College Chefs moving near campus


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CHAMPAIGN — A local business that provides chefs for fraternities and sororities will soon move to a new headquarters in Champaign.

College Chefs, which furnishes food service on two dozen college campuses including the University of Illinois, plans to move to a new office close to campus in July.

The business, founded in 2010 by Kevin Gadus, will be the first commercial occupant of a building developed by Kenwood Sullivan on the southwest corner of Fifth and Park streets in Champaign.

College Chefs has 70 to 75 full-time employees and about a dozen part-time employees, said Dave Tarrant, the company's general manager of business operations.

Many of the full-time employees are trained chefs, most of whom have culinary degrees, he said.

The fraternities and sororities they serve are on a variety of campuses, including Illinois, Purdue, Indiana, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Florida State, Illinois State, Bradley and Western Illinois, he added.

The concept for College Chefs — providing high-end meals prepared by chefs — was refined by Gadus, who came to Champaign-Urbana in 2000 to be close to his two daughters, who lived in Charleston.

Gadus, who completed the Le Cordon Bleu culinary arts program at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute in Chicago, previously had restaurants of his own — Fruits de Mer in Chicago and Willows in Cookeville, Tenn.

After coming to Champaign, he started a business, Personal Chef Care, in which he prepared an entire week's worth of meals for clients and their families to reheat and enjoy at home. He operated that business about six years.

Then he joined Glenview-based Campus Cooks, which provides cooks for fraternities and sororities on college campuses.

Gadus, 48, of Champaign said he eventually came to believe that too many food service companies were run by people from a business background who "didn't understand the difference between a cook and a chef."

"Let's start hiring chefs," he said. "That would be so much better."

The first client for College Chefs was a small fraternity in Bloomington. The following year, the company entered the Champaign-Urbana market.

Today, College Chefs has agreements to provide food service to organizations on 32 campuses next fall.

Gadus said the company has seven on its sales staff, four on its administrative staff and "a slew" of supervisors and trainers.

Tarrant, the general manager, said one of the key differences between College Chefs and most institutional food services is "our reliance on training chefs and high-quality, high-end foods.

"We don't position ourselves as a discount food service," he said. "We're more concerned with a high-end product and the high-end chefs who come with that."

But not all of College Chefs' contracts are deluxe ones.

"We can offer them a no-frills package that focuses on high-quality lunch and dinner and is still able to get price point-competitive," Tarrant said.

Kevin Baldwin of Chicago, an adviser for the Theta Chi fraternity in Champaign, said the fraternity recently renewed its contract with College Chefs.

"College Chefs came in with an offer we couldn't refuse. They undercut the price of competitors and also offered what appeared to be a higher level of service from the start," he said.

Baldwin said when he asked what kind of kitchen equipment College Chefs needed, he was told a big refrigerator and a tiny freezer.

"Where's all the frozen food going to go?" Baldwin said.

"We don't cook with frozen food," he was told. "We make everything fresh."

Baldwin said when he asks fraternity members about the food, he gets "positive reviews" every time.

Jake Sanders, a trained chef who is director of operations for College Chefs, said the business uses various means for recruiting chefs, including Craigslist, Monster and other services.

"Some of our best chefs we get from networking through our management staff — going to their culinary schools and networking that way," Tarrant added.

Sanders said the chefs have "ultimate freedom over the menus and the food they procure," with College Chefs making sure they adhere to its concept.

College Chefs' current office is in The Enclave on the second floor of One Main Plaza in downtown Champaign.

The new space at 411 E. Park St., C, will accommodate about a half-dozen employees on a regular basis and as many as 10 to 15 at a time, Tarrant said.

Most employees won't work there since the chefs are deployed at fraternities and sororities and the supervisors and salespeople are often on the road.

Gadus said Tarrant and Sanders oversee day-to-day operations while he works to extend the College Chefs brand.

He said he plans to move into the water business in late summer, offering a caffeinated water with a hint of strawberry, as well as a water fortified with nutrients and vitamins but no caffeine.

Gadus would like to supply those waters to fraternities and sororities — and take the idea even further.

"Anywhere there's a campus, I want to get it (the water) into grocery stores and take shelf space there to get more brand awareness," he said.

Gadus said he also plans to start a produce company and snack company, with the aim of making those products available to fraternities and sororities as well as a wider audience.

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