The Producer sits down with Erika Daking, owner of Kitchen Mouse catering and their newly opened Los Angeles cafe.
TP: Thank you so much for joining us today, Erika. Tell us, how did you get started in the special world of production catering?
ED: It really is special. I didn’t even know this world existed or that this could be a career. The way it happened was my husband is a musician, and his band was on tour playing at the Hollywood Bowl with Coldplay. He sat down at the catering table with the band, and while they were talking, he explained how he’s gluten free and spoiled because his wife’s a chef. One of their photo producers chimed in and expressed her ongoing need for caterers. She called me the very next day and gave me a little bit of the run-down. Since I had no idea what production catering was, I spent the next couple weeks googling!
TP: Wow, what an under-the-gun start! No pressure, just Coldplay! (smiling)
ED: Yeah, there was so much initial research and love that went into it. I learned very quickly how difficult this job was, especially doing it all by myself, out of my house. We did that one job and it went really well, then it became one or two jobs a month …. then one or two a week.... then two jobs a day. All of a sudden, I realized, well, this is what I do now!
TP: Incredible - I love hearing the success stories of female business owners! Since you began Kitchen Mouse on your own, what was the transition to having a staff like for you?
ED: I used to go to every shoot, so it was very chaotic. I was cooking breakfast and I had another dear friend who came from the production world, who I recruited to run the food on set for me. As soon as she was done [with breakfast] I would rush back, cook lunch, and bring that over. There were weeks where I’d leave my dishes in the car for three days because I was just so overwhelmed! The adjustment period took some time. It took me two months to hire a kitchen assistant. My mom, step mom, dad, and my sister were helping me as well. Anyone I could find, I’d ask for help. I hired my first head chef to help me with the cooking in December 2015. He was one of my chef instructors in culinary school and he’s still with me to this day. He’s the one running the kitchen right now. And now we’ve got a team of servers & kitchen staff.
TP: So it’s very organic, like a family.
ED: It was really kind of beautiful. We recently went out for drinks with both the original servers and newer team members. We were talking about how great it’s been and how we’ve grown to almost 50 people.
TP: Your empire just keeps growing! How did you make the leap from running a catering company to opening up this beautiful cafe?
ED: In the beginning we were running the catering out of my house and I was going mad. I was pregnant, my curtains smelled like sausage, and it was just torture. There was no relief! I went to bed at night and our dining room table was covered with stuff for the next day; we really needed a kitchen. We found this space and expanded last month. In the beginning, I just needed a catering kitchen, so we built this to do production catering. The front of house was meant to be a private dining room for parties, but it just evolved into “let’s open a cafe and see what happens”.
TP: If you build it they will come.
ED: That’s been my motto all along. There was a hope that we would do really well, but the expectation was more along the lines of having a cafe with a few people on their laptops. Those expectations have since exploded. All of a sudden, there was a lack of seating. We took advantage of the neighboring space becoming available and we actually just finished this whole place. We’ve even started building a kids section.
TP: I know you had mentioned starting off with gluten-free catering because of your husband, but what would you say Kitchen Mouse’s specialty is these days?
ED: I cook vegan and mostly gluten-free at home, so we try and find a way to do it where people won't notice. The food is exceptional even being vegan and gluten free. In a perfect world, I’d want our food to be completely vegan, but I know that’s not sustainable. Everyone in our kitchen is super passionate about food, flavors and cooking. We have a lot of fun.
TP: What were some things that were difficult about production catering in the beginning?
ED: The call times. Production does not realize if there’s an early call time, we’re in here cooking at 2am. So when a call time is changed, it really messes up the logistics of our day. If we have a call time at 5am, another at 8am and someone wants their lunch at 10am, we have to manage the call times, the locations, the crew. One of the things I do love though is being able to see all of these beautiful hidden gems across Los Angeles that I never knew existed--unbelievable locations that you wouldn’t be lucky enough to see if I wasn't doing this.
TP: I hear you! Growing up, we didn’t know these sorts of jobs even existed. That is one of the benefits of our jobs - access to all of these incredible people and places. And I’m so grateful that every day is different.
ED: I’ve made some lasting, true friendships from production. I actually really miss going to set, because I knew everyone’s needs, like who didn’t eat cheese, or didn’t like chicken). It was fun to be a “set mom” and take care of everyone. It’s been rewarding and challenging to learn to let go. I’m working on the bigger picture now, not always going on set, not always cooking the food.
TP: I’ve always marveled at a catering company’s ability to juggle the timing of food deliveries. How many jobs or events do cater per day? Do you set a cap or limit?
ED: We can handle six events, but it’s more about the head count. We’re maxed out at a little over 200 people a day. Right now, we’re full-service and not every production can afford that so we want to provide more of a drop-off service for productions that don’t have the budget for servers and everything. That’s why we want to expand the kitchen. That’s the next step!
TP: What is one of your biggest challenges when it comes to the food itself? Seems like it’s not just logistics but ingredients that can get tricky!
ED: For sure breakfast is our biggest challenge. Our biggest hits at breakfast are the avocado salad, oatmeal, pancakes. The eggs are always a battle. It’s really challenging to come up with eggs that can travel and still taste good, in my opinion. Foods that thrive are one that taste better when they sit longer, marinate longer. So that’s why our biggest challenge is eggs. I’ve heard producers say, “I had this catering company deliver and their eggs turned green”. Well that’s what happens when egg yolks sit. There’s no way to make eggs travel well without cream and dairy. So if you want a quiche, of course it’s delicious, it’s filled with cream and cheese and of course it holds well. But if you want healthy eggs that travel, well…
TP: I’ll take the cheesy quiche, please! Speaking of cheese, how did you come up with the name ‘Kitchen Mouse’?
ED: When I was a kid, I just loved mice and hamsters and my mom would buy me mouse toys and mouse clothes. At one point, that name came into my head and everyone was a little worried about having the word mouse in the name of the company but I never really faltered. I felt it was just a good name and I still do. I love it.
TP: Even your logo is adorable. So tell us about the process of taking on your business partners.
ED: It was really clear that something was happening. I have a really good friend, George, who was looking to open a juice bar with a friend who was an investor and they were looking to put money into that. When I told them what I was doing and how quickly it was picking up (he was already a huge fan of my cooking), they switched gears and put that focus and money into my business instead. They gave me a chunk of cash, so I was able to build this place and that allowed us to grow.
TP: Sounds like great friends to have! Has that affected your goals for you and your business this year?
ED: I’m a perfectionist and always just trying to get better at what we do. Hiring is really difficult and we’re trying to really grow a team we’re confident in. We are sending someone to set to engage with producers while representing us and it’s not something we nail every time. Sometimes we send someone out and we go “Oops!,” that wasn’t a good one.
TP: What do you look for when you’re hiring someone?
ED: We need people who can think on their feet, who can improvise, are very friendly, engaging, and aren’t too inhibited. We need problem solvers. When you’re in production you really need to solve problems quickly. When you meet the right person, you just know.
TP: It just seems to click, right?
ED: Yeah, and unfortunately with how busy we are, we need a lot of people in rotation. Unlike production, we can’t pay a flat rate. We have to pay people hourly and we pay overtime; we’re very by the book. We have health benefits, we have a 401k; we take care of our people. So after about 3 days of production they can’t work anymore because they’re already at 40 hours. So it’s not like we can just use our servers 5 days a week.
TP: Oh so you need a huge pool of individuals?
ED: We need a huge pool, so it’s really challenging.
TP: How do you promote yourself right now?
ED: We don’t. We’re all word of mouth.
TP: That’s incredible
ED: We’ve been very lucky that way but you know crews are so large and we get so many recommendations. The hairstylist recommended me, the motorhome guy recommended me-you know, it’s like we get a lot of word of mouth business so at this point in time we’re not going after more. We’re kind of at capacity.
TP: That’s a luxury when you can say no to some clients.
ED: Yeah, we’re getting there.
TP: Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with me, Erika and for the very addictive crispy rice gomasio cakes!