Thursday, April 26, 2018
Business

Orange Blossom catering owner passes the torch

ST. PETERSBURG — The last supper was beef brisket cooked for 12 hours.

"It was like butter," said Ed Shamas, former owner of Orange Blossom Catering.

The meat was served with scalloped potatoes and wild mushroom ragout for a function at the Tampa Port Authority.

That was the last time Shamas oversaw an event as owner of the company his father and uncle started in 1953. After more than 50 years of catering weddings, funerals, Rotary and Kiwanis meetings, ribbon cuttings, debutante balls and business functions, Shamas has left the business. He recently sold St. Petersburg's catering mainstay to Ryan Clelland, who has worked for Shamus as a chef for several years.

"It's been a good run," said Shamas recently on his last official day on the job.

He maintains ownership of Orange Blossom's familiar 8,000-square-foot building with the blue canopy and barrel tile roof at 220 Fourth St. N. The structure that first opened in 1935 as Orange Blossom Cafeteria now houses a commercial kitchen and event space.

"It's good to know the Orange Blossom keeps on going," Shamas, 73, said. "The nice things is it's carrying on as a family business. This has always been a family business."

Clelland, 45, and his wife, Anna, 39, have worked in large country clubs and the catering world for more than 20 years.

Shamas started working for his dad and uncle in the kitchen, setting up and breaking down events when he was a student at St. Petersburg High School. He came back to the business after graduating from Florida State University and Cornell University and took over as manager in 1966. Two years later his father died of a heart attack and his role running the company became even bigger.

Many of Orange Blossom's 35 employees have worked there 20 to 30 years, forming a "work family," growing up, raising kids and retiring side by side.

Orange Blossom catered the ribbon-cutting when the new Sunshine Skyway Bridge opened in 1987. It served food for the Vice Presidential debate between Al Gore and Jack Kemp in 1996. The same year, Orange Blossom catered events when the Devil Rays began coming together. The catering company served thousands of people throughout the week when Tampa hosted the Republican National Convention in 2012.

The Mayor's Prayer Breakfast for more than 1,000 people on Martin Luther King Jr. Day is always a standout event, Shamas said. Orange Blossom has fed fans at the Grand Prix and stars at the Mahaffey Theater. Frank Sinatra requested french fries between shows at the Sundome in Tampa. Shamas' wife, Betty, got to deliver them.

Orange Blossom recently catered the opening of the new AER Apartments downtown. The chic night at the luxury building carried a theme of "earth, wind and fire." The menu included sliced tuna on wheatgrass. Dry ice offered a smoky air effect.

Shamas has seen special event decor and menus change plenty over the years.

"Back in the '60s and '70s, weddings were very simple. I used to call them 'cake, punch, finger sandwiches and mints,' " he recalled. Ice sculptures of fish and swans were almost requisite.

(Orange Blossom once catered a party for an ear, nose and throat doctor with a giant ice sculpture of two nostrils.)

"It's something different every day,'' Clelland said. "That's what makes it exciting."

Since Orange Blossom caters about 200 events a year, the functions have become habit with few to no jitters no matter the size or purpose. But Shamas knows each event is a very distinct moment in the client's life, especially if it's a wedding.

"You meet some people who are very wealthy and can do anything they want," he said. "For other people, they've been putting money aside a long time for this. We treat every occasion as they are equally important."

Caterers also have to be ready for everything.

Clelland recalled a time when he worked in Arkansas that he and his staff had to use hand-held propane torches to heat mashed potatoes when the power went off during a wedding reception with 750 guests.

This resourcefulness will come in handy if a hurricane compromises St. Petersburg. Orange Blossom has long been designated by the Red Cross as one of a handful of emergency food sources if disaster strikes.

Like most businesses that thrive for more than 60 years, Orange Blossom has diversified. Along with catering events, it prepares and serves 3,000 meals a day for Pinellas County Head Start and makes three meals a day, seven days a week for ACTS behavioral health facilities in Tampa.

Shamas stayed on as an employee and consultant for a few months after he sold the business to Clelland. On his last official day, he almost gave away the family secrets.

When asked to name one of Orange Blossom's most popular menu items, the answer was easy.

Orange blossom chicken.

When asked what makes it so good, Shamas started ticking off the ingredients to a reporter until Clelland asked that he not release that competitive information.

Shamas laughed and locked his lips, acquiescing to the new boss.

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