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March 5, 2018 Business leaders of the year

Cotter turned a cafe into a catering powerhouse

Photo | Nathan Fiske Barbara Cotter

Behind the events drawing Worcester’s movers and shakers to dinner tables at venues across the city is a woman who got into the food business without any formal training in 1979.

Barbara Cotter bought the Struck Cafe when she was 30 years old, after spending the first phase of her career managing commercial kitchen construction projects. With knowledge of bidding and accounting, and her passion for cooking, Cotter, who had never waited on a table, was encouraged by family and friends to chase her dream of restaurant ownership.

After buying the restaurant with her former husband, Cotter infused the formerly vegetarian cafe with fish and chicken dishes immediately. The popular eatery on Chandler Street in Worcester became known for its hip menu and fresh ingredients – it was farm-to-table ahead of its time, Cotter said.

“We always were on the cutting edge with food trends,” Cotter reminisced.

But the restaurant business was really a catalyst for what Cotter would eventually build, a catering company frequently the first choice among Worcester-area companies and institutions. Cotter eschewed the restaurant in 2000 in order to focus on Struck Catering, which had formed in the 1990s as an offshoot of the cafe.

This time, Cotter was working alongside her son, Derek Grillo, who had graduated from New York University with a business degree. The duo purchased Struck Catering’s home, a building on Hamilton Street, in 2001.

She enjoys serving clients with a range of needs, from a small house party to an annual company dinner. The days never drag, either. “There’s no downtime in the sense that there’s always something going on,” she said.

As much as she loves the rhythm of her work, Cotter, 68, is in the midst of transition planning, and is slowly cutting back – she now takes one day off per week and works on passing Struck onto Grillo, with whom she enjoys a rare blend of common genetics, friendship and workplace compatibility.

“Not every day is perfect, but he closes his door, I close my door,” Cotter said, of the occasional challenge that comes along with working with immediate family members. “We’re best friends.”

Grillo will assume the title of CEO and Cotter will adopt an advisory role, but she expects to stay involved with Struck. Aside from a passion for menu design, she is steadfast about putting her personal touch on every event.

With 12 full-time employees, more than $1.5 million in annual sales and servicing about 350 clients a year, said Grillo, Struck has presented a number of attractive opportunities and challenges over the years.

“All the business opportunities exposed themselves while we were growing the business,” Grillo said. “At the time, there weren’t a lot of caterers out there doing what we were doing with the food. We kind of captured a unique little market niche.”

Tracy Dill, manager of major gifts for the EcoTarium in Worcester, said more often than not, she commissions Struck for catering services. Dill, who has planned EcoTarium events for the last 11 years, said it’s not just that the food is great and that the linens look nice, but that the company is so accommodating and attentive.

Dill said she particularly loves Cotter’s attention to detail. One year, she created eggs that looked like dinosaurs for the Ecotarium’s dinosaur-themed event, A Night at the Museum.

“She always brings something extra,” Dill said.

Cotter has shared some of her insight as a local foodie with other businesses, providing informal mentoring, since she believes spreading success will lift the entire food scene in Worcester.

Cotter’s favorite restaurants, she said, include Lock 50 and Smokestack Urban Barbecue in the Canal District and Cafe Reyes on Shrewsbury Street.

“You’re seeing all different styles of food and service happening in the city,” Cotter said. “It’s so good to see so much happening.”

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