Spicing Up Sorority Life With Pico de Gallo

Campus Cooks is waging a war against cafeteria food, frat house by frat house | After being served quinoa-stuffed calamari, “a lot of us kind of freaked out”

By Leslie Patton

Mealtime at Northwestern University’s Kappa Alpha Theta house


At campus fraternities, it’s not just kegs and eggs anymore. Bill Reeder, a former energy options trader at Bank of America, is bringing chicken satay and veal parmigiana to Greek houses at universities across the U.S. His company, Campus Cooks, employs cooks at 70 houses on 20 campuses, including Purdue, Florida State, and Texas A&M, and is looking to expand to schools in North Carolina and Virginia. The business, based in the Chicago suburb of Glenview, will log about $10 million in revenue for the year ending in June, Reeder says. He’s projecting a 30 percent increase to $13 million for the next fiscal year.

Reeder, 40, first became interested in food service while attending Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. His fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi, went through three cooks in four years, he recalls — one was caught stealing steak; another nearly burned down the kitchen. So the enterprising undergrad hired a local caterer to manage the food at his frat house.

After graduation in 1995, Reeder opted for a career on Wall Street. But the long hours wore him out, he says. So in 2004, with some money from his parents and a bank loan, he paid $200,000 for the same catering company that had fed him and his fraternity brothers. He then began sending out letters, cold-calling, and visiting fraternities and sororities to drum up business. The quality of the food got him in the door, Reeder says, but it was his understanding of Greek life, and the role of frat houses as modern-day eating clubs, that closed the deals. “We’re trying to create an atmosphere and experience,” he says.

Campus Cooks charges between $2,000 to $4,000 per student for the school year. Its 125-person staff includes professional chefs. One worked for former President George H.W. Bush, serving up $25,000-a-plate meals at fundraisers. Other cooks on the payroll have fed the Green Bay -Packers and the Goo Goo Dolls. When Reeder signed a sorority house at Indiana University last year, there was nothing but ready-to-eat sandwiches in the freezer and canned taco meat lining the cabinet shelves. Now the sorority sisters wake to vegan breakfast hash and dine on pork loin stuffed with apple-cranberry chutney.

At the Northwestern Beta Theta Pi house, Michael DeBerry, a former sous chef at Rockit Bar & Grill in Chicago, chops tomatoes and cilantro at lunchtime for pico de gallo sauce to complement his chicken quesadillas. Sunday through Friday, DeBerry — aka Chef Mike — cooks lunch and dinner for about 50 hungry guys, including desserts like mango mousse parfaits with grilled pound cake. He says he doesn’t mind toiling away in the frat house’s basement kitchen because he likes the regular hours (he leaves every day at 5 p.m.) and not being restricted to a single cuisine. “This is not as intense,” he says.

While DeBerry has mostly figured out what the guys will and won’t eat, he still makes the occasional blunder. A memorable one was the quinoa-stuffed calamari. “A lot of us kind of freaked out,” recalls Joe Calland, a 21-year-old junior in the house. To avoid such mishaps, DeBerry posts a “Tell Me What You’re Craving!” sign-up sheet on the refrigerator so his diners can make special requests. Among the items on the list: salmon, breakfast burritos, and Kung-Pao chicken. “It’s the guys who drive the menu,” Reeder says. And it’s the cooks who oversee most everything else, coming up with the weekly menus and ordering food and other supplies.

Catering on college campuses is an “underserved market,” according to Adam Werner, managing director of the restaurant and food service group at consultant AlixPartners in Chicago. Still, barriers to entry are relatively low, so there’s nothing to prevent larger players, such as Compass Group or Aramark, from getting into the Greek-house food business, he says. While there aren’t any heavyweights in the ring yet, Reeder already has a few rivals in his own weight class, including Greek House Chefs and College Chefs.

Revenue at U.S. food service contractors that provide meals at hospital food courts, college campuses, and sports venues is on the rise, after declining during the economic downturn. Sales hit $32.6 billion in 2012, which is above the pre-recession peak, and are expected to increase by an average of 3.2 percent annually through 2017, according to an October report from researcher IBISWorld. Catering at colleges and universities, which makes up about 32 percent of industry sales, is growing as student enrollment increases, the report says.

Campus Cooks doesn’t necessarily need investors to expand. “It’s not a capital-intensive business,” Reeder says; the biggest cost is paying employees. Still, he’s open to the idea of taking on a private equity investor down the road. “We’re talking more and more about it,” he says.

The bottom line A Chicago area entrepreneur has carved out a niche in the $32.6 billion food service industry by catering to college fraternities.


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