Tonawanda News

Food

August 13, 2010

Local catering service looks to help children and the community

NORTH TONAWANDA — Many people would consider the desire to help children stay healthy to be an admirable trait in a man.

Add in his insistence to do so in Western New York — helping local pockets grow as waistlines shrink — and some people would run out of accolades to shower upon him.

Curtis Knight, however, just considers those two qualities to be part of his job.

After several years of planning, Knight launched the Cater Tots catering service earlier this year. The Buffalo-based service, which offers only nutritional meals to daycares and schools, has a few clients already, but Knight already has set his eyes northward, looking to expand his offerings into northern Erie and western Niagara counties.

This desire doesn’t come from a lack of things to do. A manager at the Buffalo Chophouse who also works in construction, Knight typically works 120 hours per week between his three jobs.

Prior to that, the 35-year-old Williamsville resident spent several years as a senior project analyst for M&T Bank. But he decided to leave that job in order to pursue his dream of the catering service, using the other jobs to help finance the effort.

“I just walked in there one day and said, ‘I am just going to be one of the millions of ordinary people if I don’t get out of here,’ ” he said of M&T.

Immediately after leaving M&T, he worked at a pizzeria that served lunches to a local daycare. He saw what was typically sent over — pizza and chicken fingers — and thought that children deserved better. So he consulted with nutritionists, health experts, lawyers and other advisers to launch a healthy alternative.

He recruited a business partner in California, who has tried to convince Knight to bring the business to the West Coast. But Knight has held steady in his desire to remain in Western New York, and the early results have assuaged his partner’s concerns — for now.

“He tells me, ‘We could make three times as much money out here,’ but I’d rather see this area do well,” Knight said. “If I offer a good product, the money will come.”

The aspiration to offer a good product usually wakes Knight up at 6 a.m. so that he can make a market run to acquire fresh ingredients before going to the Hertel Avenue kitchen he rents to prepare meals. With the help of only one employee thus far, chef Sean Meteer, he spends the rest of the morning preparing that day’s meals — clients approve a month’s worth of meals in advance — and delivering them himself. His other jobs usually don’t allow him to get to bed before 2 a.m.

All of Knight’s offerings (which include breakfast, lunch and a snack) meet nutritional guidelines set by the Child and Adult Care Food Program, which call for meals rich in produce, grains and low-fat dairy products. He also works to keep prices down — his rates fall below the National School Lunch Program standard rates for schools ($2.68 for a regular lunch, and $2.28 for a reduced-price lunch).

Judging by the response of the YWCA of Western New York, which hired to Cater Tots to serve some of its Buffalo centers in mid-January, Knight’s efforts have paid off.

“The food is delivered hot and fresh daily,” YWCA officials Bev Thomas and Erica Tremblay wrote in a letter. “Cater Tots has done an amazing job, meeting the needs of both the organization and our children. We have found that Cater Tots is accommodating not only to the children’s likes and dislikes, but also to those children with special dietary needs. We couldn’t be more pleased.”

Neither could Knight, who has resisted the urge to expand too quickly so as to not overextend himself (he learned, for example, just how much milk the young ladies drink and upped his offerings to meet the demand of 28 gallons per week). He does want to expand into Niagara County, however, and he’s looking for clients as well as eateries that would allow him to rent kitchen space in the morning (Knight insists on having a kitchen within five miles of a client so as to ensure that the food is hot enough upon arrival).

“If there was an interest out there, I’d be there tomorrow,” said Knight, who said he’s started a database of prospective Niagara County clients and kitchens.

Knight would like to see Cater Tots become his full-time job, hire more people (he has 11 employees lined up already once there’s sufficient demand) and scale down to a 40-hour work week. For now, though, he’s content to put in triple that in hopes of achieving his dream.

“I want to see this area succeed,” he said. “With the economy the way it is, Cater Tots brings a much-needed element to the daycare systems of Western New York.”

For more information on Cater Tots, visit catertotswny.com or call 983-6076 or 983-4503.

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