Brian and Nicole Roland are no strangers to being flexible. The owners of Southwest Florida catering company Crave Culinaire since 2013, they’re used to working in an environment where each day is different and they’re constantly thinking on their feet.
“We pivot and change locations every single day; we pivot and change clients every day,” says Nicole Roland, 33. “We’re never doing the same thing, so it’s just something that’s become part of our second nature.”
‘Even though the world might throw things at you, if you have a strong team and a strong bond with your business partner and team members, you can really get through everything — and come through the other side even stronger.’ Nicole Roland, Crave Culinaire
All of that practice came in handy for the husband-and-wife team during the pandemic, when, of course, events virtually came to a standstill and catering services weren’t in demand. “Having a global pandemic is nothing any of us ever expected,” says Nicole. “But even though things were not what we thought they were going to be, we realized we can’t just sit here…I think it just goes to show that even though the world might throw things at you, if you have a strong team and a strong bond with your business partner and team members, you can really get through everything — and come through the other side even stronger.”
Through their Crave 2 Go business, for example, they could still offer gourmet meals for customers to enjoy at home. They also teamed up with other local businesses, including Norman Love Confections and Narrative Coffee Roasters, to stock Crave Pantry, where shoppers could purchase items like eggs, veggies, breads and ready-to-cook proteins as well as essentials like toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
But the couple took their biggest pandemic-related twist when it came to their former event space, Venue Naples. The Rolands opened that space several years ago to have their own spot where clients could hold events catered by Crave Culinaire.
But over the last year, they’ve given up that physical space. They first transitioned that side of the business to become Virtual Venue Naples, a platform through which they could help clients put on events of any kind, whether in-person, virtual or a hybrid of the two. This spring they changed the name to Virtual Venue SWFL to reflect their ability to work not only in the Naples area, but also in locations like Sanibel, Captiva, Marco Island, Fort Myers and even Sarasota and the state’s east coast.
“It got to the point where Nicole and I said, ‘Are we pigeonholing ourselves by only keeping the name Virtual Venue Naples?’” says Brian Roland, 41, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and former executive chef of M Waterfront Grille in Naples. “We had thought about broadening our audience for a long time, but we didn’t know it was the right time until recently….We know we’re capable, and we know there are great opportunities in a lot of these areas.”
The move is already paying off; Brian Roland says the phone has been ringing “nonstop” recently. “Everyone is wanting to get back to normal and host their events again,” agrees Nicole, with a background in hospitality management. “I feel like we have a very hopeful view on what next season is going to bring us.”
The couple declines to disclose specific revenue figures, saying the business posted 50% to 100% growth in the years leading up to the pandemic and is up 275% so far in 2021 over 2020. They have some 100 employees. “It’s very promising,” says Brian. “We can look at what we’ve gone through and feel safe in knowing there’s a bright future ahead.”
Beyond growth, another element of the market they’re noticing? All the cancelled events of the past year-plus mean clients have money to spend. “It feels like their budgets have increased,” says Brian. “They have a reserve, so when we see event budgets coming back, in a lot of cases they’re exceeding what they once were. So that’s a comforting aspect of the growth that we see.”
The shift in focus does require some legwork to build relationships with venues and other businesses the Rolands can partner with when planning events. This is when their ability to be flexible, in addition to the diversified geographical offerings, work in their favor.
Meeting with prospective clients often gives the Rolands or their sales associates a chance to talk about another arm of their business, Crave Event Staffing, through which clients can hire Crave servers, bartenders and other team members as temporary staff for in-home or other events. It’s another revenue stream for Crave, and a way for staff to stay busy year-round.
“The beauty of how our businesses are designed,” says Brian, “is they all help one another and help fill whatever need is out there.”