Brothers Mike and Sam Orlando got their start in the catering business in front of a black-and-white TV. When they would get home from school, old reruns of Gunsmoke and Leave it to Beaver aired on the tube, as they cut their teeth in the food industry. “When we were little kids, we used to roll the silverware up in napkins while sitting on the floor watching TV.” Mike says that’s just how it works when your family is in the catering business. “We took forks and knives and little rubber bands, and stuffed salt-and-pepper packets in—that was our job.”
Orlando’s still is all about family. Eight members of the clan, including mom and dad, still take care of business. As Mike tells it, Sam Orlando Sr. started out running a produce business with his brother. “They opened Sam’s Produce down on produce row,” he says. “My dad enjoyed cooking and entertaining, and he would always cook for his friends at barbeques. At one point, one of his friends told him, Hey you should get into this business.
About a half a century later, the Orlandos are still at it. Sam Sr. and his wife, Jan, are spending more time at home these days, but still take pride in the product. According to Sam Jr., that pride is a key part of what makes their business click. “What we accomplish, we accomplish together,” he declares. "Having a family business where all the key employees are family, we all care about what we’re doing and have a vested interest in it.”
Orlando’s has grown to be one of the biggest catering operations in St. Louis, with some 175 full- and part-time people on staff. While catering has always been the mainstay, the company also has four brick-and-mortar locations for events and conferences: the original Orlando’s Gardens in South County, another on Watson Road in Webster Groves, a newly reopened center in Maryland Heights, and the Lodge at Grant’s Trail. The Lodge also is a nine-room bed-and-breakfast that looks like a huge log cabin built just off Interstate 55 near the start of Grant’s Trail.
Mike says the entire Orlando family spends time at the Lodge during the Christmas holiday, where he admits they do talk shop. But that’s exactly why they call it a family business. “A lot of people can’t work with their family, but we are very close—we all get along and we know what it takes to run a successful business.”
The Orlando girls went to Notre Dame High School, Mike went to Vianney, and Sam Jr. followed his dad’s footsteps at St. Mary’s. But after high school, Sam Jr. almost took a sidestep around the family business: He went to Saint Louis University, and studied theater and earned a degree in acting. He did some community theater after college, but ultimately decided to leave showbiz—well, almost. “I have to say I use my theatrical experience every day!” Sam chuckles as he says he’s still using those creative energies. “Parties and events are like a theatrical production,” he explains. “It’s a one-night show and you have to bring the wow factor to the event and make it memorable for the people you are doing it for.” And like most performers, that means giving each occasion a little extra pizzazz. “I like to play with my food. It can be simple food, but presented in a unique and innovative way—it makes my job fun.” Didn’t your mom tell you not to play with your food? I ask, to which Sam Jr. responds, “If I play with it too much, I will get my hand smacked!”
The Orlandos say they are seeing real growth in the catering business because of an improving economy, more corporate spending on events, and more venues being opened across the area.
But the days of sitting on the family room floor watching reruns while helping Mom and Dad get ready for the next big job are long gone. They agree the business is far more complex than it was back in those days. But Mike says the one thing that hasn’t changed for the Orlandos is family. “Your family is there to help you. They can slam you, but then they pick you up, and give you a hug and a kiss—all in one motion, and that’s OK because they’re family.”