I failed to appreciate how difficult it was for my mother and her sisters to prepare and serve a Thanksgiving dinner — hot gravy and all — until I started helping my wife, Polly, host holiday events.
Cocktails. Wine. Hors d’oeuvres. Turkey. Mashed potatoes. Veggies. Pies. I can’t believe how difficult the logistics are, even if we are serving 10 people.
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.
Ridgewells splits its business between corporate and social catering. Those two sectors are responsible for 60 percent of the company’s revenue.
The rest comes from a business serving food in the U.S. Capitol, known as CapitolHost, and another catering union-only events arm called Haute Catering. There is also a division called Purple Tie, which provides servers, kitchen staff, bartenders and others upon request for in-home parties or for corporate events.
Lacz owns the service with partners Jose Valado and Tom Keon. Valado oversees the day-to-day operations; Keon handles the finances and contracts.
She is constantly pushing her company, hitting events around town three to five nights a week. She sits on the board of directors of EagleBank and on the board of trustees of Marymount University, from which she graduated in 1983. She is active in Catholic Charities for the Washington Archdiocese and is on the board of directors of Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Takoma Park.
Lacz said she always is on the hunt for new business, as well as trying to give back to the community. Last weekend, she headed to Florida for a business conference.
“There is no question there are blurred lines between my profession and personal life,” she said. “I have no problems being in a ball gown or a cocktail dress or on the sidelines of a soccer match asking a dad to sponsor a table at [Junior Achievement]. It’s business development for me wherever I am. That’s what I do. This is my company. This is my passion.”
Lacz grew up in New Jersey. Her mother is a retired schoolteacher and her father owned an engineering and architectural firm.
Her love affair with food began as a child, when her Polish grandmother put together sprawling dinners. She also worked in a local deli, where she made and sold sandwiches (her favorite is bologna on rye with mustard) and hot chicken soup.
After graduation, she stayed in Washington. She was a bartender, then sold microcomputers and was fired as the catering manager at Clyde’s, the popular local restaurant chainlet.
She pestered Ridgewells, applying over and over, until the managers hired her as a sales representative in September 1986 for $12,000 a year, “if that.”
“I worked hard at it. I was the first here in the morning and the last one to leave. They would kick me out.”
She hit her annual sales goal after three months on the job, selling about $250,000 worth of business. The next year, she sold $800,000 worth.
Her breakthrough came when she pushed the company into major events, such as serving the corporate sponsors at the Kemper Open golf tournament, one of the company’s biggest accounts at the time with $1.5 million and $2 million in revenue.
She started bidding on major golf tournaments, such as the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship. The word of mouth led to three Super Bowls and an unsuccessful bid on the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.
She and her two partners bought the company in 1999 for $2.4 million from a group of local owners, who included construction magnate A. James Clark and banker Daniel J. Callahan III.
Lacz said the company had lost money for several years and was grossing about $11 million at the time. Lacz and her partners put up $100,000 each and borrowed the rest from a North Carolina venture capital firm.
Lacz said they were able to increase sales by $1 million in the first six months and paid off the investors 18 months later.
The business is still difficult. Every event is a logistics challenge. The recent government shutdown wreaked havoc on her revenue, forcing the company to relocate events on a moment’s notice and having some canceled altogether.
But the show must go on, and Ridgewells continues to spread the goodwill.
The company is honoring its 85th birthday this year with “85 Acts of Giving,” which can include big galas or just dropping off cookies to chemotherapy patients at a local hospital.