Native Ink Press, an imprint of Ink Smith Publishing of Monrovia, California has just published a fascinating memoir about the storied high-end power caterer, Ridgewell’s, and the three generations of the family that founded and nurtured it through the Depression years, the Second World War, the era of Watergate and Vietnam and into the modern era of ‘inside the beltway’ Washington of today. The story, as told to the author by Bruce Ellis the grandson of the founders, begins with his granddad “Charlie” Ridgewell’s departure from the Isle of Wight, the tiny island athwart the English Channel in the very early years of the twentieth century who, nearly penniless, found a job with the British ambassador’s staff at their embassy in Washington as a ‘valet’. It was through this connection that he met his future bride, Marguerite Cuvillier
(who was later nicknamed “Little Meemaw”), herself a recent immigrant from Paris working as a ‘plain cook’ at the French embassy. Mr. Ellis describes the couples early life in the first decade of the last century and how, through wise reasoning and their careful handling of the little money they were able to save from truly paltry earnings (around a ‘pound’ a week or a little more than a dollar a day) they started the small business of catering to the well-to-do hosts and hostesses of the greater metropolitan area that have always flirted with the politically powerful and well connected since the time of John and Abigale Adams.
From the birth of the company and its struggles to keep up with the shifting power scene in and around the nation’s capital to where the company is today some 86 years later Mr. Ellis lays out the labor of love that he, his identical twin Jeff, and his father and grandfather before them experienced. This book is a tribute to the concept that service, properly understood, is perhaps THE way to manage any business. In other words they took what they knew about the life of a servant and brought that lesson to a business that actually sold service. The company was to serve every White House from Harding to Obama and, astoundingly, made money every year it was under the guidance of the founder and then his son-in-law and then his grandsons. He tells how his grandfather, Charlie, made it his business to become close to the most powerful and influential people who, in turn, lived among and entertained the most powerful and influential people. He goes on to relate how his father, a Depression era boy from the hills and farmland of Boone, North Carolina became a close friend of President Harry Truman and Marjorie Meriwether Post, at that time the world’s richest woman. Names like Mrs. Post. Evelyn Walsh McLean (the owner of the Hope Diamond), Perle Mesta (The Hostess with the Mostess), Gwen Cafritz, Elizabeth Taylor, Nelson Rockefeller, George Herbert Walker Bush and on and on the power people of politics, entertainment and business all came to rely on Ridgewell’s.
Bruce notes that as the family expanded so too did the business. From it’s simple beginnings on a downtown street in the basement of a townhouse with two employees in just three generations the compay grew to over 150 full time staff and more than a thousand ‘outside’ service personnel from maitre d’s to bartenders, wait staff, etc., You’ll follow that growth with stories such as how the company took control over its own destiney when, during his father’s management, the company had to rely on an outside kitchen to provide the food component. Recognizing this situation could not continue because of the inherent lack of control Bruce and twin Jeffery in the very early 1970’s had the company relocated to suburban Bethesda Chevy Chase where a complete catering operation was set up with kitchens, warehouse, sales and administration could overseen by the family.
Ridgewell’s is a great story filled with vignettes that will delight the reader and surprise some with the concept that managing a business has much the same dynamics as raising a family. True humility, absolute honesty, commitment to principle and guided by a generosity of spirit is the formula, according to Mr. Ellis that worked at home and at work.