When you think of a well-run event there are a few key factors that come to mind: the decor, the playlist, and most important factor of all - the food. The appetizers, lunches, dinners, breakfasts, and desserts that are present throughout an occasion are the glue that keeps the whole event together. They keep people happy and full while also giving us a second to rest from the small talk. While it’s a simple concept, finding the right caterer can often feel like an impossible task. The food has to be good, and it needs to be done in such a professional setting that it’s hardly even noticed until you take your first bite. That’s what makes it so impressive that Happy Catering has been providing food to events across the Greater Birmingham Metro for 30 years. Three decades of catering excellence doesn’t come easy, but it’s brought more fun and family than the company’s founders could have ever imagined.
“Both myself and Robbie Dyson - my business partner - started in restaurants downtown. We had several restaurants up and down 20th Street,” Happy Catering co-founder Vassilli “Bill” Bouloukos shares. The two entrepreneurs both opened multiple restaurants that became favorites in the city including Andy’s on the Green, Tortellini Market and Grill, Dyson’s Deli and Gourmet To Go, and two Slap Happy’s. “Everyone in the offices that we delivered to asked if we catered because their daughters were getting married and they like our food. One thing led to another and we started catering. Before you know it we sold off the other businesses and focused on catering, and it’s been nothing but great since then. It’s a party every day, we really enjoy it.”
While some of About Town’s younger readers may not recall, 1993 was the beginning of a pretty bad recession in the United States. Things started slowing down in the Downtown part of the Magic City, and both Bouloukos and Dyson began to recognize that their breakfast and lunch-centric establishments may not find the continued success amongst the decline in spending from the general public. Fortunately, catering became a quick solution that brought more than financial benefits. “The more we get into catering the more we realized we enjoyed the event business, because it could be a 7-days-a-week business with lunch caterings, social caterings on evenings, and of course weddings on the weekends,” Bill recalls, “We get a lot of corporate buildings ask us to do after-hours parties. The law firms are a big business for us. It was a good transition because our staff was able to spend more time with family. We’re able to plan our events more accordingly around the holidays. It allowed us to experiment more with menus and give more upper-level menu items which is fun for both of us since we’re very culinary trained.”
While Happy Catering was founded during a down point in the city, the company never strayed and found their faith in Birmingham has paid off tenfold. As the Magic City builds to greater heights, so too does Happy Catering. “The growth of the city has been a part of our success. UAB is probably one of our largest clients, but as we’ve seen businesses relocate back to downtown we’ve seen a big increase in our lunch business. Of course we cover the five metropolitan counties around Jefferson County - anything that touches Jefferson County we deliver to. We’ve seen a big growth with venues downtown. The Vulcan Park & Museum was completed in the early 2000s and that’s a great venue for us,” Bouloukos remembers, “We’ve seen a lot of things change. We have grown with the changes. The World Games this year is a great example. That helped us out tremendously, especially after a COVID year. We’ve seen a lot more conferences come into town. Birmingham has become a destination city.”
Thirty years is a long time to be in any business, but the food industry is exceptionally difficult to last in. One benefit of persevering is seeing the benefits that come as the present day slowly becomes the future. For example, easier access to seasonings and foods from around the world has allowed Happy Catering to get more creative with their menu in recent years. It’s still the Southern staples that remain favorites however. The usual preferred option for Monday to Friday meals is the classic meat and three - an Alabama favorite. Breakfast, which both restaurateurs were known for in the 90s, is still a largely popular catering selection. “People still enjoy a big Southern breakfast,” Bill knowingly states, going on to share that “On weekends we’re able to dive into nicer seafoods that the coast affords us now. The great local providers of beef and vegetables. Alabama has such prime farming land and livestock. We’ve been able to really expand the menu and do some international foods from Indian to - of course me being Greek we do Greek - Italian, Mexican dishes. Being from the South, most of our events are cocktail-themed events. Not a sit down dinner because in the South we like to stand up and mingle and move around and see people.” Bill lovingly calls it “the church fellowship scenario” which leads to hors d'oeuvres staying as a top catering option for Birmingham event planners.
Another must to stay in three decades is building a solid staff around you, and the team has only gotten better with time at Happy Catering. The growth has led to an expanded staff that features a culinary team, executive chefs, operations directors, warehouse managers, sous chefs, and administrative members. This makes the entire cater planning experience smooth from the moment a client calls. The expansion of the team, which now includes Bill’s son Alex, hasn’t just meant present-day improvements, it also means sustained success moving forward. “It’s always good to have a younger generation working with you to look into the future. We’re hoping for another 30 years, God willing. That’s our priority right now is to continue to be the favorite of Birmingham’s social scene and corporate scene.”
The Happy Catering collective doesn’t only expand with new employees, but also new customers. “Every client becomes a part of the family because there’s nothing more trusting than allowing someone to feed your guests,” Bouloukos explains, “It’s not every day people plan a party for 100 guests or more. That’s why we’re here to make it easy on them.” The average person is used to maybe feeding 10 people for an event, for Happy Catering a thousand guests is no sweat. In addition to making the experience easy for event planners, it’s also a yummy one with catered meal tastings to help select the perfect menu beforehand.
“All these people become good friends over 30 years. I have dinner with some of my best clients, just to go out and have cocktails. It’s become fun. My dad always said ‘If it’s not fun, lock the doors to the restaurant and go home,’” Bill shares. While the long-term business relationships have turned into lasting friendships, they are far from the only catering clients that have brought joy to the Happy Catering team. “Each wedding is always special because of the bonding of the families coming together. A lot of times we will do the rehearsal dinner and the reception. We really enjoy seeing the families have a good time and we’re a part of it - it’s almost not work. We also enjoy, of course, the nonprofit groups that do so much for the less fortunate in Birmingham. We contribute a lot and we work with them a lot.”
Happy Catering is obviously proud of their 30 years in business, but they are equally proud to be doing it in the Magic City. “Funny story, I moved here in ‘84 out of the University of Tennessee. I was working for corporate America back when Bruno’s grocery store chain was booming. I was selling them all their point-of-sale systems. After the tragedy of that company with the plane crash, my job went to hell in a handbasket,” Bill reflects, “I opened my first restaurant downtown on 20th St. - Andy’s on the Green. There I’d get a lot of newspaper guys because their offices were right down the street. I got to meet a lot of heavy hitters in town like Bob Carlton. I never thought I’d be in Birmingham, Alabama. When I got here George Wallace was still governor. I was like ‘Where in the hell am I going?’ But we easily fell in love with this town. I could have easily taken a job in corporate America and moved somewhere else but we fell in love with Birmingham. We really did. We live in Homewood and from there we have friends in all the different suburbs. It’s got a small town feel yet it’s a big city. Coming from a small town in North Georgia, I’ve enjoyed it. They’ve embraced me. Of course I’m part of the Greek community here with the church - they have been great. I’m telling you it’s a well-kept secret. I tell my friends in Atlanta ‘I can come visit y’all any time. I like where I’m at.’ We’ve really enjoyed Birmingham as a city and watching it really prosper.”
A prospering city with a catering menu that can’t be beat. Congratulations on 30 years, Happy Catering.