It often is said that the equipment and event rental industry is unique in its spirit of cooperation among competitors. That spirit, coupled with a truly niche rental inventory, have been the ingredients that have propelled CaterRent, Minneapolis, for 35 years and counting.
“We're a niche. We’re different than other party companies because we basically handle food service and concession equipment,” says Judy Elias, owner of CaterRent. “We do have some tables, chairs, dishes, glassware and things, but not like your normal rental company. What we have are ovens, refrigeration, holding ovens, and all that type of equipment for buffets and kitchens — mostly back-of-the-house or buffetware. We have a vast, deep inventory. We've had representatives from [commercial food service equipment suppliers] Alto-Shaam and Cres Cor who are astonished at the depth of equipment that we have.”
Although CaterRent has been in operation since 1985, the company’s roots stretch back even farther.
“My husband [Allan Elias] and I got into the catering business in the 1970s,” Elias says. “We had a lot of equipment which we used in our business and occasionally competitors would ask to borrow our equipment. My husband said, ‘We’ll rent it to you.’ And then he said, ‘Judy, we need to start a rental division.’ That’s when we started CaterRent. At that time, we had our catering company and an event planning company. Then we started our rental company and an offshoot of that is the selling of equipment. So, we buy, sell and rent food service equipment because that's what we know.”
Elias describes CaterRent’s clientele simply as “anybody in food service. We've got caterers, restaurants, hospitals, schools, churches, concessionaires and individuals for home parties — you name it. Anybody who serves food is our customer.”
While CaterRent’s customer base can be described concisely, its service area is as broad as the continental United States.
“We have shipped all over the U.S. if the project is big enough — it costs a lot of money to ship our equipment,” Elias says. “We have sent semis to various locations for large events: the Super Bowl, hospitals that are redoing their kitchens and need temporary kitchens and a private party in Texas for a sheikh are just a few examples. Our primary service area is the upper Midwest, but we've sent our stuff to Florida, New York, California, Texas, Las Vegas — all over.”
Catering to events that have served presidents, governors, kings and queens, and motion picture and recording industry executives is quite an accomplishment for a staff of only eight — some of whom have been with the company for decades. Elias credits CaterRent’s ability to retain its small, but loyal and productive, team to the company’s family atmosphere.
“My employees have been with me a long time,” she says. “One of the women who works for me started when we were in the catering business, so she has been with me for close to 35 years. And then I've got people who've been here for 20-25 years. That's not easy in this day and age. I think the thing that has spurred that kind of loyalty with our company is that we are family. We're not related — my husband and I were the only ones related — but we treated everybody like family.”
Elias also says that healthy cooperation and the ability to find common ground with competitors has been a big part of the company’s success.
“We work with our competitors — but I don’t want to call them that — because of the niche that we have,” she says. “Yes, there is some overlay of certain things that we all rent, but we work together so that if they have an event where they need things beyond what we rent, we send people to them. I think that we need more of that in the industry.”
To underscore her point about the benefits of industry cooperation, Elias describes how she and Allan chose to band together with similar companies over the years to achieve a greater purpose.
“When my husband and I were in the catering business, we were part of a group of nine caterers from different markets that started what is now the International Caterers Association. We would get together and discuss business. You went to those meetings and opened your books because you were talking with people that were not your competitors. But as we expanded that organization, and if you look at it now, it's a place where all can go and exchange information. We also were one of the founding members of the Live Events Association alongside rental companies, event companies, florists, caterers, etc. It's all about working together rather than saying, ‘We are competitors.’ We're really not. We're all trying to service the customer as best we can,” she says.
Allan Elias passed away in 2018, but his and Judy’s legacy of servicing the catering needs of customers near and far continues with Judy, a certified Festival Manager, at the helm. Today, the Elias’s organization includes CaterRent on the rental side and Al’s Restaurant Equipment, a sales division for new and used food service equipment.