From catering to house-flipping, savvy entrepreneurs see opportunity

By Gabe House

Josh Sonneborn, owner of Signature Event Rental, describes the company as his mainstay, the business he truly works at. Considering he has ownership interest in myriad areas – from event rental supplies to catering to bars and restaurants to rental properties to flipping houses – it seems a difficult proposition to pin him and his frequent business partner, Josh Lindvall, down.

“What we really are doing – we’ve got somewhere around 250 employees company-wide right now – is all about people,” Sonneborn said. “If we have someone really motivated, we want to go into business with them and work with them to expand.”

Their enterprise is most certainly expanding.

Sonneborn and Lindvall started 5 Flavors Catering in 2008. Shortly thereafter, they enticed chef Chip Kennedy – a Springfield native who had relocated to Portland – to become executive chef and a partner in the business Sonneborn describes as the upscale catering service Springfield had been lacking.

“It seemed like in the ‘90s the restaurant scene changed here – you saw places like Augie’s, Sebastian’s and Indigo, and it seemed like the market really opened up to a nicer style of food,” Sonneborn said. “And then we had a lot of those people doing a bit of catering, but nobody was really focusing on that style of food service at a true catering level of chef-created dishes.”

According to Sonneborn, 5 Flavors sparked interest, thanks in large part to chef Kennedy’s personal involvement in events – he will often create a custom menu with event organizers to truly personalize it.

“We do a lot of weddings. It’s a majority of what we do, but we also have a lot of corporate customers and fundraisers, things of that nature,” Sonneborn said. “I feel 5 Flavors is still really boutique. We’ve grown, it’s doing well, but I think we still keep that smaller company feel where Chip’s hand is in most every event. He does the menu, oversees the production of the food. He runs the show, he’s the man out there.”

Last year, they purchased Secret Recipes Catering and merged the two companies while retaining separate brand identities. Lindvall also owns Nelson’s Catering with his brother, Jeff. Among the three catering services, Sonneborn said, one would be hard-pressed to find any particular point on the spectrum not being serviced.

“When you talk about Secret Recipes, 5 Flavors and Nelson’s they’re all very distinct brands,” Sonneborn said. “(Overlap) was a concern when we brought on Secret Recipes. Josh and I have been friends for 15 years, and we had that conversation, but we’re over a year into it and we’ve not seen that problem. We have distinct customer bases and we refer back and forth.”

That back-and-forth is one of the keys to their success, along with what Sonneborn identified as vertical integration. When one plans a wedding, catering is a service at the top of the to-do list. However, a meal isn’t truly a meal without plates. Or silverware. Or tables. It’s a perfect opportunity for Signature Event Rental, in other words. Just as 5 Flavors has grown since its genesis in 2008, so too has Signature Event Rental, which started at the same time.

“We’re in our fourth warehouse in nine years,” Sonneborn said. “We just moved last summer to a 30,000-square-foot warehouse, and we’ve bought a competitor of ours, American Rental, over in Jacksonville. We’re looking at doing another buyout in another market right now. It’s really grown in leaps and bounds.”

To further the concept of vertical integration, Sonneborn said the new warehouse space also houses the combined sales staff for both the rental and catering services he partners in.

Rental and catering services aside, Sonneborn and Lindvall have also been integral in the rejuvenation and/or rebranding of several businesses in downtown Springfield. Their first venture was the purchase of Cafe Brio. They also purchased Catch 22 and reopened it as Lucid, which Sonneborn calls the first true nightclub in downtown Springfield. The Firehouse Tavern came next. Lindvall and Sonneborn bought it, closed it, extensively remodeled and opened the Craft Beer Bar in its wake.

“That was a very successful project, it went exactly how we wanted,” Sonneborn said of the business they sold about two years ago. “I think we brought a new demographic downtown that may not have been coming downtown so much already.”

Sonneborn and Lindvall opened the Apothecary Bar and Drinkery late last year in the old Marley’s space downtown. Focusing on cocktails and a more refined atmosphere has led to excellent business, Sonneborn said.

When sports bar and grill Brickhouse Downtown (217 South Fifth St.) closed last year, Sonneborn and Lindvall invested alongside Steve Balen in what would become Balen’s Bar & Grill. Again, it’s been a very profitable venture.

“We have a bit of a smaller share in that one and Steve (Balen) is running that show,” Sonneborn said. “We’re about 10 weeks in, and it’s been received tremendously. The volume is about double what we thought we’d be doing.”

Clearly, Sonneborn and Lindvall have their hands in many businesses to varying degrees. Their typical aim is to rejuvenate a flagging enterprise and sell it to partners before moving on to the next project.

“We’ve been putting money into businesses for a long time with the hope of being bought out in one to two years. Our plan is really never to hold onto these for very long,” Sonneborn said. “We want to create a successful business model and then sell it and pass it off to someone else to run. Josh and I just really enjoy the development process.” 

Gabe House is a freelance writer in Springfield.