We caught up with Leslie Nilsson—Founder and Creative Director of NYC-based company Bartleby & Sage. Evolving from the catering branch of Sage American Kitchen in Long Island City, Bartleby & Sage is now a full-service catering and event planning company offering sustainable farm-to-table food for weddings and corporate events.
Can you tell us about the beginnings of Bartleby & Sage, and about your journey from literature to restaurants and ultimately to catering?
While I was teaching and freelancing at Glamour magazine, I continued to work in the restaurant world as a side gig. In 1997 a friend asked if I wanted to take over her small kitchen/retail shop in what was then a no-man’s land part of Long Island City, Queens. I modeled my first “take out kitchen” after the famous gourmet shop The Silver Palate, that started the foodie craze in NYC back in 1977. We did some catering from the start and that turned into a separate division, Sage Events, when we expanded to a larger commercial kitchen in 2003. We changed the name to Bartleby and Sage in 2010, in part to honor my favorite character in American literature, Bartleby, the Scrivener.
Many sectors of the wedding industry have a high percentage of women in the workforce. Is this also the case for catering, and have you as a woman business owner faced any challenges in your work?
I’d say about half of NYC catering companies are woman-owned. The restaurant industry, which I was a part of for most of my career, is 90% or more male-dominated mostly because restaurants require so much capital and at least in my experience banks and investors don’t lend to women much. The barriers to entry in catering are very low—you can start catering out of a shared kitchen or in the back of someone’s restaurant, so women found that an easier option.
What kind of changes have you seen in the catering industry over the years, particularly when it comes to sustainability?
When I started my company in 1997 I immediately sourced biodegradable products for takeout and drop-off catering and, at the time, there weren’t many options and they were far more expensive. Sourcing the best breads, locally-made cheeses and meats and vegetables has always been a part of our ethos and I’d say that clients have started to really care about these things in the past five years and even more since coming out of the pandemic. I gave a talk in 2004 at the San Francisco Green Summit and it was mostly the organic food producers in attendance. Now sustainability has gone mainstream.
On a related note, how do you envision the industry’s progress in the near future and what are some developments you’d like to see?
I would like to see more composting initiatives. We had the city doing some compositing pick up in Queens but it isn’t happening here in Brooklyn yet. I do see more and more young professionals caring about green initiatives and sustainable products—they are educating their bosses and older colleagues and this is a good thing.
Do you have a favorite dish that you offer at weddings, or one that you feel embodies Bartleby & Sage’s take on sustainability? Can you share a photo and tell us a little about it?
A whole hog – pigs get a bad rap these days but they are truly the best whole animal to serve for families celebrating their origins (in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic and Cuba it’s Pernil, in the Philippines it’s Lechon and in the South, it’s called BBQ pulled pork!
Is there any advice you can share with entrepreneurs and small business owners who are just starting out in the food industry?
Understand your numbers! So many folks start a business with great ideas but they aren’t looking at the food cost and labor costs and what their margins are. I took the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses course back in 2010 and it was the wisest business decision I’ve made. It really is like getting a free MBA!
Learn more about Bartleby & Sage on their website.
Banner image courtesy of Bartleby & Sage.