Starting with a $500 van, some pots and pans, and a handful of business cards, twins Eric and Mark Michael have expanded Washington's Occasions Caterers into an epicurean empire with 150 full-time employees.
After spending their college years on opposite coasts — Eric at Georgetown University in Washington, Mark at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. — the brothers reunited in Washington in 1986 to try their hand at “a foodservice operation of some sort,” Mark says. “So I packed up all my things and moved to Washington with no money.” The siblings started from scratch, and even-tually established a company prestigious enough to be tapped to feed the president of the United States at a formal, 6,500-guest dinner. Over the past 20 years, the team behind Occasions has observed the politics of special events evolve.
Occasions' food developed as the company — and popular taste — changed. Eric says Occasions launched at the right time. “Around the mid-'80s, there was a consciousness that catering could be more than old-fashioned silver chafing dishes, a carving station and poached salmon,” he says. Occasions led the charge in Washington for innovative food and enticing presentation, a policy that brought its own problems. “It has been a challenge to produce more of a premier-restaurant quality experience,” Eric says. “Our clients are much more savvy about fine dining and are looking for authentic ethnic cuisine or really cutting-edge presentation.”
Advances in technology enable Occasions to work quickly and efficiently. “Everything that we take for granted now, like cell phones, has dramatically changed the way we do business,” Eric says. When the brothers started, computers had not yet cracked catering. “We had typing pools back then. And we would hand-write menus, and everything would go out by mail,” Eric remembers. The Occasions team found itself at the forefront of technical progress. “We were actually the first caterers in Washington to have a computer, which is incredible to think about now,” Eric says.
The easy access of the Internet keeps clients in touch with Occasions, whether they want to see pictures of an event or send a document in real time. And the World Wide Web brings menu inspiration to the brothers. “We have a whole lot more to work with, and therefore I think the events are more interesting,” Mark says. “We have the resources to always push the envelope.” But the flip side of technology means fleeting two-week lead times and the expectation that things can be done instantly. “Catering, at the end of the day, is a creative business,” Eric says. “While we can technically get a client a proposal in 10 minutes, what we want is to spend some time with our creative team, and it might take a day or two.”
Each brother has a distinct function within the company. “Eric is the creative director, the style center, and presently I'm more of a CEO — the traffic cop,” Mark says. But they share a sense of satisfaction about their co-founded company. “We're most proud of having achieved the level of success that we have in 20 years,” Eric says. And the siblings also agree that two decades in the industry has brought priceless life experiences. “But the enthusiasm of youth is also really important,” Mark says. “We make it a priority to bring on young people in the industry and look to them for new ideas.”
Call Occasions Caterers at 202/454-7846 or visit www.occasionscaterers.com.