There’s fast … then there’s “Tony Lancaster” fast.
Chef Tony, as he’s known around SoCal, can make 900 sandwiches in an hour. And we’re not talking baloney and mayo on white bread here, but a Turkey Croissant with dried tomato aioli, filled with oven-roasted turkey breast, provolone cheese, alfalfa sprouts, green leaf, tomato and red onion.
Or, how about the Santa Maria Tri-Tip Wrap with slow-roasted seasoned tri-tip, roasted bell peppers, sweet red onions, chipotle Caesar dressing with mixed green leaf lettuce and romaine.
Event managers, for mega-venues like Staples Arena in Los Angeles and the Home Depot Center in Carson, have his number on speed dial for good reason. “We’re the only ones who can produce 5,000 box lunches within a 48-hour notice,” he said.
When Tony decided to turn his around after years of abusing drugs and alcohol, his recovery was just as fast.
“In 2007, it all just came crashing down,” said Tony inside the Hope Café and Catering Company, which he owns with David Ireland. “I lost two homes, I lost a business, and I became homeless, living in the desert and on people’s couches for eight months.”
Then in 2008, as if tapped on a shoulder by an angel, he came to Los Angeles “to get sober.” Then in rapid succession he became a Christian, was baptized, fell in love, and got engaged and married in a span of about 20 months. “It was a very quick process,” said Tony, who earlier that morning had overseen the production of 3,000 sandwiches for the Pasadena Unified School District, not a trace of mustard or smudge of chicken salad on his shirt.
Despite all the good things that were finally happening to him, after making his life-affirming decision to get sober, one thing was still unclear: What was he going to do with the rest of his life? Did he still want to be a cook and a chef, a vocation he had pursued since he was 16? Did he still have the passion?
“I was trying to figure out what God wanted me to do,” Tony said. “I wasn’t sure if He wanted me to cook anymore or be involved with the restaurant business. I did a lot of praying.”
He also boarded a train for Fresno, where he was scheduled to cater a wedding. It turned out to be the best ride he ever took.
“I kept asking God, ‘What do you want me to do?’ Tony said. “He told me to start writing and when I had stopped, I had completed a business plan for Hope Café and Catering.”
For its mission, the Café would provide a place for “the outcast, outsourced and overlooked”, for people, as Tony described, “who can’t get a job because of a particular reason in their past,” perhaps because of a felony or a history of drug or alcohol abuse. Moreover, his plan detailed how he wanted to employ single mothers who had few, if any, marketable skills.
“I wanted to provide a place to teach them how to feed themselves, feed their family and feed the community,” Tony said. “In that process, we could teach them a trade. I don’t care whether they stayed with us for six days, six weeks, six months or six years. The point was to be able to pray with them and pray for them, and just be able to help them in their journey.”
Tony was listening to God, and it appears God had his ear out for Tony, too.
Following his business plan, Tony began consulting for Kilroy’s Sandwich Factory in Pasadena. According to Tony, the business was losing money, but he saw its potential. Tony also liked the fact it was a Christian-based business. But he felt it was a Christian business that wasn’t fulfilling its mission.
“Its website talked about its mission to be the arm of Christ, but in reality it was just words,” Tony said. “The owners were expressing what they believed, but it wasn’t being communicated to the employees and definitely not to the customer.”
Still, Tony wanted in, to be a 50-50 partner, but with conditions.
“I didn’t want it to be just a Christian business; I wanted it to be a truly a ‘First fruits’ business,” Tony explained. “I wanted to give away 10 percent of what we brought in – not what we cleared, but what we brought in. So, if we do a million in sales, I want to give 100,000. And if we make $2 million in sales, I want to give away $200,000.”
He told Ireland, his future partner: “That’s how I’ve lived my life and that’s how I want the business to be. I think we should be doing exactly what the Bible tells us to do, to give away the first 10 percent of the fruits … the best of the best.”
Since buying into the business and slowly merging Kilroys Sandwich Factory with Hope Café and Catering, David and Tony’s partnership has been fruitful. Indeed, this year business is growing at a better than 20% clip. In August Hope Café and Catering gave away $13,000 to various homeless shelters including Pasadena-based Door of Hope, representing about a 5% charitable contributions rate, or about half of Tony’s stated goal.
Again, that rate should increase over time because Hope Café and Catering seems to have found the right recipe for success.
Basically, the business comprises three divisions:
The wholesale business provides “grab-and-go” products for coffee houses, convenience stores, newsstands and lobbies of downtown L.A. high-rises. Warner Brothers is a regular Monday through Friday customer.
The corporate side of the business focuses on clients like Kaiser Permanente, the City of Hope, JPL, the Pasadena Unified School District and other heavyweight organizations.
Meanwhile, the event side of the business furnishes the eats for big events such as the Grammy, Emmy and People Choice Awards. Come January 1, everyone connected to the Rose Bowl game, including the players, announcers, officials and TV crews, will be snacking on Tony’s choice sandwiches, salads and chocolate chip cookies.
Whenever the big venues seem to get in a pinch, Tony is often the first person they call.
“Staples, which has its own kitchen staff, will call us when they have an event they don’t want to do,” Tony explained. “They may not have the time or they’re working with a price point they’re not comfortable with.”
Hope Café can easily step into the space because it makes everything from scratch. “We’re not buying bread at 30 cents a slice; we can make it for nine cents a slice, so we can do it for less.”
With so many A-list clients, the Hope Café would seem to have topped out on its growth.
“We’re using only about 40% of our capacity,” Tony countered, “so there’s lots of room to grow.” The Hope Café/Kilroy’s Sandwich Factory occupies 5,200 square feet filled with prep tables, rack ovens, 200-pound capacity mixers and walk-in freezers the size of Costco’s.
The enormity of the space never spooked Tony. “It’s a lot of space because we’re a sandwich shop,” Tony said. “It [the decision to lease] was a big deal and a big undertaking but it was something God called me to do.”
Tony might use the extra capacity for furnishing church cafés with food. Not only is he active at his San Dimas church, Christ Church of the Valley, but his church also purchased Etiwanda Gardens, an event center, where Hope Café and Catering’s food is featured. With the opening of more church cafes will come more opportunities to put people to work and teach them a serviceable trade.
While Tony and David’s bread and butter is their signature salads, bistro sandwiches and gourmet wraps, Tony has also become an event planner extraordinaire.
When CV Tile in Monrovia was changing business locations, it called Tony to organize the celebration for about 1,200 customers and vendors, which also served as a fundraiser for the Wounded Warriors project. “We had a big barbecue in the parking lot, a live band, and casino games inside the showroom,” Tony said.
When planning such event, Tony likes to go off menu. Trying to cookie-cutter an event, which would boost his profits and calm the nerves of his staff, just isn’t his style. “I rather sit down and talk with the client, find out what their desires, goals and tastes are and create from there,” he said.
At the end of each day, Tony is well aware of the high failure rate associated with the food service business. “Fifty percent of restaurants close their doors their first year, and another 50 percent the next year, leaving you 25 percent, and that includes every McDonald’s and Burger King,” Tony said. “The profit margin is so low (8 percent, according to Tony), that it’s very difficult to stay in business.”
Despite the numbers, Tony doesn’t scare easily. In fact, since he bought in, he has doubled his full-time staff and tripled his part-time staff.
Although sandwiched between his past homelessness and the now daily challenges of running an enormous operation, Tony appears to be exactly where he wants to be.
To contact the Hope Café and Catering Company/Kilroy’s Sandwich Factory, call 626.449.8759 or email firstname.lastname@example.org