Lobster donut holes were presented as hors d’oeuvres by a wait staffer drifting through the loose crowd of business owners and high-end chefs, while another presented a slightly-more-traditional plate of quail bites wrapped in bacon with avocado.
It was a night for the RK Group, one of the country’s biggest and oldest independent caterers and certainly the biggest and oldest in San Antonio, to show what they can do.
Last week, the company hosted the annual executive summit of a consortium of elite caterers from across the United States and Canada at its new headquarters.
“We’re showing what we’re capable of,” said the company’s vice president of corporate relations, Jamie Kowalski.
The Nov. 8 gathering had deeper significance, too. It was an opportunity for the RK Group to show off its new headquarters just days ahead of the company’s 75th anniversary on Nov. 11.
The 168,000-square-foot compound, located next door to Willow Springs Golf Course on the far east side and valued at roughly $9 million by county land appraisers, is a steel and granite testament to how far the company has grown over the decades.
Founder Rosemary Kowalski began catering private parties out of a humble barbecue diner in 1946. Two decades later, it became the official caterer for most of the World’s Fair in San Antonio, and soon after won a contract to become the exclusive caterer for the Henry B. González Convention Center, a role it continues to enjoy. Before the pandemic, it catered around 4,000 events in the U.S. annually, Jamie Kowalski said, in addition to its philanthropy.
It also has found a niche in San Antonio’s high society events. The German Club, a private social club, paid the RK Group nearly $219,000 for its two annual events in 2017, according to tax filings. The Witte, which hires it every year for its annual Game Dinner, paid it $285,000 in 2017, the same year the RK Group created a series of Maya-themed dinners for the museum.
And the RK Group today has extended into services far beyond serving food. Led by Greg Kowalski, the founder’s son who took over in 1989, it is now a beginning-to-end manufacturer for all things event-related.
Its fourteen divisions, made up of roughly 500 workers in San Antonio and 1,000 more across the country, take the most extravagant fantasies for what a corporate gathering or upscale wedding could be, and makes them a reality.
A walk through its new headquarters illustrates the company’s capabilities.
Pseudo-stained glass used for a recent wedding sits in the corner of its in-house print shop, next door to the industrial kitchen. It was created by laying ink directly onto a glass pane.
In its vast warehouse for prop storage are enormous teacups from an Alice in Wonderland-themed corporate event. Nearby is an old timey human cannon created for Rosemary Kowalski’s 75th birthday party, which was circus-themed. The in-house wood shop created many of the decorations.
The executive boardroom overlooks a small lake, and the recently restored Red Berry Estate can be seen on the opposite shore. The estate recently opened as the RK Group’s own venue — unique for a caterer — where over the summer several of the area’s chambers of commerce held a welcome reception for the City Council and mayor after the recent elections.
A roomful of massive laundry machines chug through heaps of colorful dresses from a recent gala, as well as the laundry from hotels and military outfits outsourcing to it. A floral center had tables with hundreds of white flowers being prepared by workers into bouquets for an event for Jefferson Bank.
And, of course, there’s the kitchen. The RK Group said it sometimes serves up to 53,000 meals a day, and most of them come from this kitchen.
On Monday night, the headquarters was lavishly decorated. A live longhorn steer was guided through the parking lot by a handler. A 50-inch ice sculpture of a hawk chasing a rabbit was set up for display.
The chief of the visiting delegation, Leading Caterers of America Executive Director Carl Sacks, said one of his organization’s members had remarked to him that probably 10 independent caterers could fit inside the RK Group’s new headquarters and they still wouldn’t fill it up.
He said he was struck by the size and scope of the group’s facility, and grateful for its “Texas hospitality.” He said the RK Group could be the largest independent caterer in the country, and perhaps the oldest continuous caterer in their organization.
The event also left an impression on others, including Robert Mitchell, the executive chef of a catering group from Atlanta. In between bites of venison chili, he said that he was impressed by the spicy margaritas near the entrance served with liquid nitrogen.
Despite the extravagance of the night, planning it wasn’t stressful, claimed Sonya Villarreal, the RK Group’s director of catering sales.
“This is just what we do every day.”
The RK Group is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.