Chef Mike’s Catering evolves, adapts with upheavals of COVID-19

Torri Donley

Consider Mike Scofield, of Chef Mike’s Catering, to fall squarely into the latter group. His culinary career has been marked by a series of spontaneous decisions and a bit of serendipity — from the moment he took a job as a fast food kitchen manager when he was 19, to […]

Consider Mike Scofield, of Chef Mike’s Catering, to fall squarely into the latter group. His culinary career has been marked by a series of spontaneous decisions and a bit of serendipity — from the moment he took a job as a fast food kitchen manager when he was 19, to the present day, where he’s operating a catering business he never pursued, nor expected to own.

“I didn’t actually start this type of stuff until I was 26 years old,” Scofield said of his career arc with a shrug. “More or less, I just kinda fell into it.”

It’s been just over two and a half years now since he started his operation south of Brainerd, off Business Highway 371 and next door to the Wild Rice Depot. Since then, there’s been no shortage of challenges, preeminently the emergence of COVID-19, but Scofield has been able to weather the upheavals with a signature touch of adaptability and spontaneity, mixed with toughness and grit from decades manning the kitchen.

Chad Knudson, the owner of the Wild Rice Depot, of which the Chef Mike’s Catering building is part of the larger complex, spoke warmly of the catering business in a three-fold sense — somebody’s who’s personally known Scofield for years, as a property leaser who’s worked with restaurants and catering businesses for years, and as a customer who’s Scofield’s culinary wizardry for himself.

“He’s been fantastic,” said Knudson of a business that’s proven to be a very different business from the previous owners and, in Knudson’s estimation, evolved considerably — even from what Scofield may have envisioned from the start.

Mike Scofield, owner of Chef Mike's Catering, talks about some of the portable equipment he can take to catering sites. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Mike Scofield, owner of Chef Mike’s Catering, talks about some of the portable equipment he can take to catering sites. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

“He’s done things differently than the previous owners who had that building for eight and a half years. He worked with them, he bought it out, and now he’s taken it somewhere really different,” Knudson said. “I’m excited for him. It’s been fun watching him grow and actually change from what he thought he was going to do. He’s been willing to change and he has a history of working so many different styles, cooking so many different cuisines — he’s just open to whatever you need and whatever he needs to do.”

Scofield first made himself known in the lakes area as a chef in resort kitchens. Then, in 2017, Scofield said he took a chance on catering after more than 20 years in resort dining, it was a high-stress, high-demand atmosphere with little margin for mistakes.

“There, it was always other people, how they wanted it, their preferences and their needs,” Scofield said of the opportunity to own his own catering business. “Here, I’m working on my own to provide for my family. Sometimes I feel spread too thin, but I’m more in control.”

It really is a flavor-of-the-day sort of operation — often, to the point, Scofield said, where unexpected challenges may emerge to cook a certain dish in a short amount of time for 300 or 400 people — or 1,500 or 2,000 people — at a given event. But, Scofield always finds a way. It’s a deeply satisfying sense of accomplishment that comes after hours of stress, sweat and heat.

But, then, that’s par for the course. If it wasn’t catering, it was resort dining. If it wasn’t resort dining, it was culinary studies and the rigors of line cooking. If it wasn’t that, it was managing a fast food kitchen at the age of 19. At first glance, this career trajectory has the look of singular focus, propelled by a desire to prepare food and feed the masses.

Mike Scofield, owner of Chef Mike's Catering, talks about his catering business Friday, July 31, at his location south of Brainerd off Business Highway 371. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Mike Scofield, owner of Chef Mike’s Catering, talks about his catering business Friday, July 31, at his location south of Brainerd off Business Highway 371. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

That just isn’t the case. Sure, Scofield said, he enjoys cooking and he always has, but he’s more or less chanced upon every opportunity. He didn’t realize how much he’d enjoy managing a fast food kitchen until he was in the thick of it. He took up culinary school largely on a whim at 25, then followed an invitation by his brother to a resort kitchen up in the Brainerd lakes area. When the opportunity arose in 2017 for him to start up his own catering business, it wasn’t planned in the least, but he leaped at the opportunity anyway.

And so Chef Mike’s Catering — with all its unpredictability — fits Scofield like a glove.

“I take this because I’m my own boss. It’s the flexibility of it,” Scofield said. “One day I could be at someone’s home making a whole tenderloin, the next I could be serving a nursing home tater tot hotdish. Anything goes. For the market I’m in now, I shoot for comfort food. Baked chicken. Pulled pork. Homemade mac n’ cheese. We don’t have any set style, so we can adapt to what people need.”

The general approach hasn’t changed much since the pandemic — which is to say, there’s isn’t so much an approach, so much as intuition and spontaneity — but Scofield said there has been a significant uptick in business since the advent of COVID-19.

Employee Kaylin Cherne puts out place settings Friday, July 31, at Chef Mike's Catering. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Employee Kaylin Cherne puts out place settings Friday, July 31, at Chef Mike’s Catering. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

In the days of yore before the coronavirus, Scofield often worked alone for major life events like weddings. Now he has a group of seven part-time employees as he meets a burgeoning need for business luncheons and employee socials at various businesses across the lakes area.

One development that’s distinctly tailored to the pandemic? A surge in requests for microwaved boxed lunches or packaged meals, where he has delivered over 350 in three weeks, often to people who can’t make it to the grocery store because they’re elderly, disabled, working late, and so on. This has led Scofield to reconfigure his business to be just that more mobile, able to transport foods in seven different types of containers and deliver them with ease.

Still, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

“It’s the same old business model. For the first 3-5 years, hit the grindstone,” he said. “That’s where we’re at.”

GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at [email protected] or 218-855-5859. Follow at www.twitter.com/glbrddispatch.

INFO BOX

  • Business: Chef Mike’s Catering.

  • City: Brainerd.

  • Number of employees: Eight.

  • Interesting fact: The proprietor of Chef Mike’s Catering, Mike Scofield, has more than two decades of culinary and kitchen management experience, which may be one reason he’s confident he can feed a small gathering of five, or 2,000 people at the drop of a hat. His secret? Take a little at a time. If a chef and a small crew of assistants handle a 400 people for an hour-long sit-down, then 2,000 people need to be spaced out in one-hour increments over five hours.

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