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Festive Foods | Business

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Festive Foods
Festive Foods

When Lauren Levine and Howard Foer left their jobs in 1987 to start their own full-service catering and event planning company together, they aimed to raise the bar for catered events in the D.C. metro area. For the past 25 years, Festive Foods has honored its motto to cater to the individual and served up one memorable event after another. From corporate luncheons to intimate weddings and gala dinners for Washington’s elite, Festive Foods has earned a reputation as one of the best catering vendors in the area.

The company is also known for its commitment to the community and has been recognized for its Celebration Grants and Five Percent Pledge programs, both of which honor and encourage volunteerism. Festive Foods stands out as the only catering and event planning company in the Washington area to earn “Virginia Green” certification for its support of sustainable, local agriculture and environmentally sound practices. Now, as the company celebrates its silver anniversary, Levine and Foer are reflecting on their ascension to the pinnacle of D.C.’s catering industry and planning for the future. Festive Foods has catered thousands of events, but one near-catastrophe sticks out in Foer’s mind. He recalls barely avoiding disaster at a fundraising event held in a historic house in Middleburg, Virginia. It had been a beautiful fall day, and 300 guests were to be seated under a tent for a meal. “A wicked storm blew through and toppled chairs, knocked down tent poles and deposited the silverware in the mud,” he remembered. The damage was so extensive that the local fire department condemned the tent. Staff quickly moved the event indoors and changed the format to a buffet for the remaining 150 guests. “There’s always some sort of snafu in catering. You have to be ready for anything,” said Foer.


Festive Foods began like most successful businesses, with strong-willed personalities following their passion. As a Georgetown undergrad, Levine got her first taste of catering prepping food and planning events for a hot boutique catering company and gourmet shop. “I feel like I was born at Festive Foods, but that’s not the truth. I needed a job to help pay for school, and as someone who has been food obsessed since before she could walk, I thought a job working with food would be my dream. It was, and before I knew it, the dream became my reality and my life’s love,” Levine said. Foer, who had worked in kitchens since 1983 and briefly with Levine, was cooking in the Morrison House Hotel’s fine dining restaurant, Le Chardon d’Or. When the opportunity to oversee Festive Food’s production kitchen arose, Foer couldn’t say no. “I like the diversity catering offers – the different foods, the constantly changing venues, and cooking a wide spectrum of foods,” he said.

Together, Levine and Foer rented an English basement on Capitol Hill across from the Eastern Market and started Festive Foods. Levine recalls, “It was great because we could purchase fresh products every day from the poultry and meat purveyors, and we headed down to the Florida Avenue markets every day for produce.” But the company grew quickly, and the neighborhood setting wasn’t conducive to 6 a.m. deliveries by noisy semitrailers. After only nine months, Festive Foods moved its operations to Bethesda, Maryland, and Levine and Foer married four years later. Festive Foods quickly became known as the “quiet storm” of the local catering world.

“Folks always say ‘watch out for the quiet ones’ – and that’s us,” said Levine.” Instead of seeking the limelight, Festive Foods focused on their clients and events and ignored what the competition was doing. “I find focusing on competitors causes redundancy and mimicry in our industry. We continue to evolve as a special events firm internally, and our clients benefit from our progressive and individualized approach,” Levine explained. As the scale of their events grew, so did the stakes. However, Festive Foods proved to be adept at dealing with adversity. Levine remembers a high-profile event on the National Mall when even putrid weather couldn’t dampen the mood at a breakfast for the National Council of Negro Women. “In miserable weather, under a labyrinth of tents, we had to serve more than 10,000 guests in less than an hour. We did it, and did it with delicious and hot food,” Levine proudly recalled.

Levine says catering is all logistics, but what differentiates Festive Foods from other caterers is their passion for perfection, an obsession with food, and a commitment to always go above and beyond their clients’ expectations. Lauren explained, “For some clients, their whole world hinges on the success of their event.” Levine describes herself as emotionally engaged, which she said is a blessing and a curse. “Clients become friends, which leads to pressure to keep raising the bar,” she said. And it’s that client first approach that has allowed Festive Foods to create so many long lasting relationships. Clients have stayed with Festive Foods through major life events – weddings, births, coming of age celebrations, and back to weddings. They have also served some of the area’s major educational institutions and other corporate clients for more than two decades.

To stay fresh and relevant, event planners are always scouting for unique locations. Festive Foods found such a spot in 1995, in Poplar Springs Farm, a property dating back to before the Revolutionary War. Located in rural Casanova, Virginia, the 200-acre farm is all that remains of a 10,000-acre tract of land originally owned by Robert “King” Carter. In 1987, Robin Randolph Cutler, a distant relative of Carter, inherited the property and began renting the farm out as a wedding and event site. Th e centerpiece of the farm was the Manor House, a stately mansion built of fieldstone found on-site in 1928. Designed by architect Wickham Taylor, the mansion brought Europe’s old-world charm to the Virginia countryside.

After one event, Cutler, who had been looking to sell the farm, approached Levine about buying the property. Levine didn’t take her off er too seriously at first, but Cutler was persistent, leaving 18 voicemails for Levine. Over the next few days the idea seemed less and less far-fetched. According to Levine, Foer had always had a desire to own a boutique hotel and would oft en declare, “By the time I’m 40, I’ll either have a Harley or a hotel.” Poplar Springs fit his dream, and so by late 1995, Levine and Foer became the new owners. Levine estimates that between 1996 and 2000, Festive Foods catered approximately 75 weddings per year there. Knowing that they had a premier event location, Levine and Foer began to realize their grand vision of turning the farm into a luxury destination complete with an inn, full-service spa and fine dining.

In 2001, after going many rounds with the local zoning commission, they were granted a special exemption to build a 21- room inn and a 5,000-square foot European spa. After extensive renovations, the Manor House emerged as a one-of-a-kind restaurant, and Poplar Springs Inn & Spa opened to the public in 2002 over Labor Day weekend. The Manor House Restaurant serves French-American Fusion cuisine to both guests and locals. Diners enter through a heavy wooden door into a darkened alcove and are seated in the dining room which has the commanding presence of a castle’s great hall. Exposed wooden beams soar above the open dining area. An expansive medieval tapestry adorns the wall above the cavernous fireplace, and an ornate chandelier hangs from the center of the room. Natural light bathes the room in warmth, punctuated by a radiant, circular stained glass window in the back wall. The atmosphere lends itself to savoring a gourmet meal sourced from local providers, such as baby beef and dishes featuring locally raised pork. “Sourcing food is not as easy as people say it is,” says Foer who, as executive chef, plays a very active role in the day-to-day operations. But he says, “You make time for the things you need to grow your business.”


In 2008, Festive Foods’ charmed existence was nearly snuffed out when years of hard work literally went up in smoke. On a bitter winter night, Levine found herself standing in the sleet staring in disbelief at the smoldering remains of her Bethesda headquarters. Only an hour earlier she had been enjoying a Saturday night with her kids at the movies. As other members of the Festive Foods team arrived on the scene, the fire inspector informed them that the building had been condemned. The roof had collapsed and there was six feet of water in the kitchen. The warehouse which stored event equipment acquired over the span of 20 years was completely destroyed. Levine and her staff were given two minutes to retrieve their belongings, just enough time to salvage personal effects and family photos. As she gathered her ruined belongings, Levine was already thinking about the full slate of events scheduled for the following Monday.

Foer, who was working at Poplar Springs that night, recalled, “Our knee-jerk response was to continue to operate, even without our headquarters. We went into triage mode, first asking ourselves, ‘OK, how can we take care of our clients?’” So literally overnight, Festive Foods’ operations were relocated to Poplar Springs. So as not worry their clients, the fire was kept a secret as they miraculously found ways to execute events as if nothing had happened. Fifteen months later, the temporary offices began to feel permanent. “It’s a picturesque lake view from my office window now. I miss my old office in North Bethesda for convenience, though the view from my old office window was just another brick building. So I guess everything has its tradeoffs!” reasoned Levine.

As Levine and Foer reflect on 25 years of catering and 10 years as hoteliers, talk of retirement inevitably creeps into the conversation. After years of working seven days a week, Foer says his goal would be to work less. But, he says, “Even if someone magically came along and bought everything, we’d find something to do.” Foer embraces new adventures wherever they may be and simply wants to have fun, stay active and travel. Levine dreams of running a marathon, finishing the book she is writing and eventually exploring the globe. “After putting every ounce of my being into a profession for the last quarter century, my dream is to complete some long standing personal goals and, hopefully, to travel. I would love the opportunity to experience local cuisines around the world, but I will always call D.C. home.”

Until that time comes, Festive Foods will continue to set the standards to which other catering companies aspire, and Poplar Springs will remain a luxurious oasis to which Washingtonians escape.

Phone: 888–230–4440

The Manor House Restaurant
9245 Rogues Road Casanova, VA 20139
Phone: 888–490–7747