Article in The Albuquerque Tribune: Star-caterer says business feeds him

In 1972, Mario Gonzalez had experience as a cattle-herding cowboy, $1,000 and a deep-rooted fascination with Disneyland.

With his father’s blessing and encouragement from a friend, Gonzalez struck out for California from his home of San Miguel, a town in Mexico he guessed to have about 25,000 people at the time. His mission: see every tourist attraction he could, especially the mouse – the one named Mickey.

“That was my main purpose for coming to the United States – to go see Disneyland,” said the 51-year-old owner of Mario’s Studio Services, a catering company that keeps Hollywood creatives and production teams fed. “I was fascinated.”

What was supposed to be just a trip ended up becoming a move when Gonzalez got a job making truck windows instead of returning to Mexico.

In 1983, after years of working in the catering business, he struck out on his own and started his own company that, after a modest beginning, exceeded all of his expectations

It has done so well, in fact, that, in 2003, Gonzalez opened a satellite in Santa Fe to serve New Mexico’s burgeoning film industry.

For Gonzalez, that business is booming.

More than 50 percent of his company’s revenue in 2005 came from New Mexico productions, he said. In a couple of years, he predicted, that number could climb to 60 percent or even 80 percent.

Hollywood stars presented with his food this week included the likes of Martin Sheen and Jennifer Lopez. (“We ask her if she needs anything different and she just says, `Whatever is on the menu.’ She’s been wonderful,” Gonzalez said.)

Both actors are in Albuquerque to shoot “Bordertown,” a film about a reporter investigating the killings of hundreds of women in Juarez. Some of the film’s scenes were shot in The Tribune’s offices this week.

Gonzalez is considering making the city his company’s New Mexico home because, he said, it’s an easier place than Santa Fe to get groceries and other supplies.

“I’m looking ahead, and the future looks pretty bright in New Mexico,” he said. “It’s been wonderful.”

Between California and New Mexico, Gonzalez said, his company brings in annual revenues of $4 million to $6 million. That’s up significantly from the $260,000 it picked up in its first year of operation.

“Better than I ever imagined,” he said. “It was never my plan to stay here. It was just come to Disneyland, do the tourist thing. It’s been wonderful.”

The New Mexico branch of Gonzalez’s company – Mario’s Catering Inc. – is managed on a daily basis by one of his three sons, Mario “Roland” Gonzalez.

During one lunch hour for the cast and crew of “Bordertown,” this week, Roland negotiated food orders on his cell phone while his catering crew grilled chicken and served seared Ahi tuna topped with a tangy sauce.

“Do you have half cases of bananas or no?” he said into his phone. After hearing a “yes,” he ordered the fruit and asked about lettuce. A full case is too much. Just a half case there, too. And spinach? What about tomatoes? Garlic?

“It’s hard to keep 125 people happy with food every single day, but that’s what the goal is,” Roland said in a later interview held between meals. “It’s just a grueling job.”

A typical workday lasts 16 hours, he says. Depending on a film production’s schedule, it can mean waking up as early as 2 a.m. or as late as 8 a.m. It can mean tracking down exotic food requests such as almond milk to keep his clients happy – a typical Hollywood requirement uniquely missing from the “Bordertown” production, he says.

“The goal is to keep the customer happy,” he says. “If you keep the customer happy, they’ll keep calling you back.

Though he admits he gets “excited” about working with stars, it’s not the reason he’s in business.

“I think of this as my . . . as what feeds me, what is my well-being – what has fed my dad and our family for however many years,” he said. “My main goal is not to meet Jennifer Lopez.”

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