By Kristi Ruggles
No one reminds you of your mistakes more enthusiastically than your siblings. Just ask Tom Russo.
Russo, who today is certified executive chef for Russo’s Gourmet Catering and Gourmet Express, put parsley on peas in his early days as a chef. His oldest brother, John, who handles the administrative side of the catering and event business, still brings it up at meetings.
Or just ask Mark Russo, who directs sales for the family enterprise. Tom loves to tell the story about when Mark was driving a catering van down Interstate 40 and a warmer broke loose and tumbled out the back door of the van.
“He wasn’t showing up at the event, so I called him on his cell phone,” Tom remembers. “He was standing on the side of the interstate feeding chicken to the cops.”
So it goes among the Russos. The four sons of Frances and the late Matt Russo all have a hand in a business that began in Clayton coffee shops in the early 1960s. Matt Russo opened the coffee shops, and they became popular with a breakfast-and-lunch crowd.
Mr. Russo built a reputation through the shops, which led to the occasional catering job for acquaintances. In those days, a priest friend would ask Matt Russo if he could bring the meal for a wedding at the parish, and the Russos would pack their ’67 Chevy to the roof and drive it to the parish hall. (Today, those gigs are in ballrooms, and Russo’s staff arrives in vans with convection ovens in tow to finish the meals on-site.)
Matt Russo’s catering business moved to Creve Coeur Country Club in 1971, when Creve Coeur was a community of dirt roads and tractors.
“It was a farmers’ club in a farming community,” Mark Russo said, “but Dad envisioned it as a great banquet spot.”
And it became one. Russo’s business doubled every year for many years during his time at the country club. When he died of cancer in 1979, family members stepped in to see that the business continued to thrive.
“My brother John was a partner with my dad,” Mark Russo said. “They were together at the country club, and business took off. Then dad died, and John needed help. I got involved, and the catering piece took off, then Tommy stepped in.”
When Tom Russo stepped in, he looked around the kitchen, and as Mark Russo recalls, said, “You’re a bunch of lamebrains.”
Tom Russo remembers it a bit differently.
First, he remembers enjoying watching his dad rushing in the kitchen as he got ready to cater an event. Then, he remembers always migrating toward kitchen jobs as his siblings went in other directions. When the phone would ring and customers would want to book a party or get a menu, Tom was the Russo least likely to pick up the call. He’d be chopping food or washing dishes.
After high school, he studied culinary arts, earned a certificate, and began in the business. He said when he started in the kitchen he kept his head down. He didn’t want to change things; he just wanted to stay ahead of the work. He would occasionally step out of his comfort zone and, perhaps, put parsley on peas.
Ribbing from siblings aside, Mark Russo said Tom, the youngest brother, took the successful “mostaccioli and sliced beef” operation and raised the bar.
Tom Russo was motivated in part by a word. The business had become Russo’s Gourmet Catering and Russo’s Gourmet Express, and Tom’s idea of “gourmet” included using ingredients you couldn’t find in most cupboards.
“We just tried to grab on to as many gourmet ingredients as we could,” Tom Russo said.
The result has been a dinner menu that includes entrees such as crispy eggplant stacked with ricotta-parmesan mousse and served with puttancesca sauce, or beef cutlets with lemon, mushrooms and capers in a white wine sauce.
The family can’t escape the Russo reputation for great lasagna and other Italian dishes, but the menu has stretched to include much more. And the bakery, which was one of Matt Russo’s interests, also has become a hit. Tom Russo recently spent two days decorating a cake to resemble a piece of mosaic art.
“My biggest draw in the kitchen has always been the pastries, the bakery,” he said. “When I’m having a bad day, I go to the bakery to take a break from it.”
Tom Russo is one of four certified executive chefs in the operation, which has grown to include more than 50 employees. Among those employees are a few who are not Russos but who have been with the family since childhood.
Patrick Bettis, who runs Gourmet Express, grew up near the Russo family and attended the same Catholic elementary school. He began working for the company while the Russos were based at Creve Coeur Country Club.
“We would set up banquet tables when we were young, then when we were old enough, we would come home from college and tend bar,” he said. “We would have an event, then we’d all go back to the country club and go swimming.”
The business has evolved into something that is small enough to hold on to that charm but big enough to handle almost any event. Russo’s fed about 10,000 people for an event at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. And it served 3,000 people who attended a convention on Laclede’s Landing downtown.
The jobs that come through the company are evenly split between Russo’s Gourmet Catering and Russo’s Gourmet Express, which offers the same menu as the catering side but skips the silver platter. Meals arrive in white cardboard boxes.
The company has its own event space – Spazio Banquet and Conference Center in Westport. It also has exclusive catering contracts for events at the St. Francis Xavier College Church on the campus of Saint Louis University, and Graphic Communications Banquet and Conference Center, also in Westport.
The recently renovated Spazio offers event planners a ballroom that will seat about 250 and a garden room for about 150. It also offers restaurants and breakout spaces for smaller groups. The Xavier ballroom at Saint Louis University can accommodate about 350 people for a sit-down meal and more for a reception. The Graphic Communications site, also recently renovated, offers a multi-level auditorium with seats for more than 250, and a ballroom.
Russo’s headquarters are on Page Avenue in north St. Louis County, where Tom Russo works. His mom, Frances Russo, works at the Spazio location, where she helps brides plan wedding receptions. The company offers a bridal package that includes invitations, cake, meal, drinks, decorations and other details associated with the reception. John and Mark Russo also work at the Spazio location.
The success of the business that began with great meals stacked in a ’67 Chevy is indisputable. Some days, though, when Tom Russo flips through his dad’s old cookbooks, he realizes that as much as the business has changed, it has remained the same on at least one level.
“I look through those books and I see all the classics,” he said, “and I realize that the stuff that was really good then is the same stuff that is really good now. It’s all about using the right stuff, the good stuff.” MM&E
(Kristi Ruggles is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.)