Food and Tourism Entrepreneurs in North Carolina
Program of the Center for Sustainable Tourism and the Department of Recreation
and Leisure Studies, East Carolina University
Entrepreneur Profile: Daniel Whittaker, Chief Creator & Sustainability Director
Entrepreneur Organization: Green Planet Catering & Whittaker Consulting
Daniel Whitaker created Green Planet Catering (GPC) in 2007 as an effort to provide an organic experience on an affordable budget. The company provides prompt service and great food with a focus on sustainability. Daniel also started his own consulting business, Whitaker Consulting, in 2011. This endeavor aims to support small start-up businesses, many food-related, through help with budgeting, structure, and advertising.
Daniel’s Entrepreneurial Traits
Daniel’s career in hospitality began while he was attending The University of Alabama. After graduation he began work for Rum Runners USA in Raleigh, NC, as a Business Developer. He has developed an aptitude for aggressively growing companies, as illustrated by the 30% growth he has fostered each year at Green Planet since the company’s conception. He sold his house and decided to put some of these funds into Green Planet Catering while paying himself very little to live off of during the first two years. This afforded Daniel the opportunity to start the company on a shoestring budget, free of loans and debt. Daniel exhibited fierce dedication and passion in his vision for the future, a key characteristic of an entrepreneur. He also illustrated vision by starting a company focused on organic concepts before the trend had really caught on. But as “organic” has become a widely used label, Daniel has shifted focus for Green Planet Catering to other sustainable principles, showing his ability to adapt to changing markets.Another skill valuable to entrepreneurs is combining resources from the public and private sectors. Currently, Daniel maintains a partnership with N.C. State University in the operations of the Agro-Ecology Educational Farm Unit educational farm. The program utilizes a learning relationship with students, helping them to develop skills for growing food from seed. Any food the students do not take for themselves is used by GPC. Not only does this process provide a local food source, it also provides for a smaller impact to the financial bottom line. Part of creating a successful green organization is competitive pricing. Because Daniel has dedicated his company to sustainable principles and local sourcing, he is able to pitch sales with similar prices to other catering groups. This in turn makes Green Planet Catering an accessible and viable option to any potential client. Through his consulting business, Daniel gets to meet and help foster small start-up businesses focusing on sustainability. This allows him to successfully network within his community, and sometimes even linking clients together on collaborative ventures with similar ideas.
Being a pioneer in your industry is not always easy. Daniel found that there were few to no preexisting green catering companies that he could rely on for guidance. He tried contacting companies across the country, but did not receive much help. He realized that building an infrastructure of local, organic food was going to be a vast undertaking, and decided to start with growing the food. This led to the issue of what to do with extra food. Daniel decided to use some of the canned food as a substitute for business cards. He passes out a jar of sauce or soup mix, allowing customers to try his services firsthand. This has become a strong marketing strategy. Another challenge is policies that create barriers to constructive progress in the food entrepreneurship movement. In the future he hopes that the spirit of the upcoming generation will foster and support new ideas, regulations and laws that do not necessarily bring in a lot of money immediately, but have the potential to positively change community.
What Inspires Daniel
What Daniel loves about being an entrepreneur is that “If I get an idea, as crazy as it is, and I know that I can make that happen, I just do it.” Daniel is a creative problem-solver, who uses his own exciting ideas to implement change for his business. Daniel believes in blazing one’s own path and in coming up with creative solutions to obstacles. “I would rather be a trend-setter than a trend-follower,” says Daniel.
Positive Aspects of the Entrepreneurial Climate
One of the benefits that Daniel has experienced in the Triangle area is that there is a lot of brainpower available, especially due to the proximity of his company to N.C. State and other universities. This competitive environment helps provide Green Planet with interns. Daniel also cites a sense of adaptability in the general Raleigh population, which has helped the local economy survive the recent recession. Raleigh was named number one in Business Week for places to live, work and play, mainly due to the focus the city puts on the importance of open land. The availability of farmland within a few miles of downtown has shown to be a great advantage for Green Planet Catering. “It’s important to know that not everybody can do this, so if we wanted to move Green Planet to another city, we would have to find this same atmosphere, where there’s a bustling downtown, brainpower, young entrepreneurs, and land so that you can incorporate everything together,” says Daniel.
Although Raleigh is not a city that immediately comes to mind when planning a destination wedding, there is still a definite wedding market that GPC has tapped into. The company caters to N.C. State University quite frequently through on and off campus events. Daniel also actively seeks out customers in the Research Triangle Park by sifting through lists of the top employers in the area, and marketing directly to them. Furthermore, Daniel has put a great deal of effort into working on the price of catering an event, while still considering the importance of people, planet, and profit. When potential clients taste his food they realize that not only does it taste good, but it is also competitively priced. Making good local food affordable is a cornerstone value to the company. Quite simply put, “We’re a great caterer, we’re on time, we have good service, [and] we’re easy to work with.” With these basic marketing principles GPC relies on word of mouth, social media, lists of top employers, and the traditional “knocking on doors” tactic to procure new clients.
Sustainability Factors of Green Planet Catering
Green Planet is focused on seeing materials through their life cycle. They buy compostable products that are broken down and then returned to the farm. They fuel their delivery vans on biodiesel fuel manufactured from reclaimed kitchen fryer oil by Piedmont Biofuels. By growing food from seed, the company’s dedication to sustainability literally begins from the ground up. The farm supplies locally grown pesticide and hormone free produce. Inside and outside of work their employees live sustainably. Christi, the chef, keeps chickens at home, grows her own garden, and strives to operate on a waste-free cycle. They also source food from other local businesses, such as Farmhand Foods in Durham, which focuses on pasture-raised livestock. Through such partnerships GPC is able to serve hormone-free and antibiotic free meats. Green Planet Catering is dedicated to sustainability in their business and in their community.
Focus for the Future
Daniel feels as though Downtown Raleigh has come a long way but is still missing some key components to make it truly livable. Some of those missing factors include a downtown grocery store and butcher, both of which are included in the new location being built. Market Restaurant (Chef Chad McIntyre) and Green Planet Catering will combine to become The Market – Restaurant, Grocery, & Catering. The new facility, located at 205 Franklin St. in Raleigh sits in the middle of Mordecai and Oakwood neighborhoods, next to Peace College, and in between two main arteries coming in and out of downtown (Blount St. and Person St.). “The goal is to produce approximately 30% of our own retail items for the small grocery section (about 1700sq. ft), provide top-notch butchery services, prepared foods that are easy to grab and go, and even a mobile catering kitchen.” They would like to use a comfortable setting, such as a restaurant, to introduce folks to new trends in the food world. Daniel hopes that after the customers realize they like something new that has been prepared for them, they might purchase items to make it on their own, in their own residence. Daniel and Chad’s waste stream will be extremely small with this concept as well. For instance, if a whole side of beef is brought in, the different aspects of the company will get the cuts they need, there will be some for retail, the bones can be used for stock, then baked and put out for dog treats. They don’t want much going out of the backdoor unless it’s for a catering job.
Daniel also hopes to continue the emphasis on educating the public about local, healthy food options through classes, community involvement (possibly Peace College swipe cards, low income food cards), and even through hands on farming (Raleigh City Farm sits next to their building and they will continue to grow on the NC State farm site).