-time and more than 50 part-time workers can cater as many as seven events in a day using their own equipment. And they have served up to 6,500 people in less than 45 minutes. Needless to say, the SafeServ has survived its trial period.

 

Celebratory Cook-Off

SMS Catering has had a distinguished record. Some of the more unusual requests have even included wild themes such as a safari roast featuring exotic selections like buffalo and rattlesnake meat. They Freemans have served more than a few distinguished celebrities, too.

“We’ve done the presidents all the way from Gerald Ford on,” Bob says. “We have yet to do one for the current president, but we’re waiting for the call.” Bob’s Republican background has really beefed up his catering potential. It’s not surprising, given his notorious performance of 1979 in an all-out political barbecue cook-off in Washington, D.C., held in his honor.

Former Congressman Ike Andrews had told Jim Martin that he knew a cook in the eastern part of North Carolina who could make the best barbecue in the land. Bob isn’t sure whether he meant the state or the country, but at any rate, Martin contested. He was sure that Bob was the best. So, the North Carolina Society (made up of people who work in Washington for the state of North Carolina) put on the First (and only) Annual Pork Barrel Classic. The contest pitted the two cooks against each other. Judges consisted of some celebrities, and guests topped more than 400. Today, Bob proudly displays his prize, a nearly foot-tall trophy with a pig on top.

What makes Bob’s barbecue sauce so special is ... well, it’s a secret. It’s vinegar-based. However, Bob says they will make whichever style the customer prefers – eastern or western North Carolina or “plain old smoked” barbecue. But he did offer a tip about selecting pork. He spent a lot of time in the early years perfecting his slow-cooked barbecue and testing various brands of meat. He discovered that Hormel pork is the best, in his opinion. “It cooks down to a nice lean and moist piece of meat,” he says.

What began as a barbecue company has evolved into a versatile full-service catering company. The outdoor grill, the fish fry, the company picnic – the Freemans still do these, but their focus has broadened to more upscale events such as weddings and corporation and social events. In fact, many of the topping off parties in uptown Charlotte have been catered by SMS. (Those are parties held by construction companies after the crews finish the framing work in the center city high-rises.)

The catering business fluctuates with the economy, but SMS continues to serve great fare with flair. Three years ago, they were catering about 900 events annually. As purses tightened up, corporations cut back on lavish parties and the number of events dropped to about 700. Bob began focusing on more consistent events, such as weddings. According to Bob, “Like planning menus, you choose foods that are in season and readily available, and there are always the year-round staples.”

Lately, the numbers are looking up. “It’s our ambition to be a full service catering and events company serving consistently good fare to our most discerning guest’s satisfaction. With the variety of culinary styles and food-related services SMS offers,” Bob says, “we’re taking the catering business to a new level,” Robert continues.

 

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