As she entered her kitchen and employees were diligently focused on prepping orders of paleo meals for a client, Tamara “Tammy” Leibfarth yelled, “Corner! Corner! Corner!”
Shouting “corner” is kitchen behavior to let other cooks know that you’re coming around a blind corner.
Leibfarth isn’t in the kitchen as much these days, though — or at least trying not to be. As Simply Thyme Catering soars, the executive chef is spending more time on branding and securing accounts.
Indeed, the executive chef has come a long way from her days working at the Yankee Doodle Inn in Toledo, Ohio. Her first post-high school restaurant job, now-shuttered Yankee Doodle would catalyze a long career in the food business. These days, Leibfarth, 58, can be found at her own shop on Northeast Fourth Plain Boulevard. And although chefs are hard at work in the back making meals, it’s not for walk-in diners. Leibfarth works in the catering business — a world not quite as romanticized in popular culture as the cutthroat world of restaurant chef work.
But to Leibfarth, it can be just as tough. Her staff of 11 people tackled 6,127 catering gigs in 2017. They’re the No. 1 catering company in Vancouver Business Journal’s annual Book of Lists, ahead of Chuck’s Produce & Street Market and The Heathman Lodge and Hudson’s Bar & Grill.
Simply Thyme Catering
14020 N.E. Fourth Plain Blvd.
Revenue: $879,000 in 2017 with 6,127 catering gigs
Bureau of Labor Statistics job outlook: Employment of chefs and head cooks is projected to grow 10 percent from 2016 to 2026, faster than the average for all occupations. Job opportunities will result from the need to replace workers who leave the occupation.
In 2017, the business made $879,000 in sales from catering events.
‘It knocks all the time’
Leibfarth became passionate about cooking when she was a teenager in the 1970s.
“I was cooking on Sundays for the family. I learned from my mom. She started a job so I took over that and I really loved it,” she said. After high school, she didn’t pursue culinary school. She took the jump-right-in-and-work-your-way-up route.
“A lot of people who don’t go to college or culinary school, you learn in the business. You learn the hard knocks. And it knocks all the time,” Leibfarth said. “I think some of the culinary schools, they go to for nine months. You can’t learn everything in nine months. I’m still learning.”
After Yankee Doodle Inn, she got her foot in at a nicer restaurant called Ricardo’s, which The Toledo Blade described in a 2013 story as a “once-glittering riverside restaurant.”
Not a fan of Toledo’s tough winters thanks to Lake Erie, she packed up in 1992 and followed a friend to the Pacific Northwest and eventually found her way to Reedville Catering. For eight years, she commuted 90 miles round-trip from her Ridgefield home to the shop in Hillsboro, Ore.
Reedville introduced Leibfarth to large-scale catering gigs like the Oregon International Airshow at the Hillsboro Airport, planting the seed of airports as a revenue opportunity for caterers. She was laid off in 2005, she said, then started Simply Thyme with her romantic and business partner at the time.
“I fell in love with catering, because catering is different every day. It’s a lot of work, loading and unloading vehicles and moving food,” Leibfarth said, adding that her business is always on. “We have to be here, because if an order goes out at 5 a.m., and we didn’t get things prepped the day before or dropped in later, we have to be here at 2 or 3 a.m.”
The spaces where her creations end up aren’t always in corporate ballrooms. In fact, much of her food finds a home in the tummies of those traveling on luxury private jets — including 10 NBA basketball teams, not including the Portland Trail Blazers.
Many of her clients are referred through a company called Atlantic Aviation — a third-party company at Portland International Airport that provides services to private jets. She’s handled clients as high profile as Bill Clinton (who, she said, wanted Cornish game hens and didn’t like chocolate cake).
Aviation gigs are no small part of Simply Thyme; they make up between 35 and 45 percent of profits, she said.
New and old challenges
Now, Leibfarth is focused on growth, despite some challenges with staffing.
When she and her life and business partner separated seven years ago, she wanted to keep the business going, but it caused a hit in business. Shortly after her partner left, Leibfarth hired Michael Fritz, who was a strong salesperson.
“I helped her run it and bring it back to what it used to be,” said Fritz, who left last year when an opportunity came up to take ownership of the EastBurn Public House in Portland. He worked with Leibfarth for almost six years. He took on a chef role, in addition to human resources and catering sales so that Leibfarth would get out of the kitchen and really be the face of Simply Thyme.
“Any time you transition there’s going to be a fall-off. When you lose your second in command, your lead salesperson, there’s going to be a little downtime,” Fritz said. “Now she has some great accounts and great clients. Her food is excellent.”
Leibfarth and Fritz said another challenge that they often faced was that people would reject Simply Thyme as a catering option — or employment option — because of its owner’s sexual orientation.
“We had employees walk out during interviews. That (was) one of my top questions. Can you work for a female-owned company? Can you work for a lesbian-owned company?” Fritz said.
While 2017 profits were good, Leibfarth indicated that losing Fritz may have attributed to a dip in profits last year.
“(Fritz) also was my chef because he finally kicked me out of the kitchen so I could be an owner. He was with me six years … So we cuss him every day for leaving,” she joked. “I really wanted to hit $1 million.”
She didn’t immediately have 2018 sales figures yet. “I think I slipped back. I think I’m probably at a half a million. So we have to work our butts off,” she said, noting that after Fritz left, she went through two salespeople who weren’t as strong.
Now, Debbie Bly, who has worked with Leibfarth for six years, is her second in command at Simply Thyme. They’re working on adding five to 10 positions, though it’s off to a bit of a rocky start. A 9 a.m. interview on a recent Monday failed to show.
“(Leibfarth is) very strong. She’s very passionate about it. She’s grown it, and I like watching her accept new challenges and new things,” Bly said.
One thing isn’t new, though.
“I’m trying to get her out of the kitchen,” Bly said.