For more than two decades, Executive Chef and Owner John Zucker has been bringing his vision to life in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. His award-winning catering company has been voted Best Caterer for the past 19 years in Charleston City Paper. He also runs two successful Charleston restaurants, Cru Café and the most recent addition to his portfolio, Purlieu. The Café opened in 2002 and remains a gem of the downtown restaurant scene, and Purlieu opened in 2018 to nationwide accolades. Zucker was named Charleston’s Best Chef by the Charleston City Paper in 2019.
As the number one graduate in his class from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, Chef Zucker trained under and worked with celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck at Spago in Las Vegas. From there, he became sous chef for the opening of Canoe, which was a semi-finalist in the ”Best New Restaurant of the Year” category by the James Beard Foundation. Additionally, Chef Zucker is a sought-after restaurant consultant in the Southeast.
Chef Zucker is active in the nonprofit community and served as Vice President of Charleston Chefs Feed the Need organization. Over nearly two decades he has contributed both time and donations to the March of Dimes, Lowcountry Food Bank, Ryan White Program, and Lowcountry Local First, among other organizations.
Cru Catering was founded in 2000 with only 3 employees and a desire to bring a new vision to the Charleston catering market. 19 years later we have realized our dreams, but the desire to grow and improve pushes us to strive harder every single day. We are perfectionists, but that desire for perfection will make your event the best that it can possibly be.
What’s the first event you can remember catering and how’d it go?
Before starting my catering company, I was a Chef at a local restaurant in Charleston, S.C. for a year and a half and established great relationships with other chefs in Charleston. I left that position and moved back to California to be closer to my family. I was at a crossroads – stay in California or move back to Charleston where I had a very solid client base? I decided to move back to Charleston. I wanted to work for myself and didn’t have much financing so Catering would be the most cost-effective way to get closer to being an owner-operator of my own restaurant.
Within the first few months of opening Cru Catering, I was approached by a local, well-known chef and friend, Robert Carter, to cater his wedding for 350 people. Of course, I agreed. I knew if we pulled this off at a high level we would be building a great client base that we could grow with for years. The event was very stressful but also VERY successful. We learned a lot and carried it on now for twenty years.
What are some of the things you wished you knew before starting your business?
Honestly, I pretty much got what I expected. I spent years while working my other jobs getting prepared to execute my vision. The most unexpected obstacle was employee relations. Every employee has a different personality and every employee has to be treated according to their personal needs. Learning to treat or address people in the way they need to be handled was very difficult and still is. I always say to my new managers: some people you need to leave alone, some you need to push hard and some you need to baby. Figuring out what each individual needs is the hard part.
What inspired you to launch your own company in catering? How long did it take from
initially having the idea of setting up and starting to attract a client base?
My dream was always to open and operate my own restaurant. I prepared myself for that by helping to open several restaurants, learning from their successes and failures. I also got heavily involved at each job with the Front of the House, Beverage programs, and any amount of bookkeeping that I could get my hands on. So this process took about 6 years and about 8 restaurant openings. From day one, my goal was to gradually get business with very limited staff. After we did the “Chef’s” wedding I knew at that point we had the potential to take off.
I would say about a year to really see the progress. At every step, we kept ourselves aware that we didn’t want to suffer from growing pains and slowed down our progress at times to prevent that from happening.
What sets you apart from other caterers?
This is a really difficult question to answer. We mainly focus on our company’s performance and really don’t get out there to see how other catering companies are executing events. We pride ourselves on offering great service and a food product that is always fresh, and local when available, that is prepared at each event – not prepared at our kitchen and then brought to the functions and served. We prep our product at the kitchen and finish preparation at the function. We have Chefs and at least one on sight FOH manager at every function. I have a GREAT staff from top to bottom who all care about the catering product our company offers. This is the key!
What type of events do you service?
Cru Catering is a “Full Service Customized Catering” company. So we execute all types of events and menus that come our way. Our chefs are very talented and have executed Indian, Italian, French, Spanish and other ethnicities on a large scale with great results. A large percentage of our business is with weddings but we are also able to execute smaller, in-house events and corporate events at a very high level.
What are 2 trends in the catering industry you’re excited about?
I think the biggest trend that excites me is seeing more companies commit to recycling. We feel we have maximized our efforts to the full array of recycling as a company (paper, glass, cardboard, cooking oil, composting, compostable plates and silver and more). This gets me the most excited! Cru Catering is also currently working on minimizing the waste from leftovers at the end of events and hopes to have a program that we can share by 2020.