Monday, May 11, 2009

Tony Conway Caters to Atlanta's rich and famous (as published in The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, 5/10/09)

(by Jennifer Britt, photo by Jason Getz)
The lunching ladies were on the way. The tables were laid estate-style, set end-to-end like shimmering runways. Tony Conway orbited the arrangement to make sure glasses lined up exactly, that the seats of the chairs barely touched the tablecloths, that the hydrangeas, tulips and peonies were fluffed to perfection. “My designers say, ‘Nature doesn’t do that,’” he said as he fussed over a bloom. “I’m not nature.”

The founder and president of A Legendary Event, Conway’s client list includes Jane Fonda, Elton John and Tyler Perry (he oversaw the million-dollar opening gala for Perry’s new studio last fall). A more-is-more kind of guy, Conway’s catering and design company turned a section of the unfabulous Civic Center into a sumptuous event space during the run of the King Tut exhibit. When the Atlanta Symphony Ball chose “La Vie en Rose” as its theme a couple of years ago, Conway showered the InterContinental Hotel’s ballroom with 7,000 blooms.

“My life is just a party,” said Conway, whose 12-year-old company employees 200 staffers and 42 managers; his partner, Steve Welsh, is the firm’s creative director. “I love what I do, even when I’m not doing it. I’ve never gotten bored.” A fixture on the scene (and behind the scenes) at the city’s major society and charity events, Conway is well-known among the air-kissing set, but his background might not be. The first crowds Conway fed were the field hands on his great grandparents’ farm in Weinert, Texas, a dot on the map about 250 miles northwest of Dallas. He got his first paying job by doctoring his birth certificate, and once contrived to bartend during an Ike and Tina Turner concert even though he was too young to drink legally.

The man who serves some of Atlanta’s wealthiest and most influential residents got into catering almost as a dare to himself, and clients who have become friends marvel at his aplomb. “One time, we had an event and the reservation person hadn’t done that good of a job,” said frequent event chairwoman Sally Dorsey, who’s been throwing parties with Conway’s help for years. “Someone called up and said, ‘Who will I be sitting with?’ Tony said, ‘Oh you have the most fabulous seat. It’ll be the greatest seat in the house.’ Of course, we didn’t even know they were coming.”

Sandra Baldwin, active with numerous charities, chaired the Atlanta Ballet Ball at the Ritz-Carlton while Conway was there. They decided to pitch a tent for the after-party, where the Dixie Chicks played. “The fire marshal was about ready to shut us down,” Baldwin said. “Tony handled everything. I don’t know what he did, but he took care of it. We’re the Will and Grace of Atlanta. When I get all crazy he’ll say, ‘Grace, calm down.’ Tony’s like the eye of the storm.”

Conway’s unflappable demeanor was formed in the predawn hours down on the farm, where he spent summers as a child. He learned the importance of timing (if the biscuits weren’t served hot, his great grandmother would say, the butter won’t melt) and of hard work. “I remember my great grandfather saying, ‘We’re going to hoe cotton,’ ” he recalled. “I said, ‘I’m not doing that. The hoe’s too big for me.’ “Without missing a beat, the old man snapped the tool over his knee and handed the shortened implement to his 7-year-old great grandson. “He used the other end to give me a spanking,” Conway recalled.

The future events planner honed his social graces amid the ladies in his great grandmother’s sewing circle, and learned the importance of giving back and not wasting. “We would keep the ends of vegetables to make a stew or feed the animals,” said Conway, who remembers sharing the garden’s bounty with neighbors. His entrepreneurial streak blossomed as a teenager. He recalls sitting on the tailgate of his mother’s station wagon, tossing the Houston Post onto driveways in the dark. At 15, he aged himself a year with the deft application of correction fluid and landed a job at an ice cream parlor.

“That lasted about three days,” he said. During his senior year of high school, he got a job washing dishes in the kitchen of a Holiday Inn, where his mother ran a salon. “I heard Ike and Tina Turner were coming and asked if I could help bartend,” he said. Underage but undeterred, 16-year-old Conway positioned himself behind the bar. “I had no idea my mom and her friends were coming,” he said. “Busted again.” But on the morning when two buses carrying a bowling league showed up — and the cook didn’t — the dishwasher stepped behind the grill and onto a career path. “It was myself and two waitresses, Ann and Marge,” he said. “We cooked breakfast.”

After college at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied business and marketing, Conway and a friend opened a gourmet deli in the Houston area. Not satisfied with walk-in customers, he decided he’d like to get into catering. Some family friends held seats on the art museum’s board, and Conway persuaded the museum to give his fledgling business the contract for its black-tie gala. The only problem, of course, was that he had no experience.

“We called Glorious Food in New York,” he said, referring to an established, high-end events firm there. “We asked if we could work for free, to learn.” At the end of the catering crash course, Conway rallied every friend and relative he could talk into it to rent a tux and help on the big night. The event went well, but his business partner was nearly done in by the experience and closed the deli. “I was jobless,” Conway said. “I was like, ‘What do I do now?’ “Ready for another leap of faith, he answered a Marriott ad seeking a director of catering. “You don’t know what you’re doing, do you?” the interviewer asked. Conway pleaded for a chance, and thrived. He ran the catering operations in several Marriotts, then interviewed on Christmas Eve 1991 for a position as the Buckhead Ritz-Carlton’s director of catering and conference services.

“I drove to Atlanta in a snowstorm,” he said. “My first day I got a phone call saying, ‘Employees can’t get to work.” His professional Atlanta debut started with a shift manning the phones for a snowbound switchboard operator. “He never ruffles,” said Charlene Crusoe-Ingram, a retired Coca Cola executive who now donates her time to the arts and charity. She is co-chairwoman of Meal to Remember, a November gala benefiting Senior Citizen Services. Conway will handle the decor, as he did for the host committee luncheon he was preparing for the other day. The ball is likely to draw more than 300 people, but Crusoe-Ingram has attended Conway-catered luncheons for eight or 10. She said he’ll attend to a handful of people in someone’s home, and a ballroom packed with social swans, with the same level of care.

“He has high standards,” she said. “He likes doing elegant things.” Not that A Legendary Event, which moved last summer into a 55,000-square-foot building in the Westside area, has never faced a snag. “We have [driven] into the side of a client’s house, driven over the lights, blown wax all over a beautiful sideboard,” he said. “Fortunately, insurance is great. I’m a pretty level-headed person. I never yell and scream.”

Conway enjoys traveling and usually has half a dozen books going at one time (“The Kite Runner,” “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” and “What Would Google Do?” have all been on the nightstand lately.) He says he’s not interested in expanding the business to new locations or more cities, but is considering culinary school, for some formal training as a pastry chef. And in his free time, Atlanta’s quintessential party planner trades exquisite hors d’oeuvres for the simple flavors he learned to love in his great grandmother’s kitchen. “My favorite place for dinner is my home,” he said. “I’m happy that comfort foods are back. If I had my last meal, it would be fried chicken. Isn’t that crazy?”

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