Scott Walsh, the owner of Malvern-based J. Scott Catering, winner of Chester County Chamber of Business & Industry’s 2021 Small Business of the Year award, spoke with VISTA Today about the culinary influence his maternal grandparents from Italy’s Parma region had on him, moving to the Main Line when he was 14 years old, and a hard lesson he learned from one of his earliest jobs as a cook at Chili’s.
Walsh also discussed working at the Kentucky Derby and the Breeder’s Cup (where he fell in love with the fast-paced excitement of catering) and a Peter, Paul, and Mary concert (where he discovered he never wanted to do Green Room catering again).
He further explained the genesis of his business and how he didn’t pay himself for the first five years, as well as his passion for fishing, which has taken him all over the world.
Where were you born, Scott, and where did you grow up?
I was born the middle of three children in 1971 in Richmond, Virginia. My dad worked at Nestle, and when he moved up the ranks, we moved with him. I spent a lot of time in Valley Cottage, New York, about 45 minutes north of New York City.
When I was 14-years-old, my dad was offered a job by Bachman Potato Chips and Pretzels in Reading. We moved to Wayne when I was going into 9th grade and began attending school at Archbishop Carroll.
What memories do you have of growing up in New York?
My mother’s parents were right off the boat from Parma, Italy. Her father owned a butcher shop in Manhattan.
My best memories of my youth are driving to Queens, New York on Sundays and having Sunday dinner with my grandparents and my uncles. They always had the best food. My grandmother made everything from scratch on Sunday morning, including specialties from her region in Italy. It was incredibly delicious food and art.
What jobs did you have growing up?
My parents were middle class, so if I wanted anything, I had to work. As a young kid, I mowed lawns and babysat, but my first real job in high school was cooking at Chili’s in Wayne. I cooked there all through high school, and my sister and brother worked there as well. From my grandmother, I always liked food, and I was good in the kitchen. It was natural for me to cook.
What did you learn from your job in the kitchen at Chile’s that stays with you today?
I learned the value of hard work. If you want a life in this industry and want to work in hospitality, you have to give up your social life. You’re working when everyone else is having fun. That is a hard pill to swallow, but I felt a connection to the hospitality industry and with my coworkers. We were like a band of brothers. At the end of a tough night, my entire kitchen team would have such a sense of accomplishment.
What kind of music were you listening to back then?
I love music. Music helped me relax and get into the zone. Before I moved to Wayne, I listened to heavy metal, including Ozzie Osbourne, Led Zeppelin, the Scorpions, Ronnyy James Dio.
When we moved to Wayne, my music taste changed because no one at Carroll was listening to heavy metal. I went to the other side and got into the Cure, Psychedelic Furs, and all that.
Did you play sports in high school?
I played lacrosse growing up in New York and at Carroll. Back then, it was just a club team at Carroll, which was fine because I wasn’t very good.
When did you decide to make a career in foodservice?
I dabbled in a few other things before I figured out I was good in the kitchen, and culinary school would be a great place to go. Culinary schools back then were only two years. I chose Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondacks because I love to fish and be outdoors, so I was fortunate to do that while in school. My friend’s parents owned a camp on a lake two miles from Paul Smiths’ campus, so I lived at their remote cabin while going to school. I would wake up in the morning, be on the water, and go fishing each day. It was a great life.
Did you look at others schools?
I looked at Johnson and Wales in Rhode Island but wasn’t interested in Providence, Rhode Island. Paul Smith’s was definitely a great choice for me. I graduated number one in my culinary class.
How did you work your way to number one in your class?
My work ethic and my love of food made were the difference. I always felt that I could accomplish something and be successful.
Where does your worth ethic com from, Scott?
My work ethic came from my parents and my grandparents. That was instilled in me at an early age. My grandfather coming here from Italy and starting a butcher shop with next to nothing to his name. He showed me that with hard work and dedication, you could succeed. Granted, there are many other pieces that need to fall into that place, but hard work is where it starts.
What did you do once you graduated?
After graduation in 1993, I went to work at the Inn at Little Washington, 66 miles west of DC. We won the best restaurant in the US by the James Beard House that year. As soon as the award was announced, the place went from popular to sold out every night. Working there was a demanding and challenging experience.
Where did you go after you left The Inn at Little Washington?
While I liked the restaurant industry, I didn’t like doing the same thing over and over again. I like things being new and unique. In college, I catered a few events. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to cook and cater the Kentucky Derby and the Breeder’s Cup. I discovered I like the fast-paced excitement of catering.
In 1994, I decided to move back to Wayne and start my own catering business. I needed money, so I went to work as a laborer for E.B. Mahoney Builders in Bryn Mawr. I asked the owner to help me out with his clients and let his clients know that I was starting a catering business.
When I landed a couple of clients, I began waking up early to drive down to the Philadelphia Produce Center and cooking out of my parent’s kitchen.
After six months of doing that, I found a gourmet business in the Malvern Shopping Center that was closing, and I bought it solely for the kitchen. I took out an SBA loan from Progress Bank for $50,000. I felt like I was signing a loan for $50 million. It was 1995.
What were the biggest surprises of running your own business?
First, I couldn’t have done it without my parents. My mother would work until 5:00 PM at her fullt time job, come to the catering kitchen, and I would make her dinner which she did my books until 8:00 PM each night. I didn’t pay myself for the first five years. Thankfully, I lived with my parents rent-free for five years.
The biggest lessons I learned that first year was to know my limits, and don’t overextend myself.
My business started as a home-meal replacement, so takeout and catering. I cut my teeth in corporate catering, including PQ Corporation, where my mother worked. I realized corporate catering has way too slim margins and is way too demanding. I moved to weddings and private events exclusively in 2000.
Do you have a favorite event that sticks out in your mind?
I did an event for Peter, Paul, and Mary in Philadelphia. It was a concert. I got the Green Room job to do all of their food. It was probably the hardest catering job I ever did in my life, and I did it completely myself. From there, I realized I never wanted to do Green Room catering again.
As you look forward to the rest of 2021, what are the opportunity and challenges you are focused on?
I feel much more optimistic than I did six months ago. At the beginning of the pandemic, we were all scrambling to figure out what to do. We started a program for our staff that if they were having a hard time, they could come get a protein-packed made from scratch soups for the week.
My friend Dominick Savino, the CEO of Drexelbrook Catering, started “Food for the Frontlines” in Delaware County. I asked him if it was okay for me to emulate that program in Chester County. He was great and gave such good advice. We cooked and dropped off meals to hospital staff. I felt very good about that. It was good for my clients to donate and take part in that program as well. It showed me that perseverance, hard work, self-reliance, and positivity were all critical.
There was a time that we were giving hundreds of thousands of dollars in deposits back to wedding clients. Those were the days that I wasn’t sure we were going to make it. We wanted to do the right thing, and it was challenging.
We pivoted a little bit and went after our mobile concepts, Common Good Pizza and Tap and Wiz Wit Catering. We did what we could during those trying times, and we tried to make the right decisions and be fair. We didn’t make everyone happy, but we did our best.
I’m more optimistic and hopeful this year. People want to get back together, celebrate, and be with one another. We see that in a big way. I am optimistic about the vaccines, and so are our clients and their families. Reservations are starting to pick up, and there are many weddings, graduations, and events back on the books.
What do you do with your free time, Scott?
I travel to fish. That’s my passion – saltwater fishing. I’ve been to Panama, Belize, Nicaragua, and Mexico to fish. I like to fly fish for tarpon as well. I have two children – 18 and 19 – so I spend a lot of time with them. My son is helping me out now. My daughter is going to beauty school next year.
Finally, Scott, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I don’t think it was ever just one piece of advice. It was always just the example my parents and grandparents set for me. It was coming to this country and really living the American Dream. If you work hard, you will succeed. That’s my advice for other people. I think just living by those principles will lead you to success.
Publisher’s note: Laura Manion contributed to this profile.