Imagine doing it for hundreds. Or thousands. Every day. Finicky, demanding, hungry, paying customers who want value for their money.
Ridgewells Catering, the Bethesda-based business serving Washington’s dinner party crowd for 85 years, does just that. With the holiday season fast approaching (Turkey Day is 24 days from now), the company is heading into its busiest — and most lucrative — two months of the year.
Between now and New Year’s, Ridgewells will plan, choreograph and cater between 300 and 400 events, serving everything from roasted acorn squash soup to bourbon flambéed beef tenderloin to office Christmas parties and lush Chevy Chase holiday gatherings.
In its headquarters on Dorsey Lane off River Road, the 50-person kitchen staff will cook, package and send off tens of thousands of meals, delivered on the company’s 30 purple trucks with its signature “Ridgewells” splashed across the side.
“We are in the thick of our season,” says Susan Lacz, Ridgewells’s chief executive, co-owner and uber-saleswoman. “On a busy day, we can be doing 60 events.”
Ridgewells expects to gross about $40 million this year. It is profitable, but Lacz, 53, won’t detail how profitable.
The real miracle performed by caterers such as Ridgewells is the behind-the-scenes logistics. They don’t just cook food. They transform spaces, creating whatever ambience the customer demands, working with partners who supply the tents, lighting, flowers, decor — even the valet.
Take the Container Store opening that Ridgewells catered in September for 1,200 in Reston.
Long before the opening, three Ridgewells employees flew to Container Store headquarters in Dallas, where they visited a warehouse and selected dozens of store items that could serve as food vessels, whether it was a paper tray to carry cupcakes or a spice jar for salad.
Then the Ridgewells operations team moved in, performing two walk-throughs of the store, building a special ramp to ferry the food in and out of four trucks. They had to contact the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to special-order wine.
The company had 98 staffers working the event. The store’s Reston stockroom was turned into a full kitchen. On top of that, Ridgewells had to be out of the store within hours after the reception so the retailer could officially open for business the next morning.
“It wasn’t just cooking the food,” Lacz said.
Big events like the Container Store earn double-digit profits, but the smaller events are less profitable because they are harder to scale. The average Ridgewells event runs about $8,000. A contract catering the U.S. Golf Association’s annual U.S. Open, which includes the sponsors in the corporate village, brings in 10 percent of annual revenue and produces a profit margin of around 25 percent because the big scale allows better return on fixed costs.