If you were asked to cater a dinner party where your guests included Beyoncé, Gwyneth Paltrow, and the fashionistas at Vogue, Chanel, and Hermès, you'd likely (and understandably) start planning a meal to showcase designer dinnerware and delicate, haute gastronomy. After all, your guests epitomize the ultimate level of luxury and refinement. But for Jamie Schmones Erickson, founder and owner of Poppy's Catering in Brooklyn, catering to A-list clients doesn't mean fancy garnishes and plateware. Whether it's for Gisele or a 5-year old's birthday, Jamie believes in serving food that's simple, unfussy, and most importantly, approachable. We recently spent a rainy afternoon behind the scenes of Poppy's storefront with Jamie and her team, who seamlessly work together like a band of sisters. There, we learned how Poppy's executes sweet and savory menus featuring locally-sourced fare, all with a simple yet feminine approach that would be welcome at any occasion.
What led you to start Poppy's Catering on your own?
I’ve been in the food industry for over a decade now – I started working in restaurants, and then moved into event design and production, and eventually transitioned into day-to-day drop off catering. Around 2012, when I was running the catering and events department at City Bakery, I started to see the food scene evolve in a way that really resonated with me. Restaurants were starting to provide both top-quality food and great service in an approachable way, and were becoming a genre of their own, especially in Brooklyn. It wasn’t about the formal white tablecloth experience anymore, and delicious food didn't have to be "fancy". I loved that approach, especially because most catering companies at the time felt so stuffy and old-fashioned – that’s what I'd seen from them for so many years. So I thought that by launching my own business, I could bring a fresh approach to the catering scene.
Where did the name “Poppy” come from?
I called my grandfather “Poppy”, who worked at the B&H Dairy for over 40 years. It just felt like the right homey homage to him, and it was so great when I met all the girls who are on our team here – turns out we all called our grandfathers “Poppy”, so it felt serendipitous!
What does Poppy's catering services provide?
We do everything from drop-off and pick-up orders to organizing full-service catering for weddings and much larger events where we arrange all the rentals, staff, and cooking on-site. Either way, we really strive to make sure the quality of food and customer service is equal across the board. When we do have staff on-site, everyone – whether it’s the delivery drivers, the waitstaff, captains or chefs – is extremely knowledgeable about everything we’re doing that day and the level of service we expect to provide. That often surprises our clients – people don't expect casual, approachable food to necessarily come with a high level of service.
How do you describe the style of Poppy's catering?
Approachable is the best word I can think of. Nothing feels too fussy or refined on the plate. It has a “rustic” feel, but there’s an elegance to it. All of our food has a feminine touch that I didn’t see so much before in traditional catering. Catered food can look so precise and exact – it seems made by machine rather than by hand. We like to serve our food family-style – it’s just a way that I like to eat, and I think it’s a philosophy that reflects our brand the best.
What type of cuisine does Poppy's serve?
Our food has evolved overtime, but Mediterranean is the overarching theme. Our cheese and meat boards are what we’re known for – especially for the presentation. We don’t have any single signature dish – but because of the nature of our business, we tend to stick to the same types of proteins over and over again since you’re thinking about feeding the masses rather than particular palates. So we do a lot of chicken in the summer – like chicken under a brick with grilled lemons, or grilled hanger steak with a sauce like chermoula or salsa verde. We love doing herb and citrus-based salads too. But generally, our menus are diverse in color and texture, and use a lot of fresh herbs.
Poppy's menus revolve around local, sustainably-produced ingredients and often convey a Mediterranean influence. [Photography by Poppy's]
How did you build such an impressive list of clientele?
While I was at City Bakery, I did a lot of drop-off orders for fashion photo shoots. Those happen every day in New York City – where people need breakfast and lunch served at the studios, and that’s how we got our foot in the door. That was the bread and butter of getting Poppy’s started. People were really enjoying our food in these more casual settings, and they started calling us to cater all sorts of events. Stylists on J. Crew sets would ask us to cater their kids’ birthday parties in Tribeca, then the Tribeca moms at those parties would reach out about their dinner parties, and then guests at those parties would ask if we could do the same kind of food at their weddings, and so on. Our business spread slowly and purely by word of mouth – we’ve done no advertising, no real PR to date, and Instagram has also helped us immensely.
How do you plan a menu for a particular event?
It’s more straightforward for our drop-off clientele, where we leave it to our chefs to write the daily menus based on what we’re getting from the farms, while taking into account any dietary restrictions or special requests. When it comes to larger dinner parties, weddings, and anything else booked far enough in advance, I’ll take tasting notes about food preferences from the client and send them to our team. But ultimately, it’s based on what’s in season. So when we write menus far ahead in advance, we explain to the client that things like a “white seasonal fish” or “seasonal roasted veggies” are subject to change based on what we’ll actually be able to get our hands on at that time. Clients are usually fine with that, because they’re coming to us for our approach to food, and for the fact that we support local farms and seasonality.
Do you help curate the tabletops at the events you cater?
We absolutely do, but the selections are subject to people’s budgets. Especially for bigger events, it becomes a question of weighing what’s more important to the client – the food or the aesthetic of the party. There are only so many rental companies in New York City that cater to events, so we’re also subject to their inventory, which can be limited. They only recently started coming out with some nicer plates and gold flatware – things that have been trending in housewares. But being more selective about the tabletop aesthetic definitely means things get a little more expensive, so it depends on whether the clients are willing to spend that much more.
Poppy's is known for curating beautiful presentations of cheese, charcuterie, crudites and antipasti, from dinner party-sized platters to abundant farmstand stations for larger events. [Photography by Poppy's]
Do you have a personal preference for tabletop aesthetic?
I always go for white plates. Our food is an artistic piece on your table, so white is usually best, and the food really jumps off the plate – especially in photographs. Linens are usually out of my control and up to the client, so if they want hot pink, that’s their prerogative. Otherwise, if we get to choose, we tend to go for a neutral palette.
What goes into planning the layout of the tables at your events?
We have an extremely skilled group of captains and waitstaff who've perfected the art of planning the tabletop setup. So much of it depends on the floral arrangements – some tables have so much décor that we’re literally scrounging for every inch on the table to squeeze a platter in. Catering is played a lot by ear in terms of seeing what the situation is on the day of, and making the best of it. It’s important to make sure the client keeps your dining format in mind if they’re working with a florist or other decorators. They need to know that we're serving food family-style so that our platters can fit on the table, as opposed to a plated service where you can fill the whole table with décor.
What are your most and least favorite parts about running your own catering business?
I couldn’t be happier with the team that we’ve built here. There are 4 of us at the core, and 14 of us on the team overall – 3 in sales, 8 chefs in savory, and 2-3 chefs in pastry, plus our freelancers. It’s truly a pleasure to work with everybody here, and everyone treats the company as though it’s their own. We all have a lot of creativity, and just work extremely well together. We’ve built this company together over the past four years and it’s been really amazing to see – it’s definitely exceeded my expectations.
The hardest part about running my business is probably all the behind-the-scenes work – the HR, paperwork, and a lot of tedious logistical things that I have to deal with as we get bigger and bigger. It doesn’t get easier!
We hear you're about to open Poppy’s To-Go! What inspired you to expand Poppy's into retail?
Yes, Poppy's To-Go will be open every weekend starting February 11th! We were previously open as Poppy's Pop-Up on a bi-weekly basis, but we grew such a steady stream of clientele that we knew we had to be open more than that. But even the Pop-Up is relatively new. This space started off as the original kitchen for Poppy's back in 2012 – it was only filled with tables for our chefs to prep their food, and the walls were lined with industrial wire shelves stacked with cooking supplies and equipment. It still looked like a storefront though, so I always thought retail would become part of the business.
Two years ago, we decided to expand into an industrial kitchen a few blocks away and renovate this space. Not only did we need a place to hold meetings and tastings with clients, but people were constantly peering in and wondering what we did here, and I think we seemed unapproachable to most of them. So the Pop-Ups became an opportunity for us to show them the kind and quality of food that we offer, and prove that we are accessible even when you're not throwing a big event. We don't do catering for less than 10 people, but people can go to the Pop-Up (soon to be Poppy's To-Go) and pick up rotisserie chickens, grain salads, soups and other family-style items you can take home without it being too much food, or require too much planning ahead.
Housemade granola, vanilla extract, lavender honey and honey sunflower butter are just a handful of homemade packaged products that will be available at Poppy's To-Go, also available online.
How different is the experience of the retail side of Poppy's versus catering?
I just love the homeyness of having the storefront be open to the neighborhood, and getting to meet our customers face-to-face. I try to be there as much as possible to meet everyone and tell them about what we do. It's great – there are a lot of cool creative people that live in this neck of the woods. There are so many events that we cater every day that I don't get to go to, so having the pop-up is such a great opportunity for me to connect with the people who enjoy our food. I love seeing them eat and getting to see their reactions in person. There's nothing like it.
A seasonal assortment of Poppy's cakes and pies. [Photography by Poppy's]
What's your philosophy on how to culivate in the kitchen?
Keep it simple. It’s kind of our philosophy across all elements of our business at Poppy's, whether it's the décor that we use on our table or the food we put out. We’re not overly fussy. In terms of quality, use the best food you can get, but don’t do anything over the top. Just stick with simple cooking. As long as you’re checking out what's at the farmer’s market and going to your local butcher to get great quality produce and meats, you can keep things simple. I think you can elevate your lifestyle by following that philosophy. Simple is good.
Kitchen Snapshot – Jamie Schmones Erickson
Go-to homemade meal for guests: pork posole. I like to do something a little different than what we do at Poppy's when I'm at home. Pork posole was my go-to this past year, with all the different fixings on top.
Culinary quirk: I always have a stash of dark chocolate pretzels.
I can’t live without: my spatula. I use it for almost everything I make for my son, like pancakes and scrambled eggs. I also can't live without my coffee maker... that's for myself.
I never use: the loaf pan. I never bake!
Visit Poppy's To-Go at 243 Degraw Street in Cobble Hill, open Saturdays and Sundays from 9am-3pm starting February 11th!