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Small Business Week: Cravings (Newark) handles the appetites of big companies and corporate events

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Cravings creator Marisa Blackwell: “You have to be able to meet the needs or the requirements of people's diets.”
Cravings creator Marisa Blackwell: “You have to be able to meet the needs or the requirements of people's diets.” - (PHOTO BY AARON HOUSTON)

Multitasking is a necessity for just about any small business owner, even if it's not always a welcome part of the job.

But Marisa Blackwell actually prefers it.

That just works for me — to be able to do something that offers me a variety during the course of the day,” she said. “For me, to do one thing at a time is a challenge, but to do 50 things at the same time — I’m in seventh heaven.”

It’s why Blackwell has been able to build Cravings, a full-service catering and event-planning business based in Newark. She says her staff of seven thrives on complicated, “logistical” assignments — whether it’s an all-day, multicourse function or an event that requires her staff to create the full ambience with linen, flowers and china.

Blackwell founded Cravings from her home in 2008, now operating from a modest space on Halsey Street. But it caters for many of the Newark area’s biggest companies, institutions and personalities — from Rutgers Business School to PSE&G to renowned Brick City author Philip Roth.

And she does so with a menu that reads like a world almanac: chicken teriyaki dumplings, curried eggplant soup; Cuban, Indian and Italian dishes; vegan and vegetarian offerings, not to mention your typical sandwiches, soups and desserts.

“There are so many different people in Newark, and particularly on this campus, you have to be able to meet the needs or the requirements of people’s diets,” Blackwell said, referring to Rutgers. “You have to be able to do a little bit of everything these days.”

The South Orange resident has some 20 years in the catering and event planning business, going back to her days in her native Chicago. Around 2000, a few years after moving to New Jersey, she started as a food service manager at New York Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan.

It wasn’t long before the hospital tapped her to manage its Windows on the Hudson restaurant and its VIP floor, where she cared for the likes of President Bill Clinton when he underwent quadruple bypass surgery in 2004.

But Blackwell has “always had this feeling of wanting to be my own boss and finding opportunities when I could,” she said. Fast-forward to 2008, when she founded Cravings. At first she used her home and “borrowed” commercial kitchens as she gained her earliest clients, including Rutgers. For nearly six years, she has catered for the school’s Executive MBA program under a weekly, 150-person assignment that spans about nine months annually.

Her book of business now includes many of Newark’s prominent law firms and corporate players, not to mention some high-profile events. In March 2013, Blackwell catered the novelist Roth’s 80th birthday party at the Newark Museum, she said. She also handled a recent luncheon for PSE&G, which hosted Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno.

“We bounce all over the place, but what I think we’re really good at are the logistical things,” she said. “What we’re really good at is being able to offer a diverse menu … and to be able to transform an environment.”

Having a strong menu comes from being creative and being diligent about having fresh ingredients, Blackwell said. She and her staff will travel to get the right product when necessary, heading the Indian specialty stores in Jersey City or an Asian market in Livingston.

Cravings has operated at Halsey and Linden streets since 2010, thanks largely to some help from real estate investor and philanthropist Paul Profeta. With a zero-interest loan from the Profeta Urban Investment Foundation and guidance from Rutgers Business School, Blackwell was able to renovate the space and set up shop in one of the city’s main corridors alongside Broad Street.

And getting the new space “legitimizes you,” she said. It also gave Cravings a storefront to help it build a walk-in business.

“It’s an art doing retail and catering at the same time,” Blackwell said. “I’m trying to master that.”

BIZ IN BRIEF

NAME: Cravings

LOCATION: Newark

DIRECTOR: Marisa Blackwell

EMPLOYEES: 7 full-time plus others REVENUE: Undisclosed

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Joshua Burd

Joshua Burd

Josh Burd covers real estate, economic development and sports and entertainment. Before joining NJBIZ in 2011, he spent four years as a metro reporter in Central Jersey. His email is joshb@njbiz.com and he is @JoshBurdNJ on Twitter.

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