Utah catering company planning big U.S. exhibit for Rio Olympics
After Vancouver hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics, Cuisine Unlimited founder Maxine Turner noticed a story in USA Today that reviewed all of the "national houses" sponsored by participating countries.
The USA House received criticism because it was not open to the public and mainly hosted celebrities.
"That cut to my heart," she said.
So the veteran Salt Lake City businesswoman decided to do something about it.
Working with corporate sponsors, Maxine and husband Marvin have formed a nonprofit corporation to construct, contract with sponsors and operate the United States Welcome Pavilion in Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Summer Olympics.
The reason the United States House has not been open to the public is that the U.S. is one of the few countries that does not support its athletes with public funds. Under law, the United States Olympic Committee uses its funding for athletes and training competition, not on an open-door policy for hospitality. Thus, its official house is mainly used to entertain corporate sponsors, athletes and celebrities. Mark Jones of the U.S. Olympic Committee said that organization was not part of the proposal.
That said, Marvin Turner said he and his wife worked closely with USOC to make sure no rules were violated.
"They have their own program and they do their own thing," he said. "We don't step on their toes and got their blessing â¦ We can't say Olympics or anything associated with Olympics that makes it look like we will use Olympic activity, sports, that we can make money off of. That is illegal."
Mindful of those concerns, a video and book being given to sponsors was first reviewed by Olympic officials.
"Theirs is about sports and supporting athletes and all their money goes to pay for training and equipment," explained Marvin Turner. "Our goal is to promote, tourism, trade and economic development."
Harvey Scott, director of International Trade and Diplomacy for the Governor's Office of Economic Development, helped Cuisine Unlimited make contacts in Brazil. He said the project could help the United States.
"They are going down to a country where thousands of people will walk through this house that features all U.S. products and brands," said Scott. "This is a fantastic opportunity. This is especially interesting for companies who are on the cusp of an explosion into Latin America and want to put their brand in front of millions of Brazilians."
Under the Turners' vision, the Welcome Pavilion will be a 40,000-square-foot facility on the grounds of the Jockey Club in Rio's Ipanema district, close to many of the major Olympic venues.
The open-to-the-public bottom level will feature a cultural wall showcasing American art and heritage; a U.S. electronic map; a hands-on tech zone featuring science, medicine and gadgets; an interactive children's center; a photo center where guests receive a keepsake photo set within their favorite American place; an "Everything American" retail shop for U.S. goods and an American Grill serving food in a casual setting.
The second level for sponsors, invited guests and dignitaries only, will feature a hospitality center, conference center, media center and rooftop celebrity chef restaurant and lounge.
Maxine Turner is also hoping to use a concert area capable of hosting as many as 15,000 people for shows featuring U.S. acts.
Though she founded Cuisine Unlimited in 1985, this project will be under the umbrella of the U.S. Welcome Foundation, with part of the proceeds being donated to American athletes. The foundation is looking for corporate sponsorships and will work closely with state and local tourism agencies throughout the United States.
"We are so passionate about the U.S. having a strong business and cultural presence in Rio," said Maxine Turner, who has seen the Utah-based company grow to a $3.5 million business that employs 130 people. "Our goal is to provide a center where U.S.-based companies and public-sector organizations can highlight business, tourism and recreational opportunities for the attendees of the Rio Olympic Games, as well as the citizens of Rio."
This isn't to say that a project of this magnitude that has not been done before is not without risk. That's something Turner said she savors.
"It's why I am an entrepreneur," she said. "I am a risk-taker. This is not to say that I don't have sleepless nights when I don't come up with another fabulous idea of making it bigger of better. It's not a matter of making money. Our direction is different these days. This about our country really showcasing itself and saying we are proud Americans and this is what we do. We are a warm and welcoming, generous country."
Cuisine Unlimited is no stranger to the Olympics, having participated directly or indirectly in seven Games.
The Turners began in Atlanta by helping a catering friend that included catering the U.S. Field Hockey's luncheon for its international sponsoring body, working at the House of Blues, providing hospitality baskets for guest buses going to events and, the strangest duty, providing chilled carrots for the Spanish equestrian team's horses each morning.
The luncheon was scheduled the morning after the Atlanta bombing, making security for the event extremely tight.
Things really picked up in Salt Lake City in 2002, where the company produced 350,000 meals a day for 17 corporations, not counting an additional 850 box lunches per day for 60 days.
Maxine Turner, who is Greek, then moved to Athens in 2002, where she served more than 6,500 people at various hosted meals, parties and celebrations at the USA House at the American College in Greece.
The company worked the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy, by helping a Canadian colleague with a popular log cabin house and catering at the USA House, a job the company repeated at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
The Turners try to use Utah products as much as possible. For example, General Motors needed some steel-brushed glass-topped tables during the Salt Lake Olympics. A 17-year-old Olympus High senior named Brad Metcalf made a prototype. GM ended up ordering 30 of those and cutting Metcalf a check for $50,000. Promotional boxes and videos for the Rio project were made in the Beehive State as well.
"We want the U.S. Welcome Pavilion to have a life and be able to take it to World Cups and to World Expos," said Maxine Turner. "We want it to become the representative arm of the U.S., always open to the public at no charge."
Could this be the finishing touch on Maxine Turner's career, though her children are also working at Cuisine Unlimited?
"This is the pinnacle of my career," she said. "But it doesn't mean it's the only pinnacle."