Oakland is no stranger to the Olympics. From track and field stars like gold medalists Jim Hines and Archie Williams, to boxer Andre Ward and figure skater James Grogan, the city has been well represented on the podium.
But this year in Sochi, Russia, Oakland’s presence at the Olympiad has more to do with what’s inside people’s stomachs than their athleticism.
Back in September, John Crisafulli, president of Behind the Scenes Catering and Events, was well into his search for the finest ingredients to feed U.S. and Canadian media members — as well as some American athletes — when he called Veronica Foods on Oakland’s Embarcadero.
Crisafulli has been serving food around the clock at the Olympics since the 2000 summer games in Sydney, Australia.
“We originally started doing backstage concerts in San Diego and Los Angeles, but quickly grew into large sporting events including the America’s Cup,” he said. “In 1997, we started doing the X Games with ESPN and got into relationships with broadcasters.”
In Sydney, the catering company served food at ten different venues and has been picking up new clients at every Olympics since. According to Crisafulli, broadcast companies bring nearly 3,000 hungry employees to the games, everyone from anchors and reporters to engineers and graphics people. One commissary feeds as many as 1,800 people, never closes and includes a Starbucks, fruit bar and grill.
Crisafulli says he normally likes to source food locally at the games and at home, but in Russia things are a bit different.
“Sochi is a very small town. It’s equivalent to doing an Olympics in a small suburb of 100,000 people. There’s one grocery store, four or five gas stations. It’s not a big area, nothing in volume,” he said. “And the quality of food is not that same as what we’re used to. Locally-grown produce is covered in mud and dirt and there are weird-shaped carrots. It’s normal here. People peel and wash. But it’s not normal for us.”
While Crisafulli was able to secure European produce and U.S. beef from distributors in Moscow, he was forced to look closer to home for most of his product. This meant he had to create a local supply chain and cold storage delivery system from scratch, and for security purposes, had to know everything about the products’ origins.
“Everything we have here I can trace back to where it came from, how it’s packaged, and how it’s held,” he said. “Every item we use I can trace back to the growers. Suppliers have background check forms. We visit warehouses. Growing companies can verify how they clean and process the food. It’s a lot more complicated than most people think, and all for quality and safety.”
It was this stringent search for quality that led Crisafulli to Veronica Foods.
Veronica Foods specializes in what they call Ultra Premium Olive Oil, a strict standard above extra virgin that tests for freshness by taste and chemical composition. For a while now, Behind the Scenes Catering has been sourcing its olive oil and balsamic vinegars through a San Diego store called Baker and Olive based on a recommendation from one its chefs.
Baker and Olive happens to be supplied by Veronica Foods, and when Crisafulli’s need to serve thousands of people each day outgrew what Baker and Olive could handle, he contacted their supplier directly.
“He’s is very serious about quality. By the time he got to us he knew exactly what he wanted, he really vetted the product,” Leah Bradley of Veronica Foods said. “It’s an honor to have been selected.”
In all, Crisafulli ordered more than 30 varieties of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, everything from single variety oils to fused oils crushed with organic produce and infused vinegars.
“The oils are one of the biggest hits in the commissary,” Crisafulli said. “It’s our first time with infused vinegars and the people have raved about them. People are trying to eat healthier and organic, and since we have fresh fruits and vegetables, it’s a great compliment.”
In the end, he sent 46 shipping containers to Sochi, 31 of which were refrigerated. It was a large task, but according to Crisafulli, well worth the effort.
“The thing that was unique about these games is that, since we moved so much food product, we’ve been able to use a lot of smaller companies,” he said. “It’s more rewarding to work with the small entrepreneurial companies I work with every day, and to share the love a bit.”