Many of Northern Virginia’s most successful small businesses share a similar story: They were founded by immigrants who pursued the American Dream and hit gold.
At Helga’s Caterers—an award-winning, full-service catering company founded in McLean 30 years ago—a similar story can be told.
In 1957, Dr. Peter and Helga Evans emigrated with their two young children from Germany, leaving behind the struggles of World War II and a hard life that sometimes meant existing solely on bread and butter. The couple settled in Falls Church and went on to grow their family of four to nine, while Peter became a doctor and professor of ophthalmology and chairman of ophthalmology at Georgetown University. Helga helped out by catering events at the university and in their home for her husband, and the experience helped crystallize her realization that she was looking for a new challenge. Backed by a love of cooking, some formal culinary training, and the irreplaceable experience of constantly experimenting in the kitchen for her large family, she decided that launching a catering business would be an exciting new option.
Around the same time, one of her sons, Michael, was at the Georgetown school of business, gearing his studies toward marketing a catering business while also serving an apprenticeship in Philadelphia for a leading caterer. Mother and son soon opened Helga’s in McLean in 1981, a dual-operation with sit-down restaurant service and a catering service.
“We started the restaurant together,” said Michael, now chef-owner of Helga’s Caterers, “thinking it would be a great way to simultaneously serve customers and market our catering business. McLean was the perfect place to start.”
The venture almost immediately became a family affair, with grandmother Omi joining brothers and sisters to pitch in and help. In 1990, Helga retired, and Michael continues to grow the legacy of three generations to four.
“We decided to sell the restaurant and focus solely on catering,” Michael explained, “committing ourselves to exceptional personal service and outstanding cuisine. We never forget that while we may have catered hundreds of weddings, it may be our client’s first … so our attention to personal service is paramount. Many of our staff have been with us since the start, and we share a strong passion for and love of the catering business. Food is an art, and it needs to be presented beautifully … but service and attention to detail is equally important. We’re proud of the fact that praise for our staff is as common in our reviews as is praise for our food.”
Helga’s caters events of all sizes, ranging from small, private family gatherings to large, corporate events; graduations, weddings and bridal showers; summer picnics; and cocktail parties, galas, and formal dinners.
“Our menus are so diverse that we can offer all-American BBQs to Hawaiian luaus to ethnic menus. Continental cuisines got us started, and German and Hungarian foods are our roots, but we do it all today, including being sensitive to dietary restrictions such as gluten-free, vegan, and paleo diets.
“In the mid 1980s,” Michael added, “we partnered with the Diet Center and had a contract with the American College of Cardiology. Recipes had to be reviewed by nutritional consultants for cholesterol, fat, sodium, and calories to ensure that they were heart-healthy. We even published a cookbook, Food for Your Health, that includes nutritional counts. Today, that might not seem like much, but back then, we were ahead of our time. Our focus on nutrition since our founding has also helped differentiate our service.”
Peter and Helga, now 91 and 81, are still enjoying the fruits of their family’s labor, joined by seven children, 16 grandchildren, four great-grandchildren, and countless nieces and nephews who take active roles in the business.
Helga’s Caterers has been voted one of Washington’s Top Five Caterers by WUSA Channel 9; was awarded TheKnot.com’s “Best of Weddings” every year since 2012 and has been repeatedly recognized by WeddingWire and Brides & Weddings as a top caterer.