Can an admitted ski bum who exaggerated his culinary skills so he could get a job in a restaurant be a success running a company that sometimes has to feed 12,000 people at once?

That might make a good story line for a television soap opera, but meanwhile Robert L. Sullivan Jr. goes about his business of running Utah Food Services Inc. The company not only provides meals at the Salt Palace Convention Center but also does outside catering to overcome down times when there are no large conventions or meetings.Sullivan started working for Utah Food Services in 1989 (known then as Utah Food and Catering and owned by Linda and Stan Briggs). He eventually became head chef. After the Utah Jazz moved to the Delta Center and the Salt Palace was renovated and expanded, the future didn't look too bright because of a decline in conventions and meetings.

Salt Lake County officials said that when the new convention center was completed the new food contractor had to pay $2 million to purchase the equipment. That's when the Briggs decided enough was enough and decided to sell the company.

Sullivan said he didn't hesitate when they suggested that he purchase the company, and in 1994 he started with four employees. While the Salt Palace was being renovated and the old kitchen was removed, the food company operated out of a warehouse owned by Holy Trinity Creek Orthodox Church.

All this time people kept telling Sullivan that the contract was issued on a year-to-year basis, and they fully expected a large food operator to win the contract. Once the new kitchen was finished, the bidding war started.

Sullivan said he ran into a local restaurant owner who said he was bidding on the food contract for the Salt Palace and told Sullivan he felt bad because Sullivan would lose his job. "That got me fired up. I'm a competitive person," said Sullivan in his Salt Palace office.

Rather than a usual request for proposals, the county issued a request for qualifications that may have helped a small-time operator like Sullivan. Out-dueling the larger competitors, Sullivan signed a five-year contract on Sept. 1, 1997, with the county. A two-year renewal option will extend beyond the 2002 Winter Games.

He also talked the county out of demanding the bidder purchase the $2 million worth of equipment, saying the county should own the items to make a smooth transition possible for another successful bidder in the future. However, Sullivan has invested $1 million in equipment in the large Salt Palace kitchen.

In addition to his 60 full-time employees, Sullivan hires retired people and people interested in earning money for their organizations to help feed large groups. One such group is Nu Skin International, which will hold a convention in the Salt Palace March 5-7.

Utah Food Service will provide five meals for 12,000 people at each sitting. Sullivan said that is a big job because rather than preparing the meals and keeping them in a warming oven, each item is put on the plate just before serving.

Sullivan stresses fresh products in his meals, uses ethnic food many times and also uses colorful items to dress up the plates. Even though hundreds of meals are being served the food doesn't have to be mediocre, he said.

A native of Vermont, Sullivan wanted to be a ski bum after attending college so he came to Salt Lake City in 1978. He worked in several restaurants at night, skied during the day and eventually got a job at Snowbird by exaggerating his skills with food.

Sullivan said he got a menu from the resort and memorized the ingredients in each item. He left Snowbird in 1989 and soon after a friend introduced him to the Briggs couple and he started with Utah Food. Large conventions and outside catering helped the business grow, but eventually the downturn came, and the rest is history.