July 14, 2022
You Have a Future in This: How vision can help build a village
By: Tim Eleby (aka Tim the Caterer)
I’m a dreamer. I get a vision, see stuff happening in my mind’s eye, and then I follow it. So with Pure Catering, I pretty much knew it was gonna come, but I didn’t know it was gonna come this fast.
My name is Tim Eleby, I’m one of the owners and oversee the full operations of Pure Catering. We started this business in 2019, coming from over 25 years of professional catering experience, and we’ve grown from a staff of three to 30+ employees in less than three years, and we’re hiring.
Pure Catering is full-service, soul-filled catering. We cater banquets, weddings, and other special events. We provide nutritious meals for several government daycares, city shelters, and summer camp programs for at-risk youth. We run the café in the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park, and even operate an on-demand food truck, the Pure Express. Just last month we did more than $150,000 in event sales alone and have prepared over 700,000 meals to date. We are the only registered minority-owned catering business in the state of Missouri and are “Preferred Caterers” in 15 major venues around St. Louis.
Our staff works all over the eastern district of Missouri, but we come from the community. We’re in the community, we know what the community needs, and we’re growing. And if I’m gonna grow, my team needs to grow and our larger community needs to grow. Everybody needs to have their dreams put out there. My journey sure started with someone else making space for the dream in me.
“If I’m gonna grow, my team needs to grow and our larger community needs to grow. Everybody needs to have their dreams put out there. My journey sure started with someone else making space for the dream in me.”
I was 16 and washing dishes at a Schnucks restaurant; it was my very first job. One day, a co-worker was like, “Can you come bus some tables?”
“I guess I can–what does that involve?” I didn’t even really know.
But I went out there, started bussing some tables, and towards the end of that very first shift, you know what happened? A woman called me over, said, “You have a future in this,” and gave me a $100 tip.
What then went through my 16-year old head? “Well, shoot…I think I can do this!” And that was it–that was the beginning of my career in the restaurant and catering business. And over the years I grew into the industry–working with pretty much all the major caterers in the city, meeting all the who's who of St. Louis, and even serving a handful of U.S. Presidents.
I was feeling fine with the way my career was going and was getting used to my routine. But then one day a coworker of mine came up to me and said, “We need to start our own catering business!”
Hearing this, a big part of me thought, “now why should I change?” I was comfortable where I was. I’d just go to work, come home, chill, and repeat the next day. “Nah–I’m good,” I said. But at the same time I sensed some type of possibility here and he really convinced me, so together with another partner we started putting something together outside of our full-time jobs.
And then in early 2020, I was working at my full-time job one day when, out of the blue, somebody just turned to me and said, “You need to be working on your own stuff. You need to be at YOUR business.” It was like God was talking to me, and it got me thinking. None of us partners at Pure Catering were committed full-time, but what could happen if we really took it on?
“I think we can do this,” I thought. And from that day forward, I went to Pure Catering full-time and have never looked back.
The transition wasn’t roses and rainbows; my first days dedicated to the business came with quite the struggle. It was January 2020 when I transitioned to being the only fully-dedicated person at Pure Catering, and then in March 2020 the pandemic was here. Up until that point we had been regularly feeding hundreds of kids at daycares, had catering events weekly, and we had a large shipment of our meals about to go out in just a few days. Then I got the phone calls from our main clients: “We’re shutting down.”
What were we going to do with all this food? All these meals for hungry kids? Nobody had an answer for us, so we partnered with our Alderwoman, Shameem Clark Hubbard, cleared out all our cupboards and freezers, and gave it all away. To kids, senior citizens, whoever. Ain’t no sense in holding that food and having it go to waste when people need it.
“We partnered with our Alderwoman, cleared out all our cupboards and freezers, and gave it all away. Ain’t no sense in holding that food and having it go to waste when people need it.”
From March to May 2020, Pure Catering hardly had any business. We only served about 25 kids a day and nothing else. We laid everyone off and it was just me, prepping and dropping off those few daily meals, sticking around the kitchen to help prevent break-ins, and weathering the storm. It felt like we were wasting the days away.
Then, a phone call came in May from the Department of Human Services: “Hey, can you feed shelters? We’ve got seven and they need breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” Then in June, a few city summer camps opened back up, and some of the daycares, too. We needed to get staffing up fast, but I couldn’t find anyone to work. With the pandemic I knew there were definitely kids with time on their hands, so with the help of our alderwoman we started a youth hiring program: Pure Catering Youth Development. We brought on 10-15 youth, and some of them are still with us today.
As I said before, after three short years we’re already at 30+ employees and hiring. We’ll give anyone a chance, we pay our people well, and we keep up with what everyone’s doing at home to make sure they’re comfortable. But we’re not interested in keeping people shadowed under Pure Catering’s roof for the rest of their lives. Everyone needs to have their own dreams facilitated as well. We develop our staff to reach out and reach their goals.
Some of our employees–I ask them if they’re pregnant. At first they look at me all funny but then eventually understand what I’m saying. They are pregnant with possibilities and opportunities, and I’m telling them to grow. “So, when are you due?” I ask.
Of course, we’ve got some staff that come in tired, low, and with a bad attitude due to all sorts of outside circumstances, but we’re not putting them to the side. We’re going to work with them to see what they’re capable of doing. There’s a particular type of inheritance from being a person of color in North St. Louis and other places like this. But we’ve got to learn to bury that inheritance and create a new one together: one of wealth, working, and power. Pure Catering has only been able to grow because it is supported by a village. We are a village and we have to lift each other up.
“There’s a particular type of inheritance from being a person of color in North St. Louis and other places like this. But we’ve got to learn to bury that inheritance and create a new one together: one of wealth, working, and power.”
In our business, we pride ourselves on customer service. I mentor some young minority business owners and restaurants and I tell them: if you give boo-boo service, you’re going to attract boo-boo service. You don’t have to be rich to meet the community needs that are so obvious. A rich spirit–that’s all you really need.
You can put Pure Catering’s team up against any other catering company in the city and I guarantee you, we’ll shine from start to finish. Why? Because of the quality of my dreams, our team’s operations, and because we’re pushin’ for the larger community. As our business moves forward, we’re taking other people with us.
Written in partnership with Whitney Bembenek.