A culinary giant in Texas and beyond, San Antonio caterer Don Strange died this morning at Methodist Hospital. A Don Strange of Texas catering company spokesman said that Strange passed away after a heart attack at about 2:30 a.m. He was 69.
Strange built his catering business around the wealth of foods available in Texas and served his fare in a down-home style that was well-received at both black-tie events and cookouts held anywhere from the White House lawn to his Hill Country ranch.
He was also known for his generous nature, which endeared him to many. He founded the groups, Helping Hands and Breakfast of Champions, and was active in Roy Maas' Youth Alternatives, all of which have helped children help themselves with a better understanding of cooking and nutrition.
“He was such a dear man,” said Stevie Weissman, who worked with him through her company, Stevie Weissman Events. “If you went to a meeting with him, it was amazing the creative energy and ideas that would come out of his mouth. I know his family will carry on.”
Lainey Berkus of the CE Group not only handled his public relations, she also considered him a friend. She worked with him professionally for 15 years, but it wasn't until Strange catered her daughter's wedding that she saw him in a whole new light.
"It was a fairy tale wedding," she said. "He's a dream maker. He makes dreams come true. And I think that's what has made him so successful."
For the wedding reception, Strange created a scene called Fire and Ice in which 100 waiters entered a darkened room with ice that had been set on fire. It was a memorable moment for the bridal couple and the guests, but it was only one part of what made the event so dear to Berkus.
Strange's passion for constantly pushing himself and his company to do more and better things was what placed him at the forefront of the catering business in San Antonio and beyond. "He would always call and say, 'I've got this idea. I've got that idea,'" Berkus said. And the ideas all had the wow! factor customers wanted.
Strange’s signature dishes included his smoky barbecue and his gordita stations, where patrons would find plump, steaming-hot corn patties topped with refrieds and guacamole. Equally popular were his Grilled White Wings, in which he wrapped bacon around nugget of chicken breast, a sliver of jalapeño and some cheese before grilling it.
These dishes, and many more, quickly attracted the attention of customers after Strange opened his catering company in 1968 under the name the Party House.
"He was just so easy to work with," said Sally Solcher, who hired his company on a number of occasions over the years. "When he was in your home, it was just like having one of your friends in the house."
Solcher said she knew Strange for about 30 years, and his talents went beyond his innovative presentation. "He just made everything colorful and delicious and fun," she said. "He will be extremely missed. San Antonio has lost a really great man and friend."
The company’s website, www.DonStrange.com
, offers a brief history of the business, which began when Strange’s parents, Edith and Joe Strange, opened a grocery on Bandera Road in 1952. The catering company is housed at the same location to this day.
The business evolved into a restaurant, and Don Strange decided to branch out into catering in conjunction with HemisFair, the site says.
In 1982, he purchased 125 acres of Hill Country land near Welfare, which has become the Don Strange Ranch, a working ranch where large events are catered. Four years later, he changed the name of the business to Don Strange of Texas to emphasize its Lone Star roots, according to the site.
In 1990, Strange catered the Congressional Barbecue on the south lawn of the White House at the request of President George H.W. and Barbara Bush.
Other business projects have included operating the Buckhorn Saloon and Museum on Houston Street as well as catering for the John T. Floore Country Store in Helotes.
He is survived by his wife of 48 years, Frances, his three sons and their wives, Brian and Shanan, Matt and Kelly, and Jason and Mandy; his brother, John Strange, his grandchildren, Emily, Alexandra, Austin, Molly, Jake, Parker and Olivia; and his mother-in-law, Mary Singleton. His extended family includes his brothers- and sisters-in-law, nieces, nephews and cousins as well as his staff.
Though all of his sons have been a part of the business, many know Jason Strange because he heads up the popular Wednesday steak night at the Waring General Store. Mary Singleton makes the desserts that are served there each week.
Restaurateur Chris Madrid knew the family for years. "We were at Waring Steak Night just recently and saw them just recently. The whole family was there," said Madrid Wednesday morning.
"One thing I have always told people: If Don Strange is doing your catering, you don't have to worry about a thing."
A memorial service will be at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Don Strange Ranch near Welfare. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in his name to Roy Maas' Youth Alternatives and the Rotary Club of San Antonio Sam J. Riklin Rotary Diploma Plus program. Flowers may be sent to Porter Loring Funeral Homes.
SavorSA co-editor John Griffin contributed to this story.