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Hattiesburg caterer provides home cooking at Camp Shelby

HATTIESBURG — Food at Camp Shelby is taking on a definite downhome flavor. With Hattiesburg-based M&B Catering feeding the thousands of troops flowing through the Forrest County military facility for training, there will probably be no complaints foodwise.

Tasty entrees like baked and fried chicken, meatloaf, rib eye steaks, lasagna, roast lamb and barbecue ribs teamed with Southern vegetables and finished with homemade cakes and pies should keep the heartiest eaters happy. For soldiers wanting to eat lighter, M&B provides a salad bar and a sandwich line.

“We want to make sure no soldiers go hungry,” said M&B Catering president and co-owner Allen Mitchell. “This is another part of boosting the morale for the troops. They can come in and get a good meal.”

The $8-million contract for commercially prepared, catered meal service was awarded to the minority-owned food and custodial service management firm in May by the Army and Air Force National Guard, U.S. Property and Fiscal Office located in Jackson. Mitchell said it’s a two-year contract and that he expects to bid on other military meal contracts as well.

The government’s official news release states, “The sole source offer was recommended by the U.S. Administration under waiver from Homeland Security and is based on an urgent and compelling emergency authorized under Federal Acquisition Regulations and National Guard Policy of Continuing Activity in Support of Anti-terrorism Missions.”

Mitchell said, “I am proud of our longstanding relationship with the Army and Air Force National Guard where close coordination and a dedicated team effort have resulted in an extremely successful program.”

M&B had 90 full-time employees and has added 150 with the new contract. Camp Shelby, located south of Hattiesburg, has become a training station for the mobilization and demobilization of unit deployment for an indefinite period of time. National Guard troops called up for active duty will train at Camp Shelby, go to Iraq and return to Camp Shelby before going home, according to Maj. Doril Sanders of the public affairs office.

He said M&B Catering is currently preparing two meals per day for 4,000 to 4,500 people from Tennessee’s 278th Armored Calvary who are training at Camp Shelby and will be there until the end of September. Other deployed units will also be trained there.

Lt. Col. David Williams said of M&B Catering, “They provide great service and are really reputable in everything they do.”

Mitchell’s career in food service began when he managed a diner for a company out of North Carolina for 10 years. He got to know people around town and they knew his work. M&B Catering was founded seven years ago by Mitchell and Ghazi S. Bunkheila. The two met while working for Morrison’s Cafeteria. As M&B, they opened a concession stand at Tatum Park in Hattiesburg to provide food for the Hattiesburg Youth Soccer Association. They prepared and sold hot dogs, hamburgers and other typical concession stand food for about four years, Mitchell said.

The partners started bidding for contract work on their own five years ago and landed two contracts in Virginia for full food service. One is with the Virginia Youth Challenge in Virginia Beach, a contract they’ve had for four years. For five years they’ve had a contract with Fort Pickett, a military facility similar to Camp Shelby, located in Blackstone, Va.

“With the diner, I started out as kitchen personnel, moved to ration man, then cook and management,” Mitchell said. “I can learn anything.”

Mitchell, a native of Beaumont, trains employees and oversees the cooking. Bunkheila, a native of Libya who has lived in the U.S. since he was a teenager, handles the contracting, hiring and scheduling. Together, the team has more than 20 years of experience in full-food service.

In addition to the contract at Camp Shelby and the two in Virginia, M&B has a new contract to provide food service at Camp McCain near Grenada for the next two years.

“We have bid on more contracts,” Mitchell said, “but we’re a hands-on company and don’t want to get too big too fast. Our growth expansion is closely monitored so we can always provide the best service to our clients’ needs.”

M&B Catering was approved for the Small Business Administration’s Business Development Program in 1998.

“It was our dream to form our company to have the opportunity to bid on government contracts,” Mitchell said. “Quality service with capable management is our secret to remaining the best organized and efficient contraction available. We believe results equal our efforts.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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