Cooking up profits at GOG Gourmet

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Amy Pontius, executive chef for Garden of the Gods Gourmet, leads a “hands on” class, where participants try their hand at duplicating Pontius’ recipe. In this case, it was a”Holiday hors d‘oeuvres” theme and the dish was a smoked salmon spread and base for smoked salmon roulade.

Mixing it up: Amy Pontius, executive chef for Garden of the Gods Gourmet, leads a “hands on” class, where participants try their hand at duplicating Pontius’ recipe. In this case, it was a”Holiday hors d‘oeuvres” theme and the dish was a smoked salmon spread and base for smoked salmon roulade.

Garden of the Gods Gourmet has created a vibe around food that has whisked it from the blended seasonings business five years ago to a multi-faceted enterprise bringing in more than $1 million a year.

The company caters, run a small market, offers cooking classes, host dinners with its chef and throws monthly community meals to raise money for charitable organizations.

The pace is fast here. Owner Sandy Vanderstoep jokes she needs more computers than employees to track the logistics of managing an average of 45 catering jobs a week.

For the record, she has 22 permanent employees, and often brings on extra hands during busier times.

Things are, in fact, about to shift into high gear with the holiday season, executive chef Amy Pontius said.

The number of catering jobs will increase 10 to 12 percent in December, and Vanderstoep will call on many of the 65 seasonal employees she’s got on deck.

The pressure will be intense. “I’ll just put my head down and keep moving,” Pontius said.

Vanderstoep loves the many moving parts and details of running the business — developing a menu, making sure the furniture is rented, hiring servers, deciding the timing of when the food goes out the door, and how and when the breakdown of an event takes place.

“The most minute detail can derail a catering job,” Vanderstoep said. “You have to have each person perform, bing, bing, bing, no mistakes.”

Nationally, catering is the fastest growing segment of the restaurant industry, according to the National Restaurant Association. Garden of the Gods Gourmet, of course, does more than catering, Vanderstoep said.

The shop serves 15 to 50 lunches a day, has a small market that offers freshly prepared and frozen entrees, along with salads, soups and breads, and showcases the work of its executive chef once a week at dinner parties.

It’s not just about selling food, Vanderstoep said. “This is about relationships and having an experience when you walk in here,” she said.

Vanderstoep bought the business five years ago. She has a Ph.D. in neurophysiology and was the executive director of USA Field Hockey at the time. But she caught the entrepreneurial bug in the 1980s and helped launch a series of businesses before buying Garden of the Gods Gourmet.

Some locals might remember the business when it was known as Garden of the Gods Seasonings on 8th Street. Vanderstoep had helped launch that business. In 2005, the year she acquired it, the business moved to its current 2528 W. Cucharras St. location and started selling freshly made dinners and soups ranging from $12 to $14.

“We grew very quickly from 2005 to 2008 and then we ran into the recession … and now we are back on a growth pattern,” Vanderstoep said.

Garden of the Gods Gourmet found a niche in customers who tend to be upscale, educated and have more than a passing interest in good food, Vanderstoep said.

When she announced a holiday appetizer cooking class in November, one class turned into four because of demand. And although the Garden of Gods Gourmet market features only four double-door refrigerators of food, the average customer spends 30 minutes browsing and talking, she said.

For the dinners with the chef, Vanderstoep welcomes customers, pours them some wine and then turns the show over to Pontius. Pontius typically invites 12 to 15 customers in on Thursday nights to sit at the counter in her kitchen while she prepares them a five-course meal for $35. She expects to add a second night with the chef in 2011.

Pontius was born in Hawaii and sprinkles in Hawaii-style flavor into many of her dishes, such as a Kalua pork and a butternut squash-coconut curry soup.

Karen Nauer, a customer, has been a fan of Pontius’ lasagnas and soups for some time.

“I’ll have a big Christmas Eve gathering where we have about 50 people,” she said. “I was looking for new and different ideas for appetizers.”

Vanderstoep and Pontius are, naturally, only happy to deliver.