November 2008

Sandstone: Catering to Hilton Head

Author: Paul deVere | Photographer: photography by anne & John Brackett

Early in the fall of this year, VERANDA magazine, one of the publications of the Hearst Corporation (i.e., Good Housekeeping, Town & Country, House Beautiful, etc.), hosted a party for about 150 guests. From the food to entertainment, the theme was Cuban-Caribbean and hailed by all as a great success.

What made it somewhat unusual was the location: 35 Main Street, Hilton Head Island, or more specifically, the “Tuscan Garden” that graces the entrance to the new J. Banks Design Group building. The location was also very convenient for the company that catered the event. The garden is just a few yards from the kitchens of Sandstone Catering and Mainly Sandstone, a gourmet “grab and go” prepared foods shop. Both companies are owned by Chef Aram Haroutunian and wife Robin.

The party was just what Chef Aram does best. “My specialty is the high-end, multi-course dinner party,” he said. But he is also very aware of what is going on in the economy. His advice: “Just because we’re going through tough economic times doesn’t mean you have to stop entertaining. Any caterer will work with your budget. Don’t be afraid to go to your caterer and tell them how much you want to spend. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want and you can afford.”

“We got a lot of holiday orders that are strictly the food, not the service,” Robin added. She said more people are requesting just “drop offs,” and Sandstone Catering is adapting. “We’re trying to look at ways to making access to high-end dining without breaking the bank,” she said. “We have to be creative.”

The Haroutunians are used to being creative. They started their first restaurant in Keene, New Hampshire in 1996, when they were in their early twenties. It was a small, 56-seat, dinner-only establishment. “We didn’t make a lot of money that first year, but we did make a lot happy customers,” Robin said. That year “Mangos and Manners” was voted best new restaurant in southern New Hampshire.

“We parlayed in a restaurant group called Culinary Emporium that consisted of a large, 250-seat restaurant, a 3,500 gourmet prepared meals market and bakery and a catering company. We had about 140 employees,” Chef Aram explained. They sold that to a partner a few years later.

“We were fried,” Robin laughed.

That’s when they got into the yacht business. “We kind of backed into that,” Chef Aram said. The “yacht business” was a 150-foot luxury yacht that cruises the Mediterranean in the summer and the Caribbean during the winter. People would rent it for vacations. “These people were billionaires,” Robin said.

Aram was the personal chef and Robin the event coordinator and server. “It’s like being in a five-star operation 24/7. There is nothing but perfect. When people are spending $200,000 a week for a vacation with10 guests on the boat, it has to be perfect. The planning, the innovation, the creativity all has to spot on. You really can’t teach that, you have to experience it,” Chef Aram explained.

“Even the weather has to be perfect,” Robin added, laughing. The couple spent about five years on the high seas before returning to dry land.

But throughout his career, Chef Aram has had some extraordinary opportunities. “We’ve cooked and entertained in a lot of different countries: France, Italy, Spain, Sardinia. We immersed ourselves in the culture. We lived in Europe for a while, so when we cook French or Italian, we use those same ingredients. When we make coco van, we have to use a rooster. Not just chicken, but a good old barnyard rooster,” Chef Aram said.

“There’s sort of a culinary fusion-confusion that occurs in American cooking now, where some of those real, indigenous flavors have been lost. We’ve gone out and found a lot of those flavors and try to be as authentic as possible,” he explained. He said he brings that experience to the table for a catered event.

The Haroutunians are both very pleased with their new location, especially the garden. But even more exciting for them is that they now have their own venue, the Sienna Room in the J. Banks building, which seats 35 to 40 guests. “We can now do large events without sacrificing the quality we offer in high-end food and service,” Robin said.

Sandstone Catering has grown significantly. They just finished the Senior Games at Sun City-Hilton Head. During the Heritage, they serve five or six corporate clients. They do all the private catering for Marriott’s Vacation Club properties on the island, and partner with Hilton Head Rentals, Resort Quest of Hilton Head and Sunset Rentals for private catering.

“Seafood is very popular with the tourists. They want oysters; they want to experience the beach thing. Ironically, the next request they make is for New England clam bakes,” Chef Aram, a New Englander himself, laughed.

“The one challenge with Hilton Head, everything’s done at the last minute. We have to do a lot of last minute planning, and have to be very flexible,” Robin said.

“And Hilton Head clients are very sophisticated. There is the expectation of impeccable service. That is very important,” Chef Aram said.

Talking about their careers in the food and beverage business—28 years—Robin said, “Through trial and error, we feel we’ve learned lot.” As for the catering business, specifically, she said the most important rule is “listening to what the clients want, and not telling them what you think they should have.”

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