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Sky's the limit for catering firm

Businessman takes a chance, expands despite recession

Dec. 29, 2009

Cudahy — By 11 a.m. on a blustery Friday morning in December, Ernest Wunsch has already put in an eight-hour day.

As the owner of Skyline Catering, he arrived in the early morning hours to get the business ready for the day, after recovering from a successful open house on Dec. 10.

Clad in a white apron and fleece pullover bearing the Skyline name and logo, and surprisingly upbeat, he has just gotten done handling shipments of fresh food for the day. He and his employees are preparing for the lunch crowd in the business's new Skyline Catering Express retail operation, and to cater lunch for a GQ Magazine photo shoot with Milwaukee Bucks rookie Brandon Jennings at South Milwaukee High School.

Business seems good.

In reality, it wasn't long ago that Wunsch and his employees were battling the recession - just like everyone else. Profits were down by 25 percent in 2009 and, as a result, employees collectively agreed to take a 25 percent cut in hours in order to keep their jobs. Wunsch at times didn't take a salary at all and put his personal money into the business to keep the operation running smoothly.

Reinventing the business

Yet in the midst of all that strife, and as other nearby caterers were closing their doors, Skyline Catering managed to successfully expand - and, in some ways, reinvent - its business this year.

"I thought many times, privately and with my wife, 'Are we making the right choice? Did we make a mistake by going into debt as far as we did to make this happen here?' " Wunsch said. "(But) I thought of every angle, and I'm glad we did. Because this was just the next step - we had to take it to the next level."

Wunsch signed a lease April 15 for a new 4,000-square-foot space in a warehouse at 5601 S. Pennsylvania Ave., after operating since 1999 from an 800-square-foot space, which the business had long ago outgrown, on Packard Avenue. He opened the new facility in June.

"There were times when I would come in here and I would get just a little emotional, just sitting here in the middle in disbelief of how this could come together so quickly," Wunsch said.

Good timing and some good breaks definitely played a part in that, he said. Of course, a lot of hard work didn't hurt, either. Wunsch said he has always held the belief that hard work pays off. Looking at the growth of his business since he began in 1997, it isn't hard to believe.

Business continues to grow

Wunsch began the corporate catering business with a strong background in food service and management, and just five business contacts. Those contacts all became clients - and remain customers to this day. He now has 350 clients and is adding more. Likewise, his work force has grown from just himself to 17 employees, eight of whom were hired this year.

"We all work hard, and it can't be for nothing, because we're dedicated to what we do," he said.

His customers certainly will vouch for Skyline's willingness to go above and beyond to keep customers happy.

"When things are tight, he is willing to work with us on our budget and cut costs, but still give us good, quality food," said Charles Kakuk, managing director of Milwaukee's Next Act Theatre. "Ernie's the first person we go to now."

Since moving to its new location, Skyline continues to cater primarily to the corporate world, with most of its clients based in downtown Milwaukee. Things are starting to pick up again, Wunsch has noticed, as businesses are having more meetings and luncheons - and doing more catering.

Focused on the future

Skyline has also branched out to begin catering weddings, and on Dec. 1 opened its first retail store, which focuses on providing fresh, to-go meals on a more personal level.

"I have the ability to cook fresh foods on a huge level. Why not do it on a little level like this . . . and give people an option?" Wunsch said.

Although business in the retail area is slow so far, Wunsch has already seen some repeat customers and is confident it will improve as word gets out over the next few months. Regardless, he is optimistic about Skyline Catering's future.

"We are by no means a success story yet. We're just hard-working people plowing through the hard times, reinventing ourselves and wanting to be successful," Wunsch said.

"The end of the story hasn't come yet, but I do see it. With us going nuts with weddings now and us going crazy in the corporate world and opening this new venture and hiring new people, I see nothing but growth."

FYI

→ After working his way up in the restaurant industry since the age of 16, Ernest Wunsch opened Skyline Catering in 1997.

→ Since then, the business has built its reputation on providing freshly prepared food, personal service, competitive pricing and a 100 percent guarantee.

→ Skyline Catering Express offers prepared meals for pick up, and is open 5:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. For information, visit skylinecatering.com, or call (414) 294-4816.

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