Jun 10, 2024 | Featured Entrepreneurs

Naisbel Azarak and Haylee Kulig: Handcrafted Catering with a Passion for Perfection

Naisbel Azarak and Haylee Kulig
Logo for NaisLee Catering
Naisbel Azarak and Haylee Kulig
Logo for NaisLee Catering

If you’re the kind of host who cares about every detail of your event, then NaisLee Catering is the caterer for you. Co-owners Naisbel Azarak and Haylee Kulig pride themselves on attention to detail. They refer to their food as “creations” because it is not just nourishment – it is an experience. “Our biggest hope for the customer is 100% satisfaction, Azarak says. “Whatever you need, we most likely can deliver for you because we customize to your needs.” Kulig explains, “We like to make everything look very pretty, which may include little edible flowers or garnishes that you don’t see just anywhere.” She continues, “I know we’re doing a great job when customers say, ‘It’s so beautiful; it’s too pretty to eat’.”

Decades of Experience as Pastry Chefs
Azarak and Kulig both received formal training in baking and pastry – Azarak at Le Cordon Bleu and Kuilg at Culinary Institute of America. And, they boast more than 20 years’ combined experience. Kulig honed her craft in high-end restaurants in California, while Azarak worked her way up in the Boston hospitality industry, beginning in restaurants, then hotels and finally moving into corporate catering. Their paths intersected when Kulig returned home to the Northeast and was hired by Azarak for a job at a large catering company. Kulig laughs, “It was the best decision of [Naisbel’s] life.” The two forged a friendship, working together for the next seven years at a couple of different corporate catering businesses.

Making the Leap
As they worked grueling hours in demanding environments, Azarak and Kulig often talked about setting up their own catering company. Azarak recalls, “We did amazing creative work, but we worked extremely long hours, and in the end, we were not the ones making the money.” In 2023, they decided that they were ready. Azarak explains, “We knew the business, and we were prepared for the bumps on the road to becoming entrepreneurs.” Kulig recalls thinking, “We have the talent; we have the passion; so really, why not? Why not start now? We just had to do it. It’s kind of like ripping off a Band-Aid.” Also, they had the encouragement of their customers. Azarak continues, “The reason we felt confident starting our catering business is that we were constantly getting compliments. We already knew that our product was good before we jumped into entrepreneurship.” They selected a location in the upscale Newton suburb of Boston and launched NaisLee Catering.

More than Dessert
NaisLee’s “special sauce” is clearly their extraordinary desserts. For example, they are known for elaborate, bespoke cakes for special occasions. Azarak traces her passion for cakes to when she was on maternity leave and started watching a Food Network show called Ace of Cakes. She recalls, “It appealed to my creativity, and then it became an obsession.” She challenged herself to make a special cake for her son’s first birthday party, and a reputation was born. “All of my friends started asking me to make cakes. I think I made 90 of them just for friends.” Azarak admits that she can’t resist a challenge: “The more difficult the dessert or the pastry is to do, the more I like it.” She notes that every mousse and custard has its own quirks and French macarons are especially temperamental. “It’s such a sense of accomplishment when you can overcome all those obstacles and be proud of your product.” While they are known for desserts, NaisLee is a full-service catering company. Kulig elaborates, “We also do savory items such as small appetizers and passed hors d’oeuvres. We do full meals like lasagna, pastas, etc.” Azarak expresses special pride in her Venezuelan Guasacaca (a version of chimichurri sauce). And, they cater to a variety of occasions, including corporate meals and events for schools and private parties like birthdays, weddings, and anniversaries.

Benefits of Entrepreneurship
Having made the jump to ownership, the two NaisLee Catering owners have never looked back. They love running their own business. “We can create whatever we want,” Kulig says. “We have an unlimited range of things we can do.” Azarak loves the feeling of accomplishment when she can read the customer’s mind: “I think it’s great when the client doesn’t know exactly what they want, and we can design a menu and make them super happy because we nailed it. They didn’t even know what they wanted, and we figured it out.” In addition to the creativity, they enjoy the flexibility of entrepreneurship. “The best part of running my own business is that I have the freedom to do a lot of things I couldn’t do before. I can move my schedule to my own convenience, especially with my son. That’s crucial for me, because even though I am a businesswoman, my son is the first and most important thing in my life.” She cherishes being able to drive her son to and from school and attend his activities during the day.

A Pleasant Surprise
When asked what surprised them about entrepreneurship, both mention that they were pleasantly surprised by the amount of support for new entrepreneurs. “Everybody’s willing to collaborate, to help, to grow together, to support,” Azarak comments. “In corporate, there’s competition – this person wants my job. In entrepreneurship, I feel like it’s a community. It feels like family.” Kulig concurs, “We’ve made so many great relationships through funding programs and networking opportunities. There’s so much support out there. You just need to find it.” They have found a particularly strong network of female entrepreneurs. Azarak smiles, “There’s a lot of woman power. Women are getting together for small businesses, and I really, really love that.”

Bootstrapping
The challenges of entrepreneurship that Azarak and Kulig describe are familiar to any small business entrepreneur. They wear all of the hats, and they find it challenging to balance working in the business and working on the business. Kulig says, “The biggest challenge right now in our business is it’s just the two of us. Naisbel and I, we’re doing everything from creating menus, talking to our clients, cooking, cleaning, taking out the trash.” Azarak continues, “Haylee and I do everything from the connection with the client through the creation of the menu to the shopping to the cooking to washing dishes or cleaning the place – everything. We need more business to get over that challenge.” Kulig replies, “It’s a lot, but I believe we’ll get there.”

For the Farm
Business partnerships, like marriages, can be complicated and risky. Azarak and Kulig developed trust with one another over a number of years, giving them the confidence to go into business together. Kulig jokes, “My favorite thing about running my own business is being my own boss. Naisbel was my boss for the past eight years, and now she can no longer tell me what to do anymore!” The two laugh in what is clearly an ongoing banter. They share a long-term dream of creating a sustainable farm (“with animals,” Kulig explains, “I love animals”) that includes a separate event space which they can use as a venue for weddings and other special events. “Whenever I’m feeling sad or down, I always think of the farm,” Kulig smiles. “We’re doing it for the farm.”

Do the Boring Part First
When asked what advice they would give to future entrepreneurs, Azarak and Kulig share practical tips. Azarak opines, “Have all your legal stuff on point. If you’re a food business like we are, make sure that all your licenses are right. Do the legal, boring part first.” She suggests that small business owners hire an accountant and financial person right away and educate themselves about money management. “Don’t wait until your financials are a mess. There are so many resources out there for small businesses that it’s impossible that you will not get help.” Kulig attributes their success to networking: “What makes me the most proud is how far we’ve come already. We’ve made so many great relationships, and making those connections is really important.” Azarak adds, “A lot of networking is just sharing passion for what you do.”

Creating Memories
Azarak and Kulig love what they do. Kulig says, “What we do is important because we create memories – these special moments between families, friends, coworkers, you name it.” Azarak elaborates, “I feel like I’m part of that memory of somebody eating something they will not forget, commenting because they cannot believe the explosion of flavors inside.” Kulig explains, “We take risks with flavor combinations, creating experiences you haven’t had before.” The co-owners love it when clients ask them, “How do you decide what to put together?” and when the feedback is that they cannot believe that this combined with that can taste so good. Azarak concludes, “We create memories through the food that we share, because we do it with passion. I feel like people can really feel the passion we put into our creations. It’s important because the result of what we have put our passion and our love into will be lasting memories for the people at the event.”

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