Photo courtesy of Business Journals
There isn’t a smell more associated with summers in Western New York than the smell of Chiavetta’s chicken cooking on a grill.
Through their catering and jugs of marinade, Chiavetta’s has become a local icon over the past 68 years.
But running a long-standing family business like Chiavetta’s isn’t as easy as kicking your feet up and going on autopilot. Chiavetta’s has remained relevant by evolving over the years, and the pace of that evolution is starting to increase.
The Chiavetta’s story starts in 1954 with a food and agricultural science professor at Cornell University called James Baker. In an attempt to help drum up business for New York poultry farmers, Baker developed a marinade recipe and shared it across the state. Local poultry farmers Thomas and Eleanor Chiavetta learned the recipe, and through a few tweaks, made it their own. The couple then staged a few catering events for local community organizations and discovered: They had a winning formula on their hands.
Kathleen Chiavetta, current COO and granddaughter of Thomas and Eleanor, says that original recipe hasn’t changed since her grandparents dialed it in almost 70 years ago.
“My grandfather’s family was Italian, so we needed to add fresh garlic, lots of it,” she says with a laugh. “But once we came up with that recipe, we really have not changed it. It’s been the same and consistent for years and years.”
There are a number of other businesses around New York State that have variations on Baker’s original marinade recipe, and that’s why you see a similar chicken barbecue style across Western and Central New York.
“This style is really popular at the State Fair in Syracuse,” she says. “That’s actually where you can get chicken cooked with the original recipe. The original recipe had egg in it and there are a few operations around that do have egg in the marinade. Ours does not, and that’s why it doesn’t need to be refrigerated.”
The Evolution Of A Brand
For more than 30 years, Chiavetta’s rode the popularity of its barbecue marinade to become a thriving catering business. If you’ve grown up in Western New York, you’ve grown up eating Chiavetta’s chicken.
Then, in the late 1980s, the family-run business made a decision to start selling the marinade in local stores.
“I have to give credit to my father,” says Kathleen. “It was his initiative to market the marinade. My grandfather thought that if people could get the marinade in the store, it would put the catering operation out of business.”
“That turned out to be an unfounded fear.”
Another major shift came in 2009, when Chiavetta’s opened its first takeout location in Lockport. That location was originally meant to be a pick-up and drop-off spot for catering. But people kept walking in and asking for individual dinners.
“At first, we said, no that’s not what we do,” says Kathleen. “After people kept asking, we said, you know we should probably just serve dinners. We didn’t even have any seating for the first year. People were sitting in their cars, eating dinner in the parking lot. So we said, you know… there might be something to this takeout thing.”
Seeing the success of takeout led to another evolution. In 2019, the company began staging pop-up events during slow times in its schedule. At first, the pop-ups weren’t very successful. Then, in 2020, the pandemic hit.
“We said, okay well we have these pop-up crews ready, and all the restaurants are closed,” says Kathleen. “Let’s stage these pop-ups and see what happens. That ended up sustaining us, and 2020 was actually the strongest sales year we’ve ever had.”
She credits those last two evolutionary steps as the main reasons behind the company coming out of a global pandemic relatively unscathed.
“Takeout and pop-ups hadn’t even existed in the first 60 years of Chiavetta’s history, and they ended up sustaining us.” she says. “If we were a one-trick pony, if we had all our eggs in the catering basket, we wouldn’t have been doing much of anything for the first six months of 2020.”
When you look at what’s happened over the past 10 or 15 years with local brands like Ted’s Hot Dogs, Duff’s and Anderson’s – it’s hard to look at Chiavetta’s and wonder why that company hasn’t opened up a local chain.
Kathleen says that’s a distinct possibility in the near future.
“When you’re fortunate to be around for almost 70 years, it’s very east to get comfortable,” she says “I mean, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? We really started to see that while our plateau was strong, looking down the road 20 or 30 years, a plateau isn’t really where we want to be. So we recognize that we’re in a stage where we need to grow.”
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- Website: www.chiavettascatering.com