As a kid growing up in California, Phinix Grill founder, Sam Pogosov, was inspired by the smorgasbord of cuisines Los Angeles has to offer. However, when he moved east to attend Yale University and started working in Boston, it didn’t take long for him to notice that food options in the region weren’t as plentiful. After graduating, he wanted to shake up the Boston restaurant scene with a project that would blend his financial consulting experience with his love for food. The result? A Boston-based Mediterranean grill with a booming catering business. Sam shared how he started Phinix Grill, what it takes to launch a Boston catering business, and advice for competing with the big guys.
Getting Phinix Grill Started
“Being an outsider, I found New England was still stuck in pizza, pasta, and burger mode. That’s tasty comfort food, but not something to eat daily.” Sam recalls. “When I was growing up in L.A., it was very diverse. We had folks from Iran, Israel, Lebanon, Greece, and they were all making these ethnic pockets of hummus and tzatziki with garlic sauce…I fell in love with it.”
Years of craving shawarma and authentic Mediterranean cuisine led Sam to the idea of a food venture. So, he found a partner in the restaurant industry, they zeroed in on Mediterranean food, and Phinix Grill snowballed from there.
Sam admits that when Phinix first opened, bringing in customers was hard. The car traffic was heavy at the restaurant location but the foot traffic was meager. People were unlikely to pull over, stop in and check out the menu. To boost sales and build their reputation in the community, they decided to start a Boston catering business.
Growing a Catering Business
In the beginning, as a young company without any recognition, traditional sales calls and emails did not feel like the most effective way to grab customers. Phinix’s first marketing campaign was a boots-on-the-ground operation. He says, “I remember walking door-to-door to office buildings knocking on doors and saying ‘Hey, what would you like? How can I help you? Check out our flyer.’”
These days, he finds word of mouth to be the most effective marketing approach. Thanks to their unique, flavorful food options, many first-time customers recommend Phinix Grill to neighbors, friends, and coworkers, constantly bringing in new business and boosting Boston catering sales.
Phinix Grill has also set themselves up to grow organically. They rely on ezCater to make scaling simple. They recently purchased a food truck that sells warm halal chicken and falafel with all the fixings in spaces like office parks and at baseball games. Sam considers it a “moving billboard” that promotes the restaurant wherever it goes.
Earning Customer Loyalty
The key to building a successful catering business is centered around the relationship with both the newest and the oldest clients. “I still remember almost all of our first clients,” Sam recalls. He attributes his customer’s loyalty to following-up with first-time customers and asking how they could improve, an effort he believes is the reason they enjoy a client return rate of 95%.
Service is a priority at Phinix Grill. Sam makes a point to solve Phinix’s customer’s aggravations through their helpfulness and varied menu options. “For the receptionist, with full-time job responsibilities, who has to order for a group of 50, some of whom are vegetarian, some are vegan, some are gluten-free, it becomes overwhelming,” says Sam. “So we try to take an extra thoughtful step — how do we make it as seamless as possible?” Phinix Grill solves this particular issue with a menu that can satisfy the majority of a big group because the dishes are mostly gluten free, dairy free, and friendly to dietary restrictions.
Most importantly, Sam says generating customer loyalty, “is largely about delivering a good product consistently.” Phinix has committed to a systematic and thoughtful approach that works best for each client.“ Our drivers don’t just dump the food and leave. There’s a certain process of arranging the food on the table. Drivers are trained to ask the client ‘Where does the line start?’” Proper set-up is key. “If the forks are distributed at the front people going to fumble or drop them before they get to the end of the line.” Instead, the dishes are arranged in a way that makes the most sense for that event.
Competing with Big Chains
“A big chain that has scale also has brand recognition and their internal systems are likely more efficient,” explains Sam. Even so, little guys have the advantage of being small and agile. Seasonal specials and menu changes, for example, are a breeze with a smaller company. Sam believes small restaurants have an opportunity to craft a unique story, then amplify the story to make it personal. A focus on client service, along with thinking outside the box, is what he considers Phinix’s edge over larger, national brands.
Small players can also cater to local residents. Odds are that big brands can’t stay connected and relevant in the same way local establishments can. “Boston is a wonderful town. It’s very sophisticated, livable, fun.” Sam says. Phinix plays to those strengths, by getting involved in marathons, parades, and other local sporting events that are brimming with potential customers.
Other advice for smaller caterers trying to beat the big guys?
“Improve the systems. It often takes two weeks to build something that works but then it will work for years. Take the extra step. Be thoughtful. Think differently. Create new menus to get noticed and stay relevant. Make sure the product is consistent,” shares Sam.
Getting established is a climb for a small business. He says success requires a unique mix of capital, luck, and creatively to remain in the circle and break out. For example, Sam says, “Make it easy for the client to order. If the owners build their own system, great. If not, there are great platforms available. The clients need to feel like it’s an easy process.”