It's David vs Goliath: Picasso Restaurant Group vies to run corporate and university cafes
Janet Miller | For AnnArbor.com
The family-run Picasso has outbid the global giants, winning contracts at Domino's world headquarters and now at the University of Michigan.
“We realized we could play to our strengths,” said Allen A. Attee, Picasso vice president. “”We’re a local business. We’re family owned . We have the freedom to create our own things. Corporations have cookie-cutter models.”
Attee’s brother, Michael J., also a vice president, said the company is poised to expand further. “Now that we have an established name, the sky’s the limit in Ann Arbor,” Michael said.
In three years, the company has moved from running The E.B.A. Café at Domino's Farms along with a free-standing café in Novi to breaking into the U-M market. Since 2009, Picasso has added two U-M cafés and grown the catering end of the business. Gross revenues have increased 800 percent in that time, Allen said.
They see continued growth, and plan to bid on the contract to operate the cafés inside the U-M North Research Complex (the former Pfizer building) and at the U-M Medical Center, Allen said. The brothers run the day-to-day operation of Picasso, which includes the Picasso Café in Novi, two cafes inside Domino's Farms, the 20/20 Café at the U-M’s Kellogg Eye Center and the new Kirkland and Ellis Café inside Hutchins Hall of the U-M law school.
Their beginnings were by chance.
Janet Miller | For AnnArbor.com
Their father, Gerald Attee, founded the company in 1992 after he retired from General Motors after 35 years, working as an engineer and executive. He had time on his hands and his wife, Nihad, urged him to find something to do outside of the house. Using his wife’s recipes for hummus and chicken salad, the elder Attee won the contract to take over the sundries shop inside of Domino's Farms, turning it into a small grab-and-go café, featuring made-to-order sandwiches. The brothers, in their early teens at the time, helped out by selling muffins and soda pop from a pushcart. After the brothers graduated from college, they opened Picasso Café in Novi.
When the contract for operating the cafeteria at Domino's Farms expired in 2009, the Attee family was asked to bid, and began operating the 350-seat E.B.A (Everything But Anchovies) Café under a five-year contract. “By that time, we’d already captured 90 percent of the catering in the building,” Allen said. They expanded to a second location inside the Domino's Farms campus, Bison Bistro.
“Our business model is different from people’s perception of institution food,” Allen said. “We do it fast, but fresh and better.” Because Picasso has lower corporate costs - there are no secretaries, no marketing team and they control their salaries - they were able to under bid the competition, Allen said. They have 60 employees.
Their menu also defies typical institutional food, the brothers said. While they have sandwiches, they also offer dishes such as lemon chicken veloute and Thai salmon with southwest chili glazed vegetables, a choice of Tazo teas and espresso drinks. “We transform a cafeteria into a restaurant,” Michael said.
As the company began shifting from the restaurant model to the business/institutional café model, a call came from the U-M health system asking Picasso to submit a bid to run the café inside the new U-M Kellogg Eye Center. U-M has a number of health clinics inside Domino's Farms, and U-M employees had become familiar with The E.B.A. Café, Allen said. Picasso began operating the 20/20 Café in 2010.
Word began to spread around U-M, and Picasso was again asked to submit a bid by the university, this time to operate the new café inside the law school. That was up and running last year. Picasso bids against the big players, Allen said. “When we bid, it’s usually ARAMARK, Sodexo, Compass and little old us . It’s David and Goliath.”
Part of their growth strategy included bringing William P. Collins in as executive chef last August. Collins, who last worked as executive chef at Barton Hills Country Club, has been a chef in Ann Arbor for 30 years. He’s added some higher end choices to the menus along with exhibition cooking at the different sites.
They have also grown the catering end of the business, offering service to small events such as bar mitzvahs and large corporate gatherings.
While the brothers were headed into the restaurant business, the shift to operating contract cafés is a better niche, Michael said. “It differentiates us. No one is doing what we’re doing as a small family business.”