Casey Grove has lived an interesting, varied life and has learned how to enjoy every moment. He is the Director of Catering Sales & Strategic Development at Penn State University, yet he is only 44 years old. The current appointment only provides a brief glimpse behind the scenes because he faced several obstacles as he ascended the corporate ladder to the top of the hospitality sector.

He also personifies the idea that everything is possible in America. Despite having several interests, one, in particular, caught the public’s attention. He created his own board games to play with his coworkers, friends, and family since he passionately loves the strategy and fun that board games can have for one’s enjoyment and growth. One of these was a success since he is recognized as the creator of the well-known game “The Big Fat Tomato Game,” which is appropriate for children as young as 8 years old.

Career Achievements ~

Grove rose from the bottom and is an example to people who believe the nation is not developing quickly enough. His ongoing success shows that efficiency is not always required and that anyone can achieve their goals in any industry with enough perseverance and networking. Casey Grove began working as a dishwasher while attending post-secondary school at Penn State University, where he studied Communications and Telecommunications Management. He did this to help pay for his years of schooling as well as to gain some spending money while he was in school.

Even though he eventually received his degree in 2000, he chose to remain in the hotel sector since it suited him. He advanced through the corporate ranks, eventually concentrating on full-service catering for universities and hotels. His degree came in handy for the event management part of the job because it allowed him to advance to the position of conference services technician, which is crucial to the success of the current event. Casey specializes in event planning, sales, catering, and audio engineering. He also has a certificate from the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences for his specialty in audio recording engineering.

It didn’t take him long to accept full-time employment as the event services manager at his alma mater after thinking that the institution he had learned from might be the most excellent employer for utilizing his skills. He departed in 2010 to take a position as general manager at a location for catering and event rentals.

In 2009, Casey Grove’s family began what would be a short-term self-starter business – growing produce as a small community-supported agriculture program. The Grove’s operation differed from neighboring programs as it cultivated naturally grown produce without the convenience of onsite water or electricity. The farm featured various eclectic & heirloom produce—some of the most desired are purple potatoes, colored carrots, and tomatoes shaped like brains. Casey Grove would later trademark the name “Brain Tomato.” The Grove’s farm offered a membership base for weekly, bi-weekly, and monthly subscription boxes. The farm inspired Casey Grove’s first board game design, The Big Fat Tomato Game.

When Casey was given the opportunity to serve as the General Manager of Campus Catering at Penn State University in 2017, he decided to go back to where it all began. He was more than delighted to return to the school where he learned the abilities he needed to advance in his career. He has recently been promoted to Director of Catering and Strategic Development & Sales after serving in the position for four years. Since 1996, he has held a vital role in the hospitality sector.

Grove appreciates many facets of his job, but he especially loves motivating today’s young by helping student interns in the hospitality industry reach their goals.

Hobbies and Interests ~

Casey Grove has various interests outside his successful and satisfying professional career, the most important of which is spending time with his family and playing board games. He enjoys the rivalry that can arise from playing board games since it can bring people together for a balanced amount of challenge and reconnection. Ultimately, it makes him, his friends, and his loved ones happy. He decided to create his board games in underdeveloped genres or did not produce the desired outcomes over the years.

His inner and outer group loved The Big Fat Tomato Game in particular. The game offered players a consistently fresh experience because it was both easy to understand and sophisticated enough to be challenging to master. On behalf of Casey, the game was made available to the general public by Gamewright, one of the top national publishers of board games. It has received the following endorsements and accolades:

Parent’s Choice Recommended
National Parenting Seal of Approval
Dr. Toy’s Top 10 Games of the Year
Major Fun Award
Noise of Toys Gold Choice Award
Tillywig Top Fun award

The game’s goal is for players to collect as many tomatoes as possible while protecting their crops from invaders. Varmints, troublesome weeds, and even tomato zombies can fall under this category. The game is home to various strange creatures, including flying hippos and a remote-controlled mole. Children are drawn to various absurd qualities, such as the players’ ability to “make” their faces look like tomatoes with the most incredible accuracy and the whimsy of the creatures. All ages can enjoy its strategic elements, which include a turn-based “round” system where you can play specific economic, development, and defense cards to maintain and expand your tomato crop.

Even though “The Big Fat Tomato Game” has become an enormous hit and translated into other languages, Casey Grove was not one to stay in the spotlight. He likes to view his game as an extension of his own ideals so that families can gather together and interact in a meaningful way, despite the incredible popularity and notoriety that came with it.

Casey has always had a spirit of adventure and enjoys exploring the great outdoors. Grove has impressively hiked the Grand Canyon with his family and traveled extensively by backpack throughout Europe. He was passionate about collecting rocks early in life, so he actively looked for unusual stones and jewels. He then polishes, cares for, and adds the ones he wishes to keep to his collection.

How did you get started in this business?

By accident, really. My career in food services & events began as a part-time dishwasher in a neoclassical French restaurant.

I was quick to get my work done in the dish room and to keep a clean area, so the Chefs would get me involved in some of the food prep work. That included tasks such as straining house-made stocks and shucking oysters. When the Chefs became too busy, they started to call on me for help in the garde-manger station making salads and other cold starter courses. Before I knew it, I was on the culinary plate-up line anticipating the needs of the Chefs. As the order tickets came in, I pulled the proteins and starches, worked the garde-manger station, plated up the entree courses, and still ran the dish room.

I loved the challenge of all those things going on simultaneously. It was like a puzzle to get it all accomplished. And honestly, I immensely enjoyed being the first to get things done and in order. My efforts were getting noticed. I was a part of a fluid team of talented employees, and they appreciated what I was doing. It was my first part-time job, and I discovered that I enjoyed that type of work more than my studies in college. Despite my education in a completely different industry (which I was pursuing then), I ended up staying in the food service industry. Mainly, it kept my interest and my mind sharp with various ever-changing challenges and obstacles.

How do you make money?

My income is associated with my full-time career in catering. I work in a salaried position. I also earn some royalties on my board game design.

How long did it take for you to become profitable?

Profitability seemed like a stepping stone in the catering industry. Time equals money, and the long hours associated with the industry indeed obscured what could generally be considered profitable. But, roughly 5 years ago, I obtained a certain level of comfortability as my position adapted from operations to more sales & development.

As an entrepreneur designer in the board game industry, ideas and prototypes cost little but are very personal. I was fortunate with my first board game design. I pitched the design to one publisher, and they accepted it. While royalties don’t add up to being able to make a living as a designer, I’ve tried to keep in mind that even earning pennies on a dollar is a profit when it comes to ideas. A unique enjoyment is derived from seeing a company bring your vision to life and doing it well.

When you were starting out, was there ever a time you doubted it would work? If so, how did you handle that?

The long hours in the catering industry certainly took a toll. Some of the behaviors of customers took a toll, too. There were several times that I considered hanging it up. When that happened, I started exploring other options that offered more balance between work and life. You never know what the world may hold for you outside of your immediate condition. While I never got out of the food service industry, I found better positions within. Better paying positions. Less stressful positions. In essence, when things didn’t seem like they were working, I searched for greener grass. When I realized that it was simply a matter of my own perception and the enforcement of my own boundaries to establish the balance I sought, I overcame the doubt.

How did you get your first customer?

Our first customer through entrepreneurship came when we started our Community Supported Agriculture Program. We designed and created our content on a website, on social media, and by word of mouth. We published our program on a registry that listed local CSAs. Through that combination of marketing, we started to attract customers and memberships. I remember what it felt like to receive the first customer’s membership. It was very exciting and scary at the same time. There was now a commitment to deliver on the expectations set, even though we couldn’t predict if Mother Nature would actually produce the products we described.

What is one marketing strategy (other than referrals) that you’re using that works really well to generate new business?

I believe that an attractive and comprehensive website is one of the best marketing approaches that any business can take. Often a website is how you will make a first impression on your customers. If potential customers can’t find you online, or if your website is of low quality or a burden to navigate, you’re going to be fighting an uphill battle. Also, having the ability to modify your content on-the-fly for your customers (update pricing, menus, phrasing, policies, etc.) is really a vital part of that marketing strategy. It provides you with the ability to turn your services on a dime. In this industry, you can’t wait for others to get things done. You need to be able to have ownership over your tools, so you can sharpen them when you need to.

What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make in the last few months?

Currently, the complex decisions within my industry are coming off the back of a pandemic that virtually closed the catering and food services at Universities. Now that the pandemic has passed, we are back in full service, but the resources aren’t readily available (employees and products) to be able to keep up with the demands. The decision to turn down and evaluate business is heavily weighed. The costs of products and labor have also increased considerably. Units are making tough decisions to charge more for menus, offer more limited or specialized services, pay more for employees, and gain a step ahead by offering valuable hiring incentives. Understanding a new post-pandemic threshold of what is too much business to take and what is not good business to take are also decisions we face.

What do you think it is that makes you successful?

I think what has made me successful over the years is pretty basic and old-fashioned. I am loyal and hard-working, and I get things done. I make tough decisions when they need to be made, despite those decisions not always being necessarily popular. I solve problems and try to resolve issues—hopefully, more than I create them. I take ownership of my work. I’m not someone who needs to be micromanaged, asked to do things twice, or asked to redo something because they aren’t done right.

What has been your most satisfying moment in business?

While I was General Manager at a catering and event rental business, we took on a Saturday with 3 enormous weddings, onsite food preparation, a golf tournament banquet for about 500, and a reunion, all off-site. They were spread out regionally, including two events held in neighboring counties. We had every employee scheduled, including those from other company divisions, playing various roles at the events. We also recruited former employees, friends, and family members to support us. Even then, our staff was still thin in areas.

Our resources were stressed, and serving double duties. Food warming boxes were coming off deliveries to be immediately cleaned to go right back out on the next deliveries. We had vehicles coming and going and tag-teaming food drop-offs.

It was one of those days that you regret not turning down a piece of business to allow the services to remain more intact. But, it was also a day that you knew the company would profit significantly if everything came together. While the day was rough -operationally, with many setbacks – our crew pulled it off. It took everything we had and then some. But, we proved that the team we had assembled was proficient and dedicated to pulling together every resource imaginable, resulting in a combination of a taxing, yet satisfying, experience.

What does the future hold for your business? What are you most excited about?

The thing about catering is that the industry is always changing bit by bit. Just like an event, you can be as prepared as possible, but there will usually be an unexpected challenge that you are presented with. That’s part of the excitement for me. And that’s a daily occurrence.

Also, during the recent pandemic, the industry had to make adjustments. Modernization of services was a big part of that, and it’s certainly exciting to see what may come next.

What business books have inspired you?

One industry book that I took to and was recommended to me was, If You Don’t Sell It You Can’t Cook It by Michael Roman. It’s a very good read on the customer service process of sales. The book provides scripts for strategies, checklists, and other guides. Whether you are just beginning a career in catering or sales or are a veteran, it’s a good resource either way. The author was the President of Catersource, probably the industry’s largest and most influential magazine and conference/tradeshows.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

My self-advice would be not to worry so much about others who don’t meet my expectations. Often, we get caught up and frustrated when others don’t meet our expectations instead of understanding why that is happening. It could be for various reasons. Even some that are none of our business.

Also, work and career don’t define a person. It’s just part of what you do. Don’t let it consume you. This is an easy business to allow that to happen. Find hobbies early. Make time for them and your family. Don’t take work home with you. Limit discussing work at home. If you need to stay late to get things done, do so. Do your decompression of what happened in your work day during your commute home. When you get home, leave the work behind.

Are you willing to be a mentor? If so, how should someone contact you?

I’ve never thought of myself as a true mentor. But, I assume naturally, having been in the industry for years, one becomes a mentor (to some degree) by default. I suppose that I’d leave the possibility open to someone who may be interested.


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