From Hurricane Sandy To One Of Manhattan’s Hottest Start-Ups: Life Lessons From Riviera Caterers

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960x0By the time Hurricane Sandy’s eye had lurched northeast past Brooklyn on October 29, 2012, the Coney Island building that housed Riviera Caterers, a fourth-generation catering business founded in 1895, was already filled with 12 feet of floodwater and debris. National Guard tanks pulled in 24 hours later and stayed for weeks.

Andrew Cavitolo, who was 26 years old at the time and running Riviera with his parents Pat and Zack, was watching the news images as Sandy’s eye hit and knew that there would be little left of his family’s business, which was located just three blocks inland from the Coney Island amusement park that became a national symbol of Sandy’s long-lasting destruction. Cavitolo returned the next day after the storm passed at 6:00 am with his chefs and staff to start the clean up—and canceled the next 6 months of weddings.

“Everything in our building2012-11-01-14-30-01-1200x900 was completely destroyed,” recalls Cavitolo. “Brooklyn was destroyed. We knew it could be a year before we could start doing events again.”

Hurricane Sandy crushed thousands of businesses in New Jersey and Brooklyn that never recovered either physically or emotionally from the damage. Cavitolo instead turned to what his family knows best: catering.

andrew-cavitolo-bobby-stern-riviara-caterersIn the year before Sandy hit, Cavitolo and his college friend Bobby Stern had already been cooking up the idea for a Manhattan-based Riviera offshoot that would specialize in luxury and corporate event production in the city. They formally founded Riviera Catering “Manhattan” in June 2012 without an office, but once the reality of recovering from Sandy became clear four months later, they knew that they had no other choice but to throw everything behind their new venture, including taking out second mortgages on their homes. They rented a 10’ x 10’ co-working office space with a shared desk in Soho and frantically started dialing for clients.

“I just picked up the phone and started calling everyone I know in Manhattan,” recalls Stern of the next few months. “Before Sandy I was on the management side of the table in event production in the city, so this was the first time that I was asking for business instead of giving it to people. Fortunately, I already had a pretty decent little black book.”

Stern’s hustle paid dividends quickly. After pulling off a three-day, 2500-person party for Hendricks Gin, the pair snagged events with other brands like Nike, Bentley, Google, and PepsiCo (who recently hired the duo to curate the company’s Super Bowl 50 party in San Francisco for more than 15,000 people). Word of mouth about Riviera’s eye for never missing a detail also spread rapidly outside of Manhattan to notable party-throwing celebs like Keith Richards, Puff Daddy, Floyd Mayweather, Kobe Bryant, and Usher. At the time, Cavitolo and Stern were still both just 29 years old.

 “I guess what we did seems bold in retrospect, but we had nothing to lose after the storm,” Stern admits. “We just kept being persistent. Once we convinced one client to give us one small event, they’d give us another little bigger event. Then we’d organize an even bigger event. Then one client would tell another client. And it all grew from there.”Andrew-Cavitolo-Bobby-Stern-The-Kosan-Sisters-Hal-Rubenstein-copy-1200x960

Beyond Riviera’s lightening-fast resurrection from Hurricane Sandy’s ashes into one of Manhattan’s hottest and most sought after event companies, three things in particular make Cavitolo’s and Stern’s story teachable from an entrepreneurial perspective.

First, manage the details above all else. Dreaming is easy. Pulling off an all day Super Bowl event for 15,000 people when PepsiCo is your boss isn’t party-planning. It’s more like managing the logistics for a Rolling Stones reunion concert tour. Riviera’s other surgical mastery has been to create a brand experience for their clients that is communicated through “culinary engagement.” For a Bentley party, this means individual, custom-made serving trays built from carbon fiber and aluminum. For a recent U.S. Open tennis event, Cavitolo served Burrata-stuffed Arancini rounds served on clear, three-dimensional glass trays filled with tennis balls. Love, love.

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