Get Happy

Written by Rosalind Fournier 

Photography by Billy Brown

In 1992, Vassilli “Bill” Bouloukos decided to leave corporate America and follow a different dream—opening his own restaurant. He remembers calling his father to tell him the news. “He said, ‘I didn’t send you to college to open a restaurant!’” Bouloukos recalls. “He didn’t speak to me for two months.” Bouloukos’s father, a first-generation Greek immigrant, had spent his own career in the restaurant and bar business and hoped his son would enjoy the relative stability of working for a big company. But Bouloukos, unconvinced that corporate America still offered the stability it once promised, took the plunge to go into business for himself by purchasing Andy’s on the Green, the famed downtown lunch establishment on 20th Street.

It was the beginning of what would become a long and prominent career in the local food scene, with a few twists and turns that ultimately led to the launch of Happy Catering Company in the early 2000s. With partner Robbie Dyson, he has now built Happy Catering into one of the most successful catering businesses in the area.

The King of 20th Street

D3S_9703_1After buying Andy’s on the Green, Bouloukos opened Slap Happy’s, a casual breakfast-and-lunch spot serving gyros and sandwiches. He expanded quickly, opening three more Slap Happy’s locations downtown and taking over a 500-seat cafeteria in what was then the AmSouth-Sonat Tower.

He spent his days rollerblading through downtown to check on all of his properties. “I was the king of 20th Street,” he says with a laugh. “It was like the Vegas Strip for me.” When the nearby Parliament House hotel reopened in the 1990s, Bouloukos took over its restaurant, too, christening it Tortellini Market and Grill. And in a roundabout way, that’s how he got into the catering business. “They had a 500-seat banquet hall, so I learned how to do banquet catering,” he says. “I said, ‘Wow, this catering is pretty cool. Everybody’s eating the same thing. You know who’s coming and when.’” As Bouloukos began to focus more on catering, one of his managers suggested a name for the new business: Happy Catering. “I said, ‘People aren’t going to take us seriously,’” Bouloukos recalls. “And he said, ‘But they’ll remember it.’ So we became the Happy Catering Company.”

Slowly selling off his restaurants, he found there was a high demand for catered business lunches, which are still the bread and butter of Happy Catering. But Bouloukos quickly discovered an even larger market in wedding catering. “From our lunch catering I would have young ladies say, ‘I’m getting married. I love your food, and you’re fun to work with—I bet you’d do a great job with weddings.’” Almost overnight, he realized that wedding catering could provide the best of both worlds, with large jobs that could be planned in advance along with the chance to interact with guests and take satisfaction from seeing them enjoy great food.

The Start of a Partnership

D3S_9697_1As Bouloukos was growing the catering business, he heard that Andy’s on the Green—the first restaurant he had bought—had changed hands again, and he stopped by to meet new owner Robbie Dyson. “Bill asked what I planned to do, and I told him I intended to completely update and renovate the facility to bring a tired old concept into the new age,” Dyson recalls. Under the new name Dyson Deli and Gourmet to Go, he also updated the menu to include not only traditional meat-and-three diner fare but also gourmet soups, entrée salads, and artisan sandwiches. Bouloukos was impressed with Dyson, who had fallen in love with the food industry while studying restaurant and hospitality management at the University of Alabama and gaining hands-on experience working in local restaurants. “I talked to Robbie and thought, ‘This guy’s a hard worker, and he really knows his stuff,’” Bouloukos remembers.

Dyson says the first two years at Dyson Deli and Gourmet to Go were fabulous. During that period, however, he also began joining forces with Bouloukos on some large wedding jobs on the weekends, and they realized they worked well together. Dyson decided to sell his restaurant to Chris DuPont (who now owns Cafe DuPont) and become a partner in Happy Catering. “Robbie is very good at training and administration,” Bouloukos says. “He knows how to bring people in, get them to be part of the team, make them feel confident…all of those things. So he brings that experience to the hospitality business.” Bouloukos, for his part, is more comfortable in his role as the front man heavily involved on the sales and promotion side, so from the start they’ve complemented each other well.

In 2005, they moved Happy Catering to Oxmoor Circle in West Homewood. Here, they occupy some 10,000 square feet of kitchen, commissary, and office space, and what they lack in foot traffic they more than make up for in character and the warm welcome they extend to everyone who walks in the door—especially brides and their families, who are treated like royalty, from the brides-only reserved parking space outside to the sit-down lunch they provide to discuss menus and sample dishes.

Evolving with the Industry

D3S_9782_1Much has changed in the catering business since Happy Catering began. There’s been an explosion of new event venues, with brides and grooms looking beyond hotels and country clubs to places like Vulcan Park, Bridgestreet Gallery, the Barn at Shady Lane, and Aldridge Gardens, just to name a few of the more than 25 venues they partner with. These have opened up the market tremendously.

At the same time, clients have become increasingly knowledgeable about different types of cuisine and don’t want to settle for the same old thing. Bouloukos says he tries to advise brides and grooms to consider that not all of their guests will embrace the more exotic dishes, but he still loves the opportunity to change things up. “Most of the time, we decide on a compromise by going with things their guests will know—prime rib, filet mignon, shrimp—but we try to put a spin on it,” he explains. They also follow trends from other local restaurants, seeing what new foods become big hits and which quickly fizzle out.

Then there’s the impact of the internet, which is difficult to overstate for the service industry. Search-engine optimization, social media posts, and good reviews have taken on a huge significance for the catering business.  “Luckily, we’re doing a great job, so that makes it much easier,” Bouloukos says. “If you look at the reviews from customers online, we have three times more than the other guys, because we ask for them. We call clients after every job, ask how everything was, and say, ‘If you have a minute, please write us a review.’ If you’re doing a great job, it comes out in the way they write, so that has been our best testimony.”

D3S_9730_1Bouloukos acknowledges there’s some risk in that strategy, because no caterer is going to pull off every job perfectly, and an unhappy client is usually the first to hit the online sounding boards. That’s when he combines savvy internet marketing with old-fashioned customer service. “If there’s a problem, I ask how we can make it right, whether that’s sitting down to discuss it over a cup of coffee or bringing them lunch on us,” he says. “Because I firmly believe in the philosophy that it’s five times harder to find new clients than to take care of the ones you have.”

Going Above and Beyond

But while their digital marketing has paid off, Bouloukos and Dyson say they remain as committed as ever to old-school business values. “As you grow, you never want to lose touch with where you started,” Bouloukos explains. “We know that a wedding is not like buying a car. It should be special and enjoyable.” That could include anything from running interference if the cake designer is behind schedule to helping remove a last-minute stain on a wedding gown. “We’re not just there to say, ‘Hey—here’s your food,’ and that’s all we do,” adds Bouloukos, who takes turns with Dyson personally making an appearance at every wedding they cater, up to four or five per weekend. “Something is always going to happen, so we try to go above and beyond and help them through the whole event.”

Still, Bouloukos believes the quality and presentation of the food itself remain critical to the success of any event. “The food is part of the entertainment,” he says. “The artistry is very important. Not only does it have to taste great, it has to look good. And we’re one of the few caterers that build presentations at no extra charge.” For Bouloukos, that means incorporating unique serving pieces his Greek relatives send him when they find great deals on Turkish copper bowls or other items at auctions or roadside markets throughout Europe.

D3S_9766_1And from the beginning of the planning process to the moment the bride and groom make their grand exit, Bouloukos hopes that if people remember anything about the catering, it’s that they tried to make it fun—right down to surprising the happy couple with a care package of food at the end, carefully packed in a custom-made crate. “It’s all fun,” Bouloukos says. “We love challenges, and when we see it all come together, it makes us feel good, and we couldn’t do it without our talented staff of chefs, attendants, and marketing specialists, who are truly part of the family. Every day is different. And if we don’t enjoy it, we’re going to go find something else to do. The whole key is having fun doing what you’re doing.”