Just like Rent the Runway’s co-founders, there are a ton of women who have leapt into the uncharted, often-insane world of entrepreneurship. We’re inviting these risk-takers to be part of a community we’re calling The Real Runway: a collection of voices to motivate and inspire your own runway, whatever that may be.
It all started with... eating awkwardly at parties.
Elaina Vasquez set herself up for a dream career as a chef in the fine-dining scene. After holding positions at two of the country’s best restaurants in Chicago, she relocated to Las Vegas, where she cooked at the three Michelin Star restaurant, Robuchon. Despite her success, restaurant life wasn’t for her. Elaina wanted to use her experience in the food world to create perfect party bites: delicious, stylish and not awkward to eat as you chat at a party (think fresh shrimp ceviche in delicate cucumber cups). In 2008 she moved back to Chicago to launch Boutique Bites, and has been serving beautiful, fuss-free food since.
Necklace, Kendra Scott; Bracelet, Elizabeth and James; Earrings, Elizabeth and James
What was your “Aha!” moment?
When I started my business seven years ago, catering in Chicago was very different. I would go to these parties in a dress and have a glass of champagne in my hand, be talking to somebody, and then these hors d’oeuvres would come around. But they were always so big, bulky, messy, saucy, or just didn’t taste good. It was such an awkward experience while trying to be feminine and professional at once. So I always passed up food even though I was hungry! I thought there had to be a better way. At events, people want to try a lot of flavors and they want the food to look beautiful. So I came up with the idea of taking a fine-dining approach to events—from the canapé, to the amuse-bouche, to the five-course dinner.
When I was 26, I had an idea on my couch in Las Vegas and I said, ‘I’m going for it.’ And that was it.
Jumpsuit, Tibi; Necklace, Kendra Scott; Earrings, Elizabeth and James
Can you describe the leap from high-end restaurant life to starting your own business?
I come from a family of entrepreneurs, so even when I was kid, I knew I would have my own something at some point. I looked at my life 10 years down the track and thought, I don’t want a restaurant to dictate my schedule and my life. I wanted to work for myself. I had been playing with my idea for the catering company for a while and I knew that I could execute it well. So the leap actually felt natural.
Was it scary to start fresh?
Not really. I started it when I was so young that I didn’t think too much. I think if I had asked myself back then, “Why don’t you wait until you’re 30 so you can put more money into the business?” I would have talked myself out of it. I technically started my business while I was still working full-time in Las Vegas. I concepted the whole company — figured out my brand vision, listed my competition in Chicago — and booked tiny parties in my spare time to test out my idea. It was working. So I quit my job, moved to Chicago three months later with my plan, and hit the ground running.
This is the life I want. My worst day at Boutique Bites is still better than my worst day at a restaurant working for somebody else. I always remember that.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Keep good relationships with people that you worked for and that you learned from. When I moved back to Chicago, I still had all my contacts from when I worked there and every single one of them was willing to help me. If people like you, they will help you no matter what. I can’t stress that enough. People don’t realize that your exit is just as important as the time you put into a business. I hate to see people throw two years of hard work away because they left on bad terms.
Dress, Clover Canyon; Bracelet, Elizabeth and James; Earrings, Elizabeth and James
Is it stressful running a catering company?
There are a ton of moving parts in catering. It isn’t just food — it’s all the staff, liquor, bartenders and the rentals. We’re responsible for every last spoon to arrive at your event and make sure that it all goes flawlessly. Thankfully, I have a great team that I can rely on. But it took years to get to that point. When I hired my first employee, little by little we transferred everything in my brain into files on a computer, so that my team would know where to look if they had questions.
My team and I are in the business of making it happen. That is what we do. We like to say we’re like ducks — we’re swimming underneath, but up top we look very serene. That’s what hustle is to us.
Necklace, Kate Spade
How does style come into play as a caterer?
A lot of clients are surprised to know that I’m the owner of the company because I look so presentable. It’s definitely a marketing effort on my part. I’ve never been interested in the sloppychef look. Our food is very highly styled and that’s how I like to present myself, too. I am my brand. Some people will come up to me and say, ‘Hey, are you Boutique Bites?’ as if that’s my name. That’s a good question to be asked.
What’s the payoff for you?
Client satisfaction is huge — I’m very fortunate to have such fantastic clients. I’ve also never managed a team before and have a huge source of pride and happiness in people who started with me and are doing so wonderfully. More recently, I’ve been having a lot of pinch-me moments because we moved to a giant space that’s 8,000 square feet. Our old space was 1,100 square feet. We can start hosting events here, which has been a dream of mine for years. My current desk used to be the main desk that my whole team used. Now it’s just mine! I'm so happy to come to work every day and find it pretty hard to complain.
Follow Boutique Bites