Columbia Caterer Grows Across SoutheastMar 01, 2017 06:39PM ● By Makayla Gay
By Dana W. Todd
Photography ©2017 Brian Dressler / dresslerphoto.com
What makes an event special? Chances are, one of the highlights of a memorable occasion is the food served. Whether served buffet style, as a sit-down dinner, or as hors d’oeuvres passed on trays, tasty dishes leave guests feeling happy about attending the event.
What if the food is tasty, but the service is lacking? Does that impact the success of a celebratory event? Jimmy Stevenson, owner of Southern Way Catering, bets it does. He believes both delicious Southern cuisine and flawless customer service are the hallmarks of a quality catering company. This philosophy has helped him grow his family-owned catering company to one of the largest in South Carolina.
“I like to know what I do I do well,” Stevenson says. His and Southern Way staff’s attention to detail is one action that has defined the company’s longevity. Since 1982, Southern Way Catering has been making brides smile, pulling off corporate events without a hitch, and making parties sparkle with scrumptious food and impeccable customer service.
Stevenson was raised in the hospitality industry, though not specifically in food services. His father, an entrepreneur who owned motels and restaurants, instilled in him a love of finding his own way in the business world. With this background and college under his belt, Stevenson bought a catering company from the father of a college buddy and over the next 35 years turned it into what we know as Southern Way Catering. Stevenson has grown the company to 42 full-time employees and hundreds of part-time employees today. He also is a partner in two other businesses in town: Doc’s BBQ and The Millstone at Adams Pond, an event venue. He estimates his company caters about 1,000 events annually, mostly in the Midlands of South Carolina, but also in Georgia and North Carolina. Not working in a vacuum, Southern Way provides full-service planning and works with other vendors hired by its customers to make sure each event is successful.
Southern Way is the exclusive caterer for several venues, including premium seating at Williams Brice Stadium, My Carolina Alumni Center at the University of South Carolina, Wavering Place Plantation, Leaside (which Stevenson owns), Stone River, City Market, and the café at South Carolina State Museum.
Stevenson has focused in recent years on increasing mobile catering services. His expanded kitchen capacity enables the company to provide more offsite operations, which means the staff cooks at the event location so the food is fresher. With mobile kitchens and trailers equipped and ready to go, the offsite operations part of the business has expanded and also enables Southern Way to respond during catastrophes such as the recent Hurricane Matthew. As an official approved vendor on state government’s list, Southern Way is called to feed work crews as they work to mitigate the consequences of catastrophic events. During Aiken’s ice storm, for example, Southern Way’s staff worked 21-hour days to prepare 17,000 meals, Stevenson says.
Next up is a plan to build a catering model that can be moved to other areas to increase sales. Stevenson says he is interested in serving Upstate South Carolina and other states. He is actively completing requests for proposals in other cities and states and “gearing up to handle more business.”
With Southern Way’s good reputation in Columbia, Stevenson is hopeful it will not be too difficult to spread the love to other venues. A couple of his customers weigh in.
“I have had the privilege of working with Jimmy Stevenson and many other wonderful caterers over my 16 years in business,” says Cricket Newman, owner and creative director of Cricket Newman Designs. “Two of the keys to the success of any event, whether it be a large corporate meeting, dinner or celebration, or a wedding, rehearsal dinner or other private affair, are attention to detail and teamwork. Jimmy’s team are consummate professionals because they have learned from the master and he will accept nothing less.”
“I use Southern Way for our annual party. The menu is always creative, and the food is incredible!” says Scott Garvin, architect and owner of Garvin Design Group. “The most amazing part is their service: they literally handle every detail from setup to cleanup, and they are perfectionists! Southern Way is an impressive group of hardworking, friendly people.”
For those who have attended an event catered by Southern Way, there are a few memorable food items that are most often requested.
“Our most requested is fried oysters,” Stevenson says. He also lists catfish nuggets and beef tenderloin as menu items high on the list of repeat exposure. “Our short ribs are the best you’ve ever eaten.”
Another new foray for Southern Way is the move into growing its own food. Stevenson’s ownership in the Adams Pond venue provides a couple of acres and a spillway appropriate to plant gardens and a greenhouse for growing herbs. His staff is planting sugarcane so they can produce their own sorghum syrup.
“We are trying to make operations as green as we can,” he says.
Although Stevenson is proud of Southern Way and particularly the company’s “great employees,” he is also proud of the good he has been able to contribute to the local community. As a past member of the Sistercare board of directors, he was instrumental in launching the Songbird Café benefit that raises funds for the organization to help women and children get out of abusive situations. Over the years, the benefit has netted $1.5 million for Sistercare, according to Stevenson.
This lifetime achievement award winner of the SC Restaurant and Lodging Association does not plan to rest. The future holds restructuring and the development of divisions within Southern Way Catering as it continues to grow, with Stevenson focusing the company more on corporate and recreational events.