Growing in ALX: Featuring Bittersweet Catering

Growing in ALX:
Featuring Bittersweet Catering

From retail and restaurants to tech and media, contractors to coworking spaces, large, small, and everything in between, a diverse array of businesses call Alexandria home. In our blog series, Growing in Alexandria, we sit down to talk with businesses around the City to learn more about who they are, what they do, and why they love it here. Have an idea for a business in Alexandria to talk to? Email us!

Located in the heart of Old Town, Bittersweet Catering has been an Alexandria staple since 1983. We had a (virtual) chat with Jody Manor, Owner, to learn more about the business.

AEDP: To get us started, can you tell us a little about Bittersweet Catering, and how you got started?

Jody: Bittersweet began as a gourmet take-out shop in 1983, in a very small space on N. Alfred St, just steps from King St.  It was founded by three lady friends who had worked together on Capitol Hill and thought it would be “fun” to be in the food business. They borrowed money from friends and got to work building out a kitchen and counter. Soon they were welcoming a very local and regular clientele. The idea was to serve very fresh, innovative foods like homemade tarragon chicken salad with artichoke hearts – as a sandwich on fresh croissant or homemade bread. Served along with delicious side salads made with roasted vegetables and lemon parmesan pasta salad. Finally, a homemade brownie or lemon bar rounded out the menu. There were soon lines out the door! Unfortunately, the friends soon discovered there was little “fun” in running a food business and they began to look for an exit strategy.

I started in the restaurant business at age 14 by riding my bike to the local shopping center and getting a job as a busboy. After about a week, I was ‘demoted’ to dishwasher which began my long history in the ‘biz’ and I moved on to waiting tables and bartending in a few other Alexandria joints. I had the good fortune to get a job waiting tables in a very high-end Georgetown jazz club in the early 80’s and got to be friendly with one of the kitchen staff who introduced me to the world of ‘cater waitering’.

One day, an old friend called to tell me she had taken a job with a ‘cute little gourmet shop in Old Town’ coordinating their catering parties and asked if I’d like to work. Given that I had already started my career in the crazy world of catering, I agreed and went out for a look. I was living in Old Town at the time and I was familiar with the ‘cute little gourmet shop’ and had admired its homey charms and delicious fresh food. I worked a few events – ranging from backyard anniversaries to Alexandria Bar Association annual dinners for many (too many!) guests. One day while loading up a party, one of the owners asked if I would come back and help in the kitchen in the morning. Given that I had nothing planned and loved cooking (my Grandma had taught me) I showed up and my career as a line cook at Bittersweet began. Within six months, I was running the kitchen with no experience – and making it up every day as we went along. Some days Bitter, some days Sweet, as we used to all say. I purchased the business in 1990, after one of the owners’ husband saw an opportunity in me and a way to get his increasingly frustrated wife out of the business by selling the business to me.

AEDP: How would you describe your business’s culture? How do you measure success?

Jody: We have a strong focus on high employee retention. The secret to this is good pay, chance for advancement and mostly importantly, good benefits. Anyone can offer your employees more money, but it’s benefits (health insurance and 401K) that keeps them around and growing – both as individuals and in the company. We developed a regular clientele because we delivered a very consistent product daily due to having the same employees around to produce our food.

Bittersweet was one of the first restaurants to give its employees healthcare benefits. I also sold shares of the business to my General Manager and Chief, now they own a piece of the business and it makes me feel so good to see all of their success and growth.

Success is measured by the success of your team – advancement, education, loyalty and desire to build an outstanding and long-term business.

AEDP: Can you share the best piece of professional advice you’ve received?

Jody: Focus -not easy in catering where every call is for something different. Decide what you’re going to get good at, build systems to do it and then execute relentlessly -without the distraction of ‘shiny pennies.’ Through this advice our focus on corporate catering was born and that propelled the business to great success.

AEDP: Is there a favorite charity you like to support?

Jody: The Sitar Arts Center.  An after-school arts education program in D.C. for underserved kids. Expressing themselves through the arts prevent kids from getting in trouble when school is over for the day and during summer breaks.

AEDP: Finally, why Alexandria?

Jody: I bought an existing business but we’ve stayed because we became ‘a neighborhood favorite’ with remarkable staying power. Not easy in the food biz!

To learn more about Bittersweet Catering, visit their website.