Steve Wenger worked in the restaurant service industry for years after leaving college, but he wanted more.
“I had a burning desire to own my own business,” he said.
After stints as a restaurant manager in Colorado, eight years as director of food and beverages at Biltmore in Asheville and a short stay as manager of the former Colony House restaurant on the peninsula’s Prioleau Street, Wenger decided to buy a small catering firm in downtown Charleston.
“It was more interesting and exciting than a restaurant,” Wenger said. “Catering is different every day. With a restaurant, it’s the same dining room and menu day after day.”
That small business was Stephen Duvall Associates, a partner-owned catering shop on East Bay Street across from the Harris Teeter supermarket.
It took its name from the middle names of previous owners Peter Stephen Milewicz and Dan Duvall Stevens, who started the business in 1978.
From that small 1,800-square-foot shop and a few name changes, Duvall Events, as it’s now called, has emerged as a major catering service in greater Charleston, especially with its new and spacious 30,000-square-foot facility in North Charleston.
The new site on Azalea Drive, a former building supply and lumber warehouse, now sports three full kitchens, storage space for outdoor fans, heaters and furniture and offices spread throughout the cavernous structure. It also offers a crafts room for sewing and making flower arrangements, a wood-working department, drapes, chandeliers and future space for a 175-seat performing arts theater.
“It gives us more room,” said Devorah Bennett, a West Ashley resident who has been with the company for more than 16 years. “It was cramped at the other site.”
Duvall handles up to 700 events a year, 130 of them weddings that account for about half of the company’s income. Among its 60 full- and part-time employees, several are long-term, including Bennett, who, as warehouse manager, oversees up to 30,000 pieces of kitchenware that’s used for everything from debutante balls to corporate banquets.
“Every day is different,” said operations manager Jon Bienz, who has been with Duvall for 17 years and loves it. “I’m not stuck at a desk all day long, and every party brings a different set of challenges.”
Four years after Wenger bought the business in 1991, he decided he needed more room, but to do it he needed help.
He set his sights on the former Cavallaro restaurant on Savannah Highway, one of the few upscale restaurants in the area until the early-1970s. But to acquire the building, he had to take on a business partner.
“It was the only way I could make the deal work,” Wenger said.
Ryan Condon, owner of Crab Shacks and other ventures, owned the building so Wenger and Condon became business partners in Events by Stephen Duvall, which later became Duvall Catering and Event Design before eventually settling on Duvall Events.
In 2000, the business partners expanded again, leaving the old 7,500-square-foot restaurant site, now a Honda car dealership, to build a new 12,000-square-foot structure off Jenkins Road in West Ashley.
In 2007, Wenger wanted to buy out his partner’s half of the business, but he had to relinquish his half of the building, the property and other assets and sign a five-year lease.
“I became a tenant rather than an owner,” Wenger said.
With the lease expiring on Aug. 31 of this year, Wenger started looking at sites he could purchase about a year ago.
“I wanted to own the building, the business and everything outright,” he said. “It was just good business.”
On Sept. 15, Duvall Events opened in the former lumber warehouse on Azalea Drive, bigger and better and all owned by Wenger.
“We managed to do it all and still remain friends,” he said of the business buyout with Condon.
Among his clients is Trident Technical College and its three cafes on three campuses, including a 700-seat ballroom at the main campus in North Charleston. Another customer is Norfolk Southern Railroad, which hosts corporate retreats and other events in Dorchester County and Palatka, Fla., where Duvall has six employees stationed.
Three local food trucks also use Duvall’s 4,000-square-foot kitchen as their home base: Outta My Huevos, Cast Iron and Refuelers.
“The kitchen we had before was very small, and we were very limited,” Refuelers owner Jessie Stament of Goose Creek said of the previous catering company, Islands Catering in North Charleston, that allowed him to use its facilities. “We always had to take our truck home. Now we can leave it here. Look at the amount of equipment, space and refrigeration. It’s nice to have a one-stop shop.”
Chef Ann’s Gourmet To Go also uses the facility, and the building is designed to let outside preparers come and go around the clock so they can use the kitchen and other areas without entering the front office area.
Besides the spacious main kitchen and side bakery, Duvall also offers a demonstration kitchen with a curved countertop and a separate USDA- and FDA-certified kitchen required for packaged foods. No cooking is performed in the certified kitchen, and it’s kept at 50 degrees for food preparation with motion-detecting, energy-efficient lights.
Duvall served Boeing Co.’s sprawling North Charleston assembly plant for two years before the aircraft maker brought in another company for its food services. To help Duvall out, Boeing asked the new firm to continue using Duvall for packaged sandwiches, salads and sushi.
“That has allowed us to grow our business in a couple of other areas,” Wenger said.
His pride and joy, though, is the demonstration, or show, kitchen as he calls it.
It was developed to offer tastings for clients, cooking classes, dinners and guest chefs and can be booked for holiday parties as well.
Duvall has a five-year lease with Sysco Foods regional Lexington office for product demonstrations in the new kitchen. Electrolux of Charlotte also uses the kitchen to show off three pieces of equipment on loan to Duvall.
“Catering is more about food preparation and assembly than it is about cooking to order,” Wenger said, noting there are two cooking lines in the main kitchen and room to grow more preparation tables as the business expands.
The site also includes a dishwasher that’s used for the 15,000 or so glasses used by the caterer. “It doesn’t see any grease, and that’s important when washing glasses,” he said.
Duvall also has three delivery trucks, two vans and a refrigerated truck.
Because every day is different, Wenger said the employees have rallied around the business to help it reach its full potential.
“It’s developed into a culture where everybody has a passion for excellence,” he said. “It also can be contagious and fun.”
Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.