Thirty-five years ago, Linda Harkness was a bartender in Georgetown and her husband worked at the Washington, D.C. club The Bayou. The Bayou needed a backstage caterer for bands and artists, and Harkness enjoyed cooking. “So, my first catered event was at The Bayou for Bruce Springsteen. The dish that I made was lasagna, salad, and bread,” Harkness says. Lasagna, of course, has small parts that are built together to make a casserole, so she layered it into a large baking vessel. She went to put it into the stove and it didn’t fit. She called her husband and told him to fire up the pizza oven at The Bayou immediately. “So I flew down to The Bayou, threw it in the pizza oven, and we served it, and that was my first gig,” says Harkness.
It may have been a heart-pumping start, but Harkness loved it. “I think you really have to love what you do. And food has always been something that I’ve loved,” Harkness says. “I love cooking, I love international foods, I love international groceries, I’m always on the search for something new and different.” That’s not to say that catering is without challenges. Sometimes everything seems fine, but then you walk in and boom. “I think to be successful in this business, you have to able to take a problem and solve it very quickly without a lot of stress, because you really don’t know what you’re going to walk into,” she says.
The Secret Ingredient to Making Each Event Magical
Harkness tries to learn as much as she can about her clients so she can customize their menu just for them. “We don’t have packaged menus. Everyone’s so different,” she says. “So we kind of create and craft a menu together.”
When Harkness’s son was four years old and her daughter was two years old, Harkness went through a divorce and was building her kitchen at the same time. It was very difficult, but she just did it. She’d haul two grocery carts through the store, with two children in them and both carts filled with groceries. She brought them to work at six am. She had a big window put in her office so she could see what her kids were doing while she was cooking in the other room. “I was extremely fortunate to have had that opportunity, to have my children and have my own business,” Harkness says.
Today, the biggest challenge that Harkness sees for catering companies is overbooking. “I think they overbook. I think you really have to pay attention to how much work you can handle, and if you have more on your plate than you can handle, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes.”
A Culture of Can-Do and Respect
There’s nothing in Harkness’s business that she can’t do or won’t do. If the floors need to be scrubbed, she’ll get down and scrub them. If the grease trap needs to be cleaned, she’ll clean it. “I think it’s important for everyone to work together and respect each other,” says Harkness. “I think if I’m willing to do what I’m asking my staff to do, they’re willing to do it for me.” She has great staff who have stayed with her for a long time, and she believes respect is a huge part of that. She has also always paid them more than the standard going rate. At the end of the day, they need to be able to support their families.
From Backstage Catering to Private Events
Harkness did backstage catering for about 18 years, but it was filled with long, arduous days. They’d start at five am when the trucks rolled in, and they’d end at two am. When one of the clubs brought in a new director who in turn brought his own catering team with him, she transitioned out of backstage events to corporate and private events. A wedding may be complicated, but she enjoys the higher level of artistic license.
A Presidential Gala
In her 35 years as a caterer, Harkness’s most memorable event was President Clinton’s first inaugural gala at the Capitol Center. With stars like Michael Jackson, Robin Williams, Chevy Chase, and a long lineup of more talent showing up to practice and set up, it was a week-long event of star-spangled awesomeness.
Finding a Wedding Caterer
To find the perfect caterer for your wedding, Harkness feels you must know what ambiance you want first. Some couples want a hotel, some want small reception sites, some want to be outside. Barn weddings with rustic elegance are currently trendy. Know your vision, then find your site. “I think that the reception site is really your foundation. And then you go into caterers and event planners and decide what you want,” advises Harkness. “But the most important thing is who you marry.”
On the Horizon
Harkness is still the director of Tasteful Affairs, but her son is now the chef at the helm. “He has really superseded me in terms of abilities. He’s just beyond phenomenal,” she says. Maybe they will continue as they are or move in another direction, but either way, the sky’s the limit.
Contact Tasteful Affairs
You can find out more about Tasteful Affairs catering at their website.