By Ann Marie Hohenberger
Chef Tony Polanco’s smiling face is a familiar sight around Charlottesville – at the Saturday farmer’s market, at the many nonprofit events he’s graciously catered, at social events and meetings, and at seemingly countless weddings and special events.
On June 21, 2016, Forward/Adelante Business Alliance (FABA) will present the fifth annual Chuck Lewis Passion Award to Chef Tony during a gala celebration at The Paramount Theater in downtown Charlottesville.
Tony’s signature blend of delicious multicultural flavors, excellent service, and affordable pricing has found a receptive audience in Charlottesville. His business, Chef Tony Catering, has already served more clients in the first half of 2016 than in all of 2015.
An observer might say that Tony’s success is due to his hard work, talent, and dedication. But he gives credit to a supportive local community.
After working for years in New York, he says, he still felt anonymous. In Charlottesville, “you have a great community of people who help local small business,” he says. “If you’re ready, the community is there.”
“You’re not successful because you’re good,” Tony says. “You’re successful because the community is good.”
Yet even with a supportive community, not every business is destined to succeed. Tony’s journey as an entrepreneur has seen its ups and downs.
In 2005, Tony had the chance to purchase a local restaurant, Pupusa Crazy. “I believed it was a great opportunity,” he says.
Renamed Caribbean Malecon, the restaurant was successful at first – but it was difficult to draw city residents out to the location on 29 North. After a short time, the business began to lose money.
“I was not ready to have a business,” Tony says. “I had that business without any plan… It was a good teaching experience of what not to do.”
Chef Tony Catering began as a home-based business in 2003, but it wasn’t until 2012 that Tony decided to leave his position at the Boar’s Head Inn and begin catering full time.
After his bad experience in the restaurant business, “I was scared,” he says. But this time around, Tony made several key decisions that helped his business succeed.
Citing the classic proverb, he says, “Good luck is opportunity together with preparation… My lesson from the restaurant was: you need to be prepared before any business decision.”
In 2013, Tony joined the Community Investment Collaborative’s program for local entrepreneurs. “My wife was pushing me,” he says. “It was the last day to apply – like at 12 midnight. I said okay, I will do it. I didn’t have any faith that it would help.”
The CIC program made a big difference. “I didn’t have any training in administration,” Tony says. “They helped me to understand the full package… Before, I made the decision first, then [looked at] the numbers. Now, I make a spreadsheet.”
Some would-be entrepreneurs who join the CIC program decide not to go into business, because they see that the numbers simply don’t add up for their ideas to make money.
“In my case,” Tony says, “I was in the right business.”
In catering, Tony discovered a key difference from his restaurant experience: he loves serving people personally. “I talk to people about the food, the quality, the presentation,” he says. “I don’t want to wake up to the same menu every day, make the same food every day, sit and wait for the people to show up.”
When he provides the food for a wedding or special event, Tony says, “They’ll be talking about my food and my job in 50 years. They’ll remember the food and how people liked it. When you find your path to do something great and important for people, not for money – you’ll be in the life of someone forever.”
Early on, Tony hired someone to handle the administrative side of the business. That decision has yielded benefits beyond just setting him free from paperwork.
“I don’t want to take a phone call, don’t want to explain myself all the time – ‘Where are you from, what is your accent?’” Tony says. “After people see my food, they see me and see that I’m from somewhere. Then that ethnic thing creates something attractive.”
Meeting people in person has become a foundation of Tony’s business. “Every social activity in the city, I go,” he says. “People see me in one place, they see me in another place, and they assume I am part of the community.”
Tony’s popular omelette stand at the Charlottesville City Market draws in potential catering customers every Saturday. “That is my big advertising,” he says. “I don’t have to say ‘my food is good,’ because people taste it and it’s good.”
Although his time is full with a growing business and a family, Tony takes time to give back to the community in many ways – including mentoring other entrepreneurs through CIC. His success can inspire anyone who is discouraged by adversity.
“If you’re not successful in something,” Tony says, “it’s not to disappear and say no, never in my life will I have a business. You need to find the right business.”
“I started with zero, and now I have it: my kitchen, my office, my employees. A lot of people feel like family because they’re working for me. When I pay people, I feel so happy.”
Bringing good to the community through his work is a source of joy for Tony. “The Chuck Lewis award reminded me,” he says: “when you do something good for the community, you will be alive forever.”
Join FABA at The Paramount Theater on Tuesday, June 21, 2016, to congratulate Chef Tony as he receives the Chuck Lewis Passion Award.