Monday, October 27, 2014

Reminiscences of Max & Me Catering. Part One.

I'm really determined to get back to this blogging thing in a big way. One of the many story ideas I had planned on from the inception of the blog was a detailed chronological history of Max & Me Catering from my viewpoint. I had written an ongoing brief history from 2003 on, as it was happening, so I have a lot of benchmarks and important events chronicled as they happened. This account will be embellished from my original (which only about 15 or 20 people have read) with as much interesting info that I can remember. Unfortunately many of the great pictures that I could have used to enhance the narrative are not available to me.
I'm frustrated. Need more Max & Me era pictures to share on this blog. Got any?

As most know, Max & Me Catering was the brainchild of Max Hansen, who was a close friend of mine since my senior year of high school in Bucks County. We had many great adventures together, including a move to Steamboat Springs Colorado together in 1979 to be ski bums. I was the bum, he ended up working in a Northern Italian restaurant every single day he was there (over 100 in a row I think) and I believe that is when he decided to attend culinary school. In 1985, just after I finally graduated college, Chef Max joined my brother Jon, cousin Adam and myself to open Bala Rouge, Louisiana Cafe in Bala Cynwyd, PA. Max was only there about 8 months, we sold the place after 2 years, but the lessons and memories are forever, it was a very interesting 2 years.
Our spiritual and culinary guide for Bala Rouge, Chef Paul Prudhomme

Fast forward to Spring 1994. I had just moved back to the Philadelphia area from Mill Valley California (SF Bay area) with my wife Susan and 18 month old daughter Katie. My brother Jon had just moved back to the area from a two year stint in Jamaica, and Max offered Jon a partnership in his almost year old business, Max & Me Gourmet to Go (and catering). He had a storefront in Buckingham Green where they made amazing sandwiches, salads, entrees and sides ready to take home. Max had started the business the year before with his then girlfriend Melissa. They shortened Melissa to Me for the name, not sure if that happened before or after they split and Max took on another partner for a brief period before Jon stepped in.
Can't find original. A version of Max's original wreath drawing with a new center, never used.

From 1994 to 1999 Max & Me grew slowly, with catering becoming more and more important and the retail business becoming a drag on the catering growth. Max's amazing smoked salmon was a huge part of the story as the business grew. I remember the days hanging out in the kitchen watching Max hand slice the salmon while he had the phone in his ear discussing an upcoming party with a client. In 1997 or so Jon was able to convince the right people at Electric Factory Concerts to let him start doing backstage catering. This was MMC's first real foray into Philadelphia and the concert connection became a very key component of our growth over they years.
Philadelphia Inquirer article from 1996 on Max & Me smoked salmon

At this point I was working in Manayunk at the former Arroyo Grille, first bartending, then deciding to take a more serious turn in my career, I took over as GM in fall 1998 and endured a huge pay cut. I would help Max & Jon from time to time over the years, supplying staff, working events and showing Max how to do his proposals on a computer. When he learned the "save as" function in Word, it was one of the major revelations in his career.
Buckingham Green, site of original Max & Me Gourmet to Go, storefront was to the far left
in this picture.

They (Max & Jon) decided in 1998, I believe, to sell the retail store and move into a catering only production kitchen with a warehouse and offices in Gardenville PA, a bit northeast of Doylestown. The transition from Buckingham to Gardenville was quite rocky as the new kitchen could not be used until many months after they had to be out of the old kitchen. They had to use Max's house and yard as a temporary location until the Health Department shut that down, then they used a local fire company's kitchen for a time.
It wasn't quite this rustic, but the Max & Me period between the
Buckingham Green and Gardenville kitchens wasn't pretty

In the summer of 1999 Max & Jon booked their first major corporate event, a heavy hors d'ouevres and high end liquor cocktail party for Hewlett Packard during the SAP convention scheduled for September 1999. The event would take place at The Apollo of Temple (now the Liacouris Center), and the entertainment was the Steve Miller Band. The expected number of guests was 4500, and due to my extensive bar knowledge they hired me to run all the beverage service for the event. Very high profile, tons of pressure, this event could certainly vault Max & Me to another level. I hired some of the best bartenders in Philly and interspersed restaurant and club bartenders who maybe faster at serving drinks with catering bartenders who are best at set up and breakdown. I also put together a liquor, wine and beer purchase list that totaled over $50,000. The event was virtually flawless and the post event euphoria was more than enough to fuel energy through the massive break down and clean up effort. On my end, I had to gather all unused bottles of booze as part of my deal with the client was to return them for credit. There was approximately $18,000 of leftovers to return that I gathered up, put in my U-haul and parked in the parking lot of Arroyo Grille. The next day Hurricane Floyd hit Philly and by the time I was able to react (I slept in after finally getting home around 6am), the flood waters were rising and I couldn't get to Manayunk from my home in Blue Bell. Later on that afternoon as the waters receded from my area, my brother Josh and I headed towards Manyunk to watch the flood. By the time we got to Manyunk, the Schuylkill river was getting close to peaking and all bridges to Venice Island (where Arroyo and my large liquor cache was located) were closed. We sat and watch the waters rise, certain the flood would either carry my U-haul downriver or the water would at best inundate the truck and make the product nonreturnable. Ouch. The next day, I came back to inspect the damage and help with the clean up at Arroyo (which had to close for 4 days), and to my amazement, the flood waters stopped about a half an inch from coming in the back of the truck. Crazy luck.
Not from our 1999 gig, but it is the Steve Miller band...
A bit downriver from Arroyo, Manayunk flooded by Floyd, September 1999
About a week before the HP event, Jon & Max came to me with an offer to hire me full time as their GM. Business had grown enough that they realized I could help them with business growth and financial management and they wanted me to start asap. I convinced them that they should let me stay at Arroyo until the spring, when the catering business gets strong after the always slow first quarter. They would save money on my salary, and this would also allow me time to learn more about the business, and start strategizing what I wanted to achieve when I started. I gave one month notice at Arroyo, left on very good terms, and started with Max & Me Catering full time on St. Patty's Day 2000.

Thanks for reading. Would love to hear your comments, either below or email me directly:

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

BizBash Live! Event professionals: In six days, this is where you need to be.

I'm not sure exactly when I discovered BizBash, the media/tradeshow company that IMHO is more tapped in to the national & international special event industry than any organization or competing company. This is a resource all of us in the industry need to stay current in all aspects of the business. Reading the magazine and surfing their amazing website is a given, and can be done in the comfort of your office or home. But ours is an experiential business, right? So when all the talent and connections of BizBash spring to life at BizBash Live! on October 28th at the Javits Center in NYC, you should reschedule any appointments you can and get yourself and your colleagues to the show.

Whether you are a planner or a supplier, the amount of knowledge and connections you will get from BizBash Live will be invaluable, I'm guessing you will thank me next Wednesday. If you decide to go please let me know, email me or tweet @harryspivak so we can say hi.

Here are more reasons not to miss this event. BizBash Live will have more than 100 trade show floor exhibitors, the Event Style Awards, the Event Innovation Forum returns featuring a new roster of speakers guaranteed to reignite your passion for events. Gain insights from thought leaders and creative thinkers including Nicky Balestrieri of BMF Media, Dan Griffis of Target, Will Travis of Sid Lee, Lauren Kane of charity:water, Lance Broumand of UrbanDaddy, Ryan Begelman of Bisnow Media, Frank Supovitz of Fast Traffic Events, and others. Discover new ideas on design, technology, brand storytelling, fund-raising, sponsorships, and more. Register today at

For the BizBash Live schedule click here.

Hope to see you all there. Thanks to Richard Aaron and David Adler, owners of BizBash for your dedication and great work.