Interview with Jerome Chang
Chef/Owner Cathcart & Reddy (Formerly Dessert Truck and DT Works)
6 Clinton Street, Lower East Side, NYC
By Kathryn Gordon
Kathryn: Hi Jerome, it’s nice to meet you. Tell me about how you started your business.
Jerome: I’m an attorney who changed careers and went to FCI (French Culinary Institute) for their pastry program. Then I got some fine dining experience in the industry for about 3-4 years. At first, I thought I’d take the more traditional career path, like working to become the executive pastry chef of a hotel.
Kathryn: Why did you start off your entrepreneurial career with a desserts truck?
Jerome: That story’s a little bit strange, and who knows, but it just sort of happened. It seemed like a great idea, and I felt I was seasoned enough to pull it off well.
It was 2007. The time had come for the democratization of really good food. Chefs were offering more casual dining options for really solid food other than white table cloth establishments. At the time we were looking to get into business, there was a general movement to make really good food accessible.
We were pretty much the first gourmet food truck out there. If you look back at the old magazines (guides to NY), we’re in all of them when the NY food truck movement started.
Kathryn: Well, now you have a retail space. Was it always a dream to have a retail location?
Jerome: No, not really, especially as we didn’t have deep (financial) pockets and we still don’t. Basically I’m a small business owner who commutes from where I live in Harlem to the Lower East Side because the rents were reasonable here. I have one business partner, Suzanne. I had a different partner in the beginning who left after the first year because he had never been in the hospitality business before and didn’t understand what the work entailed.
I met my current business partner, Suzanne, when I was working at Le Cirque. She had started in chocolate working with Jacques Torres.
Kathryn: Okay, so you're both veterans then, from the Jacques Torres/Le Cirque world. That explains the bomboloni style doughnuts (“Brioche Doughnut Squares”) on your menu!
Kathryn: Why did you decide to transition to a set location and stop selling products off the truck?
Jerome: Last winter, we determined it was time to retire the truck because it was on its last legs. The whole truck aspect is a double-edged sword.
Jerome: It’s the logistics of it. The city regulations (against parking in metered spots) don’t work in your favor and that was a negative. There have been police crackdowns against food trucks and neighbors can complain, get you ticketed, fined and towed.
We did use the truck to support corporate catering for film and TV, and that was a good revenue source.
Kathryn: When you had the truck, where did you park it at night after you closed up? And before you had the retail and kitchen space where did you do your production?
Jerome: Overnight the truck has to be in a Department of Health approved commissary, so it was parked in Brooklyn when we weren’t selling.
I produced for the first couple of years in 2 different shared kitchens, beginning by working out of the kitchen of a catering company.
Kathryn: When I last visited, this location was called “DT Works” for “Dessert Truck Works,” and now you’ve changed your website, and some signage, to Cathcart & Reddy. Why did you decide to change the business name again?
Jerome: Well, we had gotten rid of the truck and people just get confused! They would mix us up with other trucks. We helped create a (mobile food) movement in NYC. There were other trucks with dessert, but we were the only ones focused on desserts.
We no want to reach a wider more traditional audience. Having the truck name didn’t help and they were skeptical.
Kathryn: You’re located on the Lower East Side and you want a more traditional audience?
Jerome: To be able to grow, we need to reach a wider customer base. It’s been hard here to build up a business during the day. The most traffic on this street is at night so we’d like to attract more people throughout the day.
Kathryn: Do you have any regrets with the path your business has taken?
Jerome: I have definitely made mistakes. I think the hardest thing is to make the transition from fine dining, where we live in a bubble and all think like foodies.
As chefs, we fantasize technique and exotic techniques too much, and that doesn’t help you “run a business.” 95% of your customers don’t care about that. You have to learn how to produce things that are easy to understand. It’s not about “pretty.”
Kathryn: Do you think that you were prepared for what you’ve had to do?
Jerome: I understand food costs and I did a business plan. I think most new businesses that fail don’t make it because the owners don’t understand what they’re getting into, are not adequately prepared, and do not understand what operating their business truly costs them. First and foremost, they do not understand their food costs or how to determine it.
Note: Food Start Up Help consulting services can assist you with determining your food costs, vis-à-vis industry standards. Please visit www.foodstartuphelp.com
Kathryn: I love that you’re using your iPad for your POS (Point of Sales) system.
Jerome: Yes, it’s very easy to use. A few months ago SQUARE came around aggressively marketing merchants, and it’s free. I created a custom menu and can add new line item additions (products) as needed.
Note: Square is a free system that allows you to swipe credit cards via your iPhone and turns your iPad into a cash register. You can research whether it could help your new business at www.squareup.com. Food Start Up Help chefs Kathryn, Jeff and Jessie like that it has in-depth analytics and reports that will help you understand your sales patterns.
Kathryn: What would you like most to happen next for your renamed business, Cathcart and Reddy?
Jerome: We’d like to attract more customers. We need more people to venture this far over on the Lower East Side. It’s a 10 minute walk here from the closest subway, but we like the space, the rent is cheaper than other places we found, and Clinton Street is a food destination street.
Kathryn: Thanks Jerome!