Mt. Helix resident to cater Rio Olympic summer games
April 6 is notable in the history of the Olympics, as that day 120 years ago marked the opening of the first modern Olympic games in Athens. The sporting contests had not been held for over 1,600 years, but are now staged every four years. This year is one, with the upcoming 2016 Summer Olympic Games being held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, during August 5-21, and the companion Paralympics for challenged athletes over the days September 7-18.
That is where East County local John Crisafulli comes in. Crisafulli is a native San Diegan who still lives in the Mt. Helix community with his wife and twin daughters, not far from where he grew up. He is president of Behind The Scenes Catering, and he also serves as the enterprise’s managing director of global events. Crisafulli is now actively engaged in planning efforts for BTS to prepare and serve over half a million meals during the Rio Olympics, and he discussed his work during an interview on April 6.
“This is a lot of food and lots of service,” Crisafulli said.
Providing meal service for such large-scale events is nothing new for Crisafulli and BTS. He and his sister purchased the company in 1990, continuing and building on the existing business’s specialization in offering backstage catering at area concerts. BTS caters for concerts and festivals at the Sleep Train Amphitheatre and at the Valley View Casino Center (San Diego Sports Arena). Each New Year’s holiday, BTS does catering for the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. “That keeps us busy over New Year’s,” Crisafulli said. “We do parties during the week and feed 9,000 to 10,000 tailgaters. We work for a solid week, and then it’s all over in three hours. But it’s a fun event.”
BTS has been catering the Olympic games since 2000 in Sydney, Australia. “Every county is different,” Crisafulli observed. Planning takes roughly two years for each series of the Games. He tries, where he can, to find locally sourced products from reputable local vendors with the capacity and scheduling resources to deliver good produce on time. Moreover, the vendors BTS chooses, in this post 9/11 safety environment, must pass background security checks. Where necessary, as in China, the company sets up its own independent laboratory to test for food contaminants such as pesticides and E. coli bacteria. For Rio, a significant concern is the mosquito-borne Zika virus and how to minimize or eliminate event attendees’ exposure to the flying insects.
“We are the only company that has been involved continuously with the Olympics,” Crisafulli said with a touch of pride in his company’s performance. “This is our ninth. Everyone associated with the Olympics has gotten to know us very well.” NBC was the company’s first Olympics client and will be again this year.
Now Crisafulli is getting ready for the Rio Games. He has already hired around 750 temporary workers in Rio, and those new hires are in training and orientation. BTS will bring on board about 100 international chefs and managers from around the globe, for their expertise in food service with large-scale events. Three or four BTS employees from San Diego will go to Rio. Crisafulli has been traveling there monthly and will move there at the end of May, staying until the Games conclude.
Three months of training for the temporary employees in Brazil are being staged in conjunction with nonprofit Gastromotiva, which specializes in teaching underprivileged Brazilian youth hospitality and culinary skills. BTS is sponsoring 60 of the cooking arts students, who range from 17 to 34 years of age.
“These kids are coming from nothing,” Crisafulli said. “We help pay for their transportation to class. After the Games are over, the group will help place them into jobs. This is part of the legacy we can leave behind wherever we go.”
BTS will also donate six custom San Diego-crafted “Rio” surfboards to Gastromotiva for the program graduates.
“We try to reflect the local culture and cuisine, but with an American flair,” Crisafulli said of the menu planning. “We want to serve unique desserts and other items. It’s exciting.”
BTS also caters the San Diego Summer Pops concert series. In July, BTS will cater for the Major League Baseball All-Star Game. The company has operated the Fantail Café aboard the USS Midway since opening and provides meals for other events on the anchored ship museum. About a year ago, BTS added Kensington’s specialty wine shop Village Vino! to its holdings.
“We have fantastic employees,” Crisafulli stated. Several have been with the company for over 15 years. His philosophy is to make sure that he is supportive and that his employees feel empowered in their work roles and have the right tools for their tasks.
The company does catering for all the Susan G. Komen walks, which raises money for breast cancer research. Tragically, soon after BTS began serving the Komen events, Crisafulli’s sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. She died at the age of 36, in December 2001.
Crisafulli said that was a difficult time for the close-knit company. “She was the face of our work, our front-of-house person,” Crisafulli continued. Crisafulli’s business degrees are in finance, and he disclosed that he had to learn how to represent BTS in dealing with clients. But the firm has continued growing, at 5 to 10 percent annually, Crisafulli noted, even during the recession.
“We kept our prices the same, or even raised them,” Crisafulli explained of weathering the economic downturn. “Our competitors lowered prices, and then couldn’t maintain them once business picked up again. Our strategy has been to add value to the food and the experiences we deliver in catering. We insisted on quality in what we provide, and it’s continued working for us.”
BTS has a core staff of 35 full-time employees and 150 part-timers. The firm is the largest off-premise caterer in San Diego. Its offices and facilities are located in Sorrento Valley.
Crisafulli would like other San Diegans to keep his business in mind for any special event, whether a backyard barbecue for two to four guests, a family wedding, or feeding thousands.
“We’re a San Diego company,” he said. “We do a tremendous amount of work here. We are locally minded, and we support local charities,” Crisafulli said. “Big companies come from small companies. And we still consider ourselves a small local company. We want our guests to walk out of an event saying they’ve had the time of their life.”
Information on the BTS Hospitality services is available at www.btscenes.com. More information about the Summer Olympics can be found at the official website www.rio2016.com/en.