Adam DeLosso, Lupita Olivas, John Fillat, Michele Leff, Genna Viozzi, Lori Baker and Stan Sutherland
Meet Michelle Leff, owner of 12th Street Catering – a full-service, off-premises catering operation serving events, social gatherings, galleries, large corporate receptions, and more. In business for 40 years, 12th Street Catering also has a large drop-off catering division delivering breakfast, lunch, and cocktail reception fare to corporate clients across the Mid-Atlantic region.
Michelle’s business journey started decades ago when she and her husband opened a Mexican restaurant in Reading Terminal Market to incubate their entrepreneurial spirit and see if a married couple could sustain a business partnership. About 25 years ago, they began working with Penn’s supplier unit and consider the ensuing time to have been “a terrific journey.”
Reflecting on the impact of Penn’s Supplier Diversity and Inclusion Program, Michelle notes Penn’s emphasis on supporting small business. "We've always felt that Penn walked the walk."
Michelle always had to be resourceful to manage the restaurant. Today, most supermarkets have aisles of traditional Mexican food ingredients, but that wasn’t always the case. She and her husband had to travel to Southwestern U.S. to identify distribution routes and shipping channels, and eventually fell into wholesale distribution. They scaled quickly and focused on making the right strategic decisions, including contacting Penn’s Procurement Services Department, to see if the University needed any Mexican food ingredients in large volume.
That initial outreach kicked off Michelle’s relationship with Penn. Several years later, she began approaching different University departments to see if they needed catering for events – from graduations to departmental celebrations. That effort branched into running cafés on campus. “They’ve just been extraordinarily open and receptive,” she says about Penn. “I feel valued, like I'm a treasured partner, which is pretty incredible.”
Reflecting on the impact of Penn’s Supplier Diversity and Inclusion Program, Michelle notes Penn’s emphasis on supporting small business. “We want to buy cheeses from local farmers, meats from local farmers, produce from local farmers... and we've always felt that Penn walked the walk. To place an order with a small businessperson like me and not know if I could deliver, but trust that I could is quite a leap of faith. Hopefully, over the years, I've proven that they can have confidence in our ability to be a good partner.”
Many of Penn’s suppliers have had to be innovative and resourceful to meet the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a business that relies on in-person interactions and gatherings, 12th Street Catering saw its business drop off severely. Michelle did have to reduce staffing, but ultimately redirected her energies to catering that supported local frontline medical workers at hospitals. 12th Street Catering has also worked with the City of Philadelphia to feed the homeless, and recently began helping clients find creative and safe ways to acknowledge important milestones remotely (through exquisitely decorated food delivery boxes) and in person.
Michelle believes aspiring suppliers should move forward boldly. “You should know not to be intimidated if you've got a product you're really proud of. I think you need to shout from the rooftops… but having a great product is one tiny piece of the puzzle. It's about having a really good work ethic, and to make sure that you follow through on what you say you're going to do.”