Clash of the Caterers

Was it one too many chicken empanadas? It's Jackson vs. Jerry in the battle of the high-society foodmeisters.

Houston society mavens and boldface types are twittering about the old-fashioned food fight going on between the city's two highest-profile caterers. Jackson Hicks -- long the town's reigning prince of parties -- is said to have his elegant nose severely out of joint over the upstart success of restaurateur Tony Vallone's new catering operation, Tony's at Home. It's not that Houston's answer to Martha Stewart can't stand the thought of another rival in the kitchen. The problem is that Tony's at Home is run by Jerry Bartee, Hicks' longtime right-hand man.

Bartee jumped ship to Tony's last February, with a whole flotilla of Jackson and Company clients bobbing along in his wake. To name only two prominent examples: Tony's at Home catered Mayor Bob Lanier's recent penthouse-warming at the Huntingdon for 400 of his and Elyse's closest friends, and it also handled the ultra-lux seated dinner for 400 that kicked off the Baker Institute's splashy lecture series with General Colin Powell.

"Elyse Lanier has always used Jackson and Company, and she steered lots of the city's social business Jackson's way," remarks one society watcher, who, as one can imagine, preferred not to be identified by name in this story. "When the Lanier party went to Tony, it arched even more eyebrows than the Baker dinner did, because Jackson used to own all that Rice University stuff, too."

"Jerry simply had a loyal client base that had nothing to do with Jackson; when he left, they went with him," explains Collin Slye, Jackson and Company's former staffing director, who ultimately followed Bartee to the Vallone organization. "Parties that have been done forever by Jackson are now being done by Jerry. Jerry's been aboveboard about all of it; Jackson is the one that's been bitter."

Hicks, however, dismisses talk of any rift between himself and his former executive as unfounded gossip.

"I don't know how that talk gets started," he says. "I guess things get a little slow, and people need something to talk about."

"But," he adds quickly, "we have more business than we've ever had. I haven't noticed Jerry's taking any clients with him. And I haven't noticed any drop in revenues, which is how you gauge things in this business."

When asked specifically about Bartee's catering of the Laniers' party, Hicks was gracious: "Mrs. Lanier has certainly done business with us, but my impression is she's used a lot of people. Jerry has been in this business for a long time and knows a lot of people. I'm not surprised if some would want to use him."

Bartee insists he never intended to cut his own swath in local catering circles. Rather, he says, he was hired away from Jackson and Company to head up the revamped Tony's restaurant. He only got back into catering out of necessity.

"My clients have always been extremely loyal," Bartee says with a smug shrug. "The phone has been ringing off the wall over here. Tony had to create a catering company because we had all this revenue and no place to put it. We've done well over 100 parties since February, and all we've done is pick up the telephone."

It's true: Tony's at Home isn't listed in either the phone book or directory assistance. Potential clients have to know where to call -- specifically Vallone Restaurant Group headquarters -- to book a party.

"It is embarrassing, but we haven't gotten around to it [getting a phone listing]," admits Vallone. "I never had the goal of getting into a full-scale catering business. I originally hired Jerry to run the new Tony's, but then all these private parties started coming to us. Catering became a must. We had no choice."

Vallone won't disclose sales figures, but he says his catering business has been "phenomenal" this past year. "It has been four times what we thought it would be, and we set an aggressive pro forma going in."

Friends who know Hicks and Bartee praise them both as highly creative and talented men who have much in common. One longtime mutual acquaintance describes Hicks as "tall, handsome, graying and pretentious," and Jerry as "tall, handsome and fussy like a mother hen."

Both caterers are also highly theatrical -- Jackson along the lines of a John Gielgud; Jerry does more of an Ethel Merman -- and a party produced by either man can be an over-the-top extravaganza. In truth, Hicks virtually invented the level of sumptuous European elegance many of the city's most celebrated hostesses have become known for. A Jackson Hicks party is recognizable from the moment you walk in the ballroom, whether from his trademark towering jalapeno topiaries or his rafts of divinely costumed waiters gliding about with silver trays of scrumptious morsels and flutes of champagne.

"But there are only so many chicken empanadas and spring rolls you can eat," ex-employee Slye points out. "With Jackson, it got to be so it was always chicken empanadas, spring rolls and the pepper cones -- always the same."

Bartee says he's chosen to take a lower profile in his productions, placing an emphasis on the chow.

"A lot of my clients don't need 'my' signature because they have their own style and security," Bartee explains. "Food is the signature of a Tony's at Home party. We've developed a repertoire of 40 hors d'oeuvres taken from the various restaurants -- Grotto, La Griglia, Tony's. Other than that, I'm the guy you don't see [at the party]. My gratification comes from not being the superstar."

For instance, you'll never see Bartee prowling about a major ball wearing one of those wireless telephone headsets Hicks uses to keep in touch with far-flung staff on busy nights.

"No, we won't do that," Bartee says firmly. "The headset is something Jackson is known for that doesn't always get the most positive review. We had one client specifically ask if we were the ones who do that."

Once close confidants, Hicks and Bartee haven't spoken since Jerry joined Vallone's organization early this year. Hicks contends there's nothing calculated about the absence of contact and says he doesn't take Bartee's defection personally.

"I don't see him much, but I've been busy," Hicks insists, with an air of studied casualness. "I'm not particularly bitter. Jerry was here, and now he's not. We were sorry to see Jerry go, and we wish him well. But frankly, I've been kind of busy taking care of business. Jerry's been quite busy, too, and I've not seen much of him."

That's not how mutual friends and acquaintances describe the split. They gleefully relate an incident in which Jackson arrived for dinner at the River Oaks Grill, only to hastily exit upon sighting Bartee's party already seated inside. And they snicker over the time Hicks and Bartee were both hosting small parties at Ninfa's on Navigation on the same night. Hicks' party finished first, but lingered for almost an hour after paying the tab, so as not to seem to be fleeing Bartee's presence.

"They just sat and stared at each other; it went on for an hour," gasps Slye, who was present at Ninfa's that inauspicious night. "Jackson was just not going to be the one to leave first."

For his part, Hicks denies those encounters ever took place. "I haven't even been to the River Oaks Grill since it reopened, and I've certainly never seen Jerry there," he says smoothly.

Bartee, however, remains unconvinced Jackson harbors no grudge over his departure. He notes that numerous mutual friends have been invited to gatherings at Hicks' new Montrose manse, yet he has not.

"I worked very hard for him, and we were great friends," Bartee adds. "It sort of hurts at a personal level. But I don't spend a lot of time thinking about it."

In addition to those snubs, Vallone confirms that Hicks, once a regular at Tony's, hasn't patronized that upscale Post Oak eatery since Bartee joined the scene.

Hicks loyalists point out that Jackson isn't completely unjustified in being miffed at Jerry. After years of working together, Bartee never gave Hicks the chance to counter Tony's offer, and Hicks reportedly had no idea Bartee was unhappy until he tendered his resignation.

"I was very honorable about how I left, and it was very hard leaving," Bartee explains, a tad defensively. "I'd already signed my [Tony's] contract before I talked to Jackson, because I thought it was cleaner that way. But I gave my 30 days notice, and I worked through Christmas. I think I was the only person [to leave Jackson and Company] who ever did that."

It has been suggested that Bartee would have never left Jackson and Company if Hicks had offered him a deal similar to the one Vallone made him. No one will discuss percentages, but Bartee has been given an ownership stake in Tony's at Home, something no employee has ever had in Jackson and Company.

"Tony has been very generous; he said if this works, we'll share the profits," Bartee confirms. "I do have a percentage. It's immediate."

Others who have worked for both Hicks and Vallone say Tony's operating style must also come as a breath of fresh air for Bartee.

"Jackson is very elegant, but he can be very tough to work for," Slye explains. "Jackson's office is always full of subterfuge, with people trying to figure out whose back to stab next. Tony is very straightforward. If he's got a problem, he will call you in, tell you about it and not say another word. If you made a mistake at Jackson's, he'd make you sweat." (See that light flaring on the horizon? It's Slye, burning his bridges.)

Hicks' track record shows that, like many artistic people, he can be petty when he feels justified. For instance, former staffing director Slye used to catch Jackson eavesdropping on employee telephone conversations from an office extension, claiming it was his right to listen in, since he owned the phone system. And when a downtown hotel outbid Jackson and Company on a major corporate party, the rebuffed caterer reserved the city's only set of gilded bamboo chairs for the night of the party, knowing full well the hotel had promised them to its client.

"The Four Seasons had to go through Jackson and pay a premium just to get him to release the chairs for the night," Slye swears. "He can be a very jealous person."

The exact depth of Jerry's Rolodex may become clear when the spring charity ball season swings into gear. For more than a decade, Hicks has had a death grip on the city's biggest arts and disease balls, but the Bartee/ Vallone combination reportedly is making inroads.

"We've already turned down a few [big balls]," Bartee says, offhandedly citing a 1,000-seater that coincided with the week of the Tony's restaurant reopening. "And a lot of the big spring parties are out in proposals now."

Hicks professes disinterest in challenges to his preeminence on the ball circuit. "It takes a certain size organization and focus to do those large seated things and do them well. People have come to rely on us, and we hope our reputation is such that people realize how consistent we are."

Yet Hicks is unmistakably moving to counter the Bartee/Vallone juggernaut. In the wake of Bartee's departure, he sent a letter to all of Bartee's personal clients, both praising his former employee and subtly wooing them. And he is redesigning Jackson and Company's core menu with a decidedly Italian accent.

"There's just a lot of interest in Italian food in Houston," Hicks explains. "Look at the expansion of Italian restaurants here. I try to create trends, not follow them."

But Hicks is undeniably having to work harder since his trusted aide-de-camp defected. Prior to Bartee's exit, "Unless you were talking about a major, bigtime party, Jackson and Company's clients never knew they were dealing with Jackson -- until they got the bill and his signature was at the bottom," cracks ex-staffer Slye.

Adds Bartee: "Some of the clients Jackson has called on personally [to solicit parties] were just shocked. He always delegated that before."

Bartee describes the rift as "an unfortunate situation" and says he has no hard feelings toward his ex-boss.

"If Jackson picked up the phone and said, 'Let's have dinner,' I'd do it today," he says.

But Jerry, say those familiar with the clash of the caterers, shouldn't waste time waiting by the phone.

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