Bittersweet Catering celebrates 40 years

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Bittersweet Catering celebrates 40 years
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By Kaitlyn Murphy | kmurphy@alextimes.com

No stranger to special events, Bittersweet Catering celebrates 40 years of business this year. Over the decades, Bittersweet has mastered its recipe for success.

Bittersweet Catering was established in 1983 on the corner of King and North Alfred Streets. The business grew to become a premier full-service caterer and bakery that consistently ranks in the top 20 catering companies in the Washington Business Journal.

Alexandria businessman Jody Manor worked his way up through the company, starting as a catering waiter before becoming its owner in 1990. As the business grew, so did its footprint. In 1997, a cafe was added with outdoor seating. The cafe was public-facing right on King Street, appealing to the foot traffic of locals and visitors alike.

Cafe customers got to know and love the sandwich fare, hot buffet and cupcakes. The casual vibe of the neighborhood cafe led to a strong catering customer base for their upscale events.

Familiar faces of the employees working in the cafe became integral to the business’s success. When Manor decided to close the cafe in 2016 to focus on the catering business, employees and equipment moved to their space behind the cafe down the alley off North Alfred Street. Those employees who worked at the cafe were offered jobs to work with the catering business, while new hires helped the company grow.

One of those employees was Orn Jitwiwat, who was hired in 2004 and got her start from the ground up as a trusted sandwich maker at the cafe. Interested in culinary school, she took on the job as a work-study and eventually began bookkeeping for Bittersweet due to her background in finance. The opportunities presented to her through Bittersweet helped her envision her goals of intersecting hospitality with business.

In 2018, she reached her ultimate goal and was promoted to general manager. Tales of success like Jitwiwat’s are common in the Bittersweet Catering family.

“Bittersweet has a unique focus on the back of house where we operate not just as a team but a family and this in clusion to be part of a whole creates great opportunities for the staff,” Jitwiwat said.

This team philosophy and respect for each role of the business have been key for the retention of employees during the past 40 years: more than half of Bittersweet’s employees have been with the company for at least 10 years. Building up from a catering company and expanding to a cafe and other ventures in and around Old Town, the staff were presented with interesting opportunities along the way.

The purchase of an adjacent building in 2007 included a 5,000 square foot production kitchen and catering office space. Opportunity for a cafe was realized and hiring for this venture led to more business growth. It proved to be a great gamble and the catering and cafe revenues were split 50/50.

“Our growth was so large that in 2010, we were serving 500 cafe customers a day and making 30 to 40 catering deliveries,” Jitwiwat said.

Riding the momentum of success from their King Street location, Bittersweet had a presence for a short time on the waterfront serving breakfast foods and sandwiches at the Torpedo Factory Food Pavilion in 2013. Spreading the staff and branding a bit thin, the company refocused on the King Street cafe location the following year.

The business side of Bittersweet was changing and adapting but the civics side remained unwavering. When First Night Alexandria started in 1994, Bittersweet Cafe joined the event and stayed open for families.

“Musical acts and events for kids provided a place to grab a hot chocolate on the way to fireworks. The cafe and catering services were closed on New Year’s Day so staff could also enjoy the holiday with their families,” Jutwiwat said.

Connecting with the broader community through events such as First Night underscores Bittersweet’s priorities. Long-standing pride in being able to support and celebrate with Alexandrians is the type of ethos practiced among the team at Bittersweet.

Assistant Manager Jeffrey Allen has been with Bittersweet for more than 20 years and has experienced first-hand Bittersweet’s family culture. Catering life celebrations such as marriages and births creates a cycle of customers.

“Because we are good at what we do, we have had the privilege to serve generations of Alexandrian families which has been rewarding. We are able to celebrate our return customers and their families through their special events,” Allen said.

This sense of community helped Bittersweet survive the pandemic.

The business pivoted yet again. With social distancing and a general pause on group celebrations, Bittersweet started online ordering for deliveries and a physical pick-up location called Commissary by Bittersweet. Located down the back alley, customers could come by to purchase grab-and-go items such as their favorite sandwiches.

“Customers missed the cafe so this was a concept where favorites were offered and we got to see familiar faces and stay connected,” Allen recalled.

Being flexible during the pandemic kept the business engaged with the community through word of mouth about the Commissary by Bittersweet and online deliveries.

“We went into survival mode as a business and had to adjust and figure out what was going to work with what we had around us. We not only had to adjust the business but adjust to the community,” Assistant General Manager Alberto Trevizo explained.

As life and corporate events opened up again, Bittersweet’s current iteration has grown quickly. Their leadership is investing in more equipment, delivery trucks and employees to help structure the desired changes.

“Being able to retain our team, we were able to grow 50% quicker than we thought in one year,” Trevizo said.

Retaining staff during the pandemic provided a strong base for future growth. Adding in a balanced leadership model and an emphasis on teamwork and family, employees say they feel valued.

“Bittersweet leadership looks at the whole picture when considering their staff, which has contributed mightily to its 40 years of success. There is an emphasis on worklife balance, benefits, 401k, group health and dental and their own version of profit sharing,” Allen outlined. “As we grow, we have a great blend of institutional knowledge and new folks with fresh ideas to help be a part of the success of Bittersweet.”

Allen emphasizes the importance of connection and family as some of the most successful ingredients in Bittersweet Catering’s practice.

“The same people who helped us survive are the same people helping us grow. That is community. That is family,” Allen said.

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