Upon entering Exquisite Edibles Traverse City storefront, I was struck by two things: the number of employees delivering first-class service and the high quality of the food that was leaving with the steady stream of customers. As a veteran food service worker (Retired, Honorably), this told me something about the business.
1. The number of customers I was seeing were nothing out of the ordinary.
2. Here was a business that cared about food.When John Waslawski and Jeff Wiltse started Exquisite Edibles in October of 1993, they had already been doing catering in the Grand Traverse Area for several years. According to John, they started their own business for a very simple reason: "Jeff and I had been in the food business all our lives and just go sick of working for other people."
To the catering, they added the manufacture and sale of their own salsa, pesto and meltable sauces. Great Lakes Salsa was a familiar site on shelves around the area and the state, and some might have wondered where it went. John explained:
"We were up to about 600 pounds of salsa a week and using 30 pounds of fresh basil for the pesto. I used to drive it all over the state--at one point we were in 110 stores all over Michigan. That was taking up quite a lot of my time. One day, we sat down and figured out that we were actually losing money on the delivery."
John said that was the deciding factor in scaling back their sales to stores. Now, they only sell to stores who will come and pick up the products, though they hope that some day in the future they'll be able to afford to get back into more stores. John explained that another big factor in the high cost of delivery was the fact that they use absolutely no artificial preservatives or ingredients in any of their products. "In addition to always using the freshest, highest quality ingredients we can find, the thing we emphasize most is the shortest possible time between the preparation and the serving of the food. That means people may have to wait a little longer, but we feel it's worth it," John said.
While I watched, one of the eight employees worked expertly, putting the finishing touches on a thick-crusted black bean and cheddar pizza: fresh tomatoes, scallions and a touch of mozzarella "for contrast". After a short stint back in the oven to melt the mozzarella, he removed the pizza with a paddle and quickly cut it. Within seconds, two pieces had been sold (and a third was soon bought and consumed with relish by a certain hungry writer type).
Though they have no seating for dining (at least not yet), Exquisite Edibles enjoys a steady lunch and dinner traffic. Every Monday morning they fax the menu for the week to anyone who has signed up for this service (and next week they'll have the menu on their web site as well!). There's always pizza by the slice--"Whatever the foodguys are puttin' in the pie today" as well as a meat and vegetarian sandwich of the day, a soup from Chef Tom Bauer (a graduate of the prestigious New England Culinary Institute who was brought on in April to oversee the meal operation), a salad with Bauer's Cherry Vinaigrette, a daily lunch in a box and homemade desserts from the foodgirl. Dinners are served Monday through Saturday, a different one each night of the week, from 4-9 PM. Appetizing and inexpensive ($5.66 for one, $18.87 for a banquet for four), selections include such culinary wonders as Sundried Tomato-Portabella Mushroom Meatloaf and a Mexican 7-layer Casserole with yellow rice.
"The storefront has really done well," John informed me. "We opened it in April and there's hardly ever five minutes that pass without someone walking through the doors. Our home style dinners have been huge--it's perfect for those times when you don't want to do anything, except eat! Right now, it's almost a 50-50 balance between what we do from the storefront and our catering."
Catering has been and remains the core of their business. "Last year there were 700 weddings in Grand Traverse County, 2500 in the 5 county area," John explained. "Catering is really the most exciting thing we do. Even though there are at least 30 businesses that cater, we always say, 'Here's more. Here's a custom created menu.' We sit down with you, take you from what you want to spend to what you want on the menu--you're in charge but we'll always help you. If you have a special recipe that you want us to make--great! We have a well trained and knowledgeable staff and offer everything from valet parking to table service with a staff of over 25 people. That's really important in this business, to have the employees be able to discuss everything with the customers. I think that this is one of the reasons we seem to have a tremendous loyalty from our clientele."
As an example, last year we catered an annual picnic for a local business during the overflight by the Blue Angels. This year, they wanted us to cater again--at the Top of the Park. The management said we couldn't cook in their kitchen, so our client said, 'Fine, then we won't rent the Top.' Well, the management relented, and we'll be preparing their meal again, this time at the Top of the Park! It's amazing to get that kind of commitment." That won't be the only thing the "foodguys" (and "foodgals") will be doing during the National Cherry Festival: "We got permission from the City to set up our grill in the first parking space and will be selling specialty brats and barbecued turkey legs with a cherry sauce."
So if you're in Traverse City, before during or after the Cherry Festival, be sure to stop in and have a bite--you won't be disappointed.