By Hiroko Sato

MediaNews

BOSTON -- A crowd of hooded jackets and jeans pours out of the elevator, and George Zul gets ready for them with a knife and tong in his hands.

The meat of the day is a giant slab of New York strip steak stuffed with spinach, onion and mushroom. Zul, assistant chef at Dolce Catering LLC of Devens, slides juicy slices onto people's plates as they walk by. He quickly pulls another slab out of a heated buffet tray while his co-workers waste no time switching out an empty swordfish pan with a new one on the other side of the buffet table.

Time is money for the actors, actresses, lighting and wardrobe staff who make up the 120-person filming crew for HBO's upcoming miniseries, Olive Kitteridge, says Steve Catalano, Dolce's managing partner. It's his staff's job to feed them and send them back to the nearby shooting locations in Boston's South End neighborhood as swiftly as they can.

The lunch buffet includes 10 entrees plus salads, drinks and desserts. Cooking that much food every day along with breakfast may sound intense. But that's a cakewalk compared to feeding 400 people just in two hours, as Dolce did the other day when the crew shot scenes with many extras in Worcester, Catalano says.

Having just broken into movie catering, Catalano says, he already knows the keys to success come down to three factors: logistics, logistics and logistics.

Catalano and his business partner, Chris Sargent, already have the logistics mapped out in their heads to prepare well over 1,000 meals a day once their new kitchen opens at the former Hodges Theater site on Givry Street in Devens and start feeding Hollywood production crews using the recently opened New England Studios just down the road as its official caterer.

"We saw the vision that New England Studios brought to the area, investing the $36 million in those sound stages" to meet the needs of the growing film industry in Massachusetts, Catalano says. "We wanted to get involved in that."

It's been less than a month since Dolce began movie-catering, and the business is already taking off. Dolce Catering, which is a part of The Catalano Companies that runs Dolce Wood Fired Italian Grille in Pepperell, has become HBO's "preferred caterer" in Massachusetts. With the help of Mauricio Barbazo, who has 15 years of experience in movie catering and recently became Dolce's director of food services, the 10-member kitchen team travels with the movie crew across the state and cooks out of food trucks. Last month, Dolce also provided services to those shooting ABC's upcoming series Chasing Life, according to Catalano.

The Catalano Companies have owned several Dunkin' Donuts shops and restaurants in the Nashoba Valley and Central Massachusetts. Catalano thought of movie catering nearly two years ago when hearing New England Studios founder Chris Byers speak about his 15-acre "Hollywood-class" studio-complex plan in Devens at a Nashoba Valley Chamber of Commerce breakfast.

Catalano shared his idea with Byers.

"He laughed," Catalano says of Byers' reaction.

That's because movie catering is a specialized business. It requires a fleet of trucks, including a refrigeration truck, and employees trained in a number of issues from food allergy to board of health permits. They need to know how to position the trucks in a tight parking lot for effective kitchen flow and constantly change menus and dining-room layout to keep it interesting for filming crews. They also respond to specific dietary requests, such as gluten-free foods.

But for Catalano, who grew up in Tewksbury, and Frank Hartnett, a Pepperell native and Dolce's director of business development, catering to the movie studio seemed like a chance to help rebuild the region's economy that has long struggled. Hartnett says he remembers sitting around a TV with a crowd at Ayer Town Hall many years ago, watching the Congress vote on the Defense Base Realignment and Closure Act of 1990 that closed Fort Devens.

"It was devastating," Hartnett says.

"I think the film studio is the first thing that will replace a lot of jobs that were lost when the base was closed," Hartnett says. 

Catalano says the state's tax incentives for the filming industry are working. He now has a purchase agreement for the Hodges Theater, which has remained vacant since the fort's closure.

"MassDevelopment is pleased to see New England Studios already generating ancillary economic activity," said Marty Jones, president and CEO of MassDevelopment, a quasi-public state agency that owns the property, in a statement. "We look forward to working with Steve -- a committed member of the Devens business community -- and other business owners in the Nashoba Valley and beyond who want to explore other exciting opportunities in Devens."

The sale price was not immediately available from MassDevelopment. Dolce hopes to tear down the structure and build a "state of the art" commissary facility to open in spring. When the studios are fully occupied, the catering business could expand to an 100-employee operation, Catalano says.

Some caterers send their staff to wherever in the country filming crews go, Sargent says. But he believes Dolce's strategies to focus on local filming activities will help beat the competition because cooking out of a local facility by using local employees helps cut down on the cost.

Mark Richard, Dolce's procurement manager, drives to Gloucester often to directly buy from fishermen as part of Dolce's goal to use local produce whenever possible. They also compost kitchen scraps to be "green."

Barbazo, who has worked for a Nashville movie catering company for the past 14 years, says A-list Hollywood stars aren't fussy with foods and eat like anyone else. For example, Julia Roberts likes salads while George Clooney is a steak guy, he says. Still, Barbazo makes sure there are always gluten-free and organic foods.

Barbazo and his crew have moved their trucks from Rockport to Gloucester to Boston among other locations, following the HBO crew. They start cooking at 2 a.m. to serve breakfast at 4 a.m. If the filming schedule pushes the lunch hour to noon to 2 p.m., they adjust their plan and keep the food warm until then.

Being flexible is also part of the logistics, Barbazo and Richard say.

Follow Hiroko Sato on Twitter and Tout @satolowellsun.