Catering is a passion Margot Jones has pursued for most of her life.
But she tells people her business really began when she had her son David 21 years ago. A new stay at home mom, she'd transform her Vienna kitchen into a prep station for veggie trays and small hors d'oeuvres to bring to neighborhood showers, parties and gatherings.
She was a one-woman operation, arriving with the food and staying to pour drinks as bartender.
“It was really a small operation,” she says.
And then, she says, it grew.
Today Purple Onion Catering is anything but small. With 25 full time employees -- including her husband Dave and son David, now 21 years old -- and nearly twice as many part-time bartenders and servers, the company now does weddings, dinners and parties across the Washington, D.C. area, from sit down dinners at the Smithsonian to Christmas parties in residents' homes.
On Saturday, Jones will hold a grand opening for her new two-story office, kitchen and showroom on Maple Avenue, a permanent home that brings the company back to its roots, she says.
“I had a group of women who were some of my first clients … come by the other day and they still thought it was like I started out, like 'Margot’s Catering Company,' and when they saw this they were blown away,” she says. “ Now that we’re in this space, it’s really like we’re a big company, which I just can’t believe.”
Jones, who moved to the area in 1978 with her family, graduated from Langley High School and attended George Mason University. She studied psychology, hoping to be a drug and alcohol counselor, but also loved the summers she spent at Wolf Trap, setting up buffets and learning the ins and outs of catering parties.
When she graduated, that was the journey she pursued, working in Great Falls and hen at Wolf Trap Café before working as a catering director at a company in Tysons Corner.
She stopped working there when David was born, but continued in her own kitchen. In 1994, she began renting commercial kitchen space from Fairfax Food service to have space to do more weddings. The demand was large: Jones’ husband’s Dave would come home from his own full time job to help type up proposals at night, she says.
Ten years ago the couple bought a café in an office out in Fair Lakes, but “it was not the kind of food I wanted to serve,” Jones says.
“It was a lot of steak and cheese, turkey clubs, chicken Caesar salad,” Jones says. “My basis of cooking has always been more fresh ingredients. We have a really huge produce bill: fresh herbs, produce, meats.”
That theme – "fresh food with a little bit of a twist” – was what she pursued in her catering business. In time, she brought on a chef and recently a new pastry chef, as well as several sales representatives. Dave now works doing finances;son David works in accounting.
It’s the service side of catering, though, Jones says had made her business a success.
"As much as I think our food is fantastic, what really worked for me was that I was really personable with clients, making sure they got what they needed," Jones says. "People want to know you’re going to show up on time, you’re going to do a really good job and you’re going to present everything really nicely. And we’re very good at that."
In its more than 15 years in business, the company has stayed true to that vision despite some challenging scenarios. Several years ago, Police officers paid a visit to Jones as she worked in the kitchen of a wedding reception the company was catering. The officiant of the ceremony, who had been kicked out after he arrived drunk, had gotten into a car accident down the road; Police came by to deliver the marriage certificate he had in his pocket as they arrested him.
And three weeks ago, as Irene powered up the East Coast, Jones and Dave were driving a towering white wedding cake, pedals cascading from the crown to the floor, to the National Harbor in the pouring rain. The cake made it intact to the reception, where the featured drink was a "hurricane."
Despite a recession that has wiped out other homegrown businesses in the area, the company has thrived. The Jones saw some slowed growth in 2009, posting just a three percent increase, but have doubled their growth in the past two years. In 2010, they grew 16.2 percent, and in 2011 they've posted 40 percent growth so far.
Part of that success, Jones says, is because of how spending changed during that time. Instead of having large, extravagant parties at the Air and Space museum, many companies choose to have their holiday parties by department, in the homes of directors or executives. Brides that may have once sought out the largest venues in D.C. are seeking venues and caterers that are elegant and sophisticated but won't charge quite as much.
"People aren't looking for those super large catering companies, those super large venues anymore," she says. "We're not a low-cost option, but we're not on that upper, extravagant tier either. We're serving the middle to upper market, which is what many more people are now after."
In many ways, the new Maple Avenue location, where bold purple and green decor is a tribute to the company's name, embodies what the company has always done. But it will allow Jones to offer several more options as well. The second floor features a tasting room with several tables where clients can select table linen, decor, place settings and sample food. When customers walk in the door, they'll walk into an a la carte area, where they can order wedding cakes, or a few dozen pastries or appetizers for the parties they throw on their own.
The company is also hoping to offer package dinner deals, which will include a full meal, table linens and place settings. Residents can set up and seve themselves, and when they're done, place everything in racks by the garage door.
"It's one of the things we want to do to be a little more Vienna-centric," she says. "People that are close by can count on us for small in-home parties themselves."
When she cuts the ribbon on her new store tomorrow, Jones says, it will be like coming home.
"That was our intention -- to invest in Vienna and be here and have it as our stake in the community," Jones says. "After leaving for 10 years it's going to be wonderful to have people come back and see we're now this big company, that we're here to stay."
The ribbon cutting will take place at 10 a.m. Saturday at the new location, 416 Maple Ave West, Vienna. Residents will get the chance to tour facilities and sample food from the company's chef.