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UPDATED on Thursday, May 21 at 3 p.m. by Joan Vinson:
City Council approved an ordinance on Thursday to authorize RK Culinary Group as the chief catering service for the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. The agreement is for a 10-year term that begins on Oct. 1.
RK Culinary Group is a business that “was born and bred here in San Antonio,” said Councilmember Rebecca Viagran (D3).
RK Group’s CEO and President Greg Kowalski; Chef Johnny Hernandez, who was one of the key partners that formed the RK Culinary Group; and an entourage of staff members came to City Hall to mark the official approval from City Council. When RK Group members were asked to stand, about 50 people rose to their feet. “I didn’t know you brought an army with you,” Councilmember Alan Warrick (D2) said. Council members added praise of the catering company’s legacy and performance.
RK Culinary Group was awarded the contract for the food and beverage services at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center back in 1972.
Johnny Hernandez said his father owned a Mexican Restaurant on Old Hwy 90 when he was a child, noting that he grew up with a rich Mexican heritage.
“We love sharing our gift of food and hospitality so we look forward to the next 10 years,” Hernandez said.
Original story published on May 7:
More than 40 years after winning its first catering contract in 1972 for the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, an era when Richard Nixon was still president and the venue bore a simpler name, the RK Culinary Group appears on its way to earning another extension of the $17 million-a-year business for at least another decade.
The roots of RK Group itself can be traced back nearly a half century to the planning for HemisFair ’68 when a world’s fair provided Hank and Rosemary Kowalski the opportunity to transform Uncle Ben’s Diner, a popular mom ‘n’ pop beer and barbecue roadhouse, and their Uncle Ben’s Catering Service, into a major local employer and community asset.
Michael Sawaya, director of the City’s Convention and Sports Facilities Department, made a detailed presentation to City Council in B Session on Wednesday that scored the RK Group well ahead of Centro Hospitality of Stamford, Conn., the other sole finalist. Both competing entities featured an impressive array of partners.
City officials and independent judges participating in the scoring matrix measured experience, background and qualifications; the proposed plan; joint venture agreements with women and minority-owned businesses; and local versus out of market.
When solicitations were first sought by the City in May 2014, the size of the contract was expected to generate intensive bidding from multiple local and national players. The Convention Center is undergoing a $325 million expansion, allowing San Antonio, which already hosts dozens of major conventions and meetings that attract nearly one million visitors annually, to compete for even larger conventions.
In the end, Sawaya told City Council members, more than 300 vendors were notified of the contract review, yet only 18 participated in informational conferences before the actual bidding. Only three firms ended up vying for the business, valued by the City at an estimated $255 million over the life of a 10-year contract with a five-year renewal option.
Rosemary Kowalski, the 91-year-old matriarch of the RK Group, a local firm with national reach now led by her son, CEO and President Greg Kowalski, attended Wednesday’s briefing session, along with grandson Travis Kowalski, the company’s director of operations, representing three generations of family leadership (see top photo).
RK put together an impressive partnership to win the bidding.
Chef Johnny Hernandez, founder of True Flavors, a San Antonio-based catering enterprise, was one of several key partners that formed the RK Culinary Group. Hernandez is quickly building his own culinary empire, both locally and now in Las Vegas. He is scheduled to preside Friday over the opening of a poolside Fruteria Botanero at the Garden of Gods at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, where he already has a La Gloria outpost at the resort casino’s Forum Food Court. Hernandez, who opened the original La Gloria at the Pearl in 2010, also has a La Gloria-Fruteria combo at San Antonio International Airport and at George Bush Intercontinental Airport. The original Fruteria Botanero is located at 1401 S. Flores St. Another La Gloria is set to open across from the Dominion on I-10 West.
Richard and Debbie Ojeda, co-founders of Black Ties Affairs, also attended the briefing, as well as Tony Gradney, president of Chelsea’s Catering Bar Service, another Eastside vendor. Gradney, a former Aramark executive, also joined forces with the RK Group.
In the end, local won out over out-of-market vendor. Centro Hospitality had its own impressive group of local partners, including powerhouse Lisa Wong, owner of Rosario’s Cantina y Cafe in Southtown, Lisa’s Mexican Restaurant on the Westside, and Acenar on the River Walk. Rosario’s, with a location at the San Antonio Airport, also opened a location on the city’s Northside.
Chef Jason Dady, one of the city’s most talented new generation chefs, also was part of the Centro Hospitality bid. Dady is chef and owner/partner of Umai Mi Modern Asian Restaurant & Bar, Tre Trattoria, Two Bros. BBQ Market, The DUK Truck, B&D Icehouse and Dady Premier Catering.
But Rosemary’s enduring legacy, its hometown roots, and the RK Group’s 81.17 to 69.32 point advantage kept the contract in RK’s corner.
“I’d like to congratulate the RK Group,” said City Councilmember Alan Warrick II (D2), whose district includes the RK Group offices as well as Chelsea’s Catering offices.
Approval of the staff decision will come before City Council at its May 21 meeting.
*Featured/top image: Rosemary Kowalski, the 91-year-old matriarch of the RK Group (center), is joined by (from left) grandson and RK Group Director of Operations Travis Kowalski; Director of Special Projects Bekki Kowalski; Richard Ojeda, CEO of Black Tie Affairs; and RK Group’s CEO and President Greg Kowalski at the City Council briefing on the Convention Center catering contract. Photo by Robert Rivard.