When Susan Lacz Niemann saw that the company she had served and loved for 14 years was headed for trouble, she didn't complain — she put her money where her heart was.
Though Bethesda, Md.-based Ridgewells had been struggling through a series of changes in ownership by 1997 — its food quality and staff morale suffering along the way, according to Niemann — “I knew it was a winner,” she says. Letting her passion guide her purchase, Niemann brought on board co-principals Tom Keon and Jose Valado, and together they pointed Ridgewells down a new path.
This year, Niemann says, a major milestone marks that path, as Ridgewells' staff of 125 full-time employees celebrates the company's 75th anniversary. One key to the company's turnaround has been Niemann's commitment to repositioning its brand through a comprehensive marketing approach.
Her strategy starts with a bimonthly direct mail campaign, which Niemann says she opts for over e-mail because she believes “people still like a piece of paper in their hand.” In Ridgewells' case, the piece of paper is a “beautiful, oversized picture [postcard] with eye-catching script on the back,” Neimann says. “People will say, ‘I just got your postcard, and I've got to have that dessert!’ It's something we can really measure.” She adds that the photo will repeat in Ridgewells' display advertising, and, “If I love it that much, I'll turn it into a slick so the event designers can use it as an insert for their proposals.”
While marketing materials carry the message that Ridgewells offers “fresh directions in creative catering,” the company's food and service are proving the point. “We like to display with simple platters where the focus is on the food,” Niemann explains. “We do a lot with lighting and monochromatic things. We love to do red desserts on red spun sugar with red votives. We do more clean surfaces, columns, a lot of glass and Lucite tables.” At the same time, she says, “We are very respectful of our heritage with the very conservative social events with the damask and the white gloves and the silver.”
Balancing respect for the company's history with an eye on the future has helped Ridgewells generate $25 million in annual sales, while drawing such high-profile clients as the NFL and the U.S. House of Representatives. That's no surprise to Niemann, whose personal success comes from a balancing act of her own: guiding a top-tier catering company while raising two sons, age 12 years and 12 months old. “To be able to manage them and have a really fulfilling, successful career” is the accomplishment Niemann calls her proudest.
Ridgewells 5525 Dorsey Lane, Bethesda, MD 20816; 301/652-1515; www.ridgewells.com
“People are not entertaining the way they used to. They're being more particular in their planning. It's not, ‘Throw me the expensive champagne, and make sure I've got the Beluga.’ It's more considerate and kind. It's a warmer type of entertaining.”
“Now we're getting into second weddings, and we're seeing a lot of creative things. People like to do ethnic, themes, offbeat things. You're not going to see your basic traditional white wedding cake. Brides are older now, so they want to make a statement. They're saying, ‘I want a purple wedding cake.’”
ON ACHIEVING BALANCE
“It's being able to prioritize what I'm doing and work efficiently — being able to do what most people do in eight hours in only four hours. I have a Blackberry that I can't do without. I surround myself with really organized people who keep me organized. And I'm a really, really good delegator. When you delegate to the right people, you know it's going to get done.”