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Don Strange of Texas: Six Decades of Dishing Out Style, Flavor

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With its unique take on Texas cuisine and reputation for flawless events, Don Strange of Texas has established itself as one of the most sought-after catering companies in the nation.

Outdoor, country ambiance draws guests to catered events at Don Strange Ranch.

Sixty years in the making, the story of the renowned catering company starts with Joe and Edith Strange, who grew their own business from a grocery store to a restaurant, and finally to The Party House, Inc., the most popular venue in San Antonio for weddings, parties, fraternal, civic and social club gatherings from 1957 until 1972.

Thanks to the success of The Party House, it wasn’t long before people started asking the Stranges if they could cater parties at their homes. The Stranges obliged and what is known today as Don Strange of Texas was born.

Their son, the late Don Strange, took everything he learned at the hands of his  parents and put  his now-famous spin on it in order to create not just a company, but a strong, distinctive and inimitable brand and catering powerhouse that includes the Don Strange Ranch in Welfare, the corporate headquarters in San Antonio, the General Store in Waring, the Buckhorn Saloon and Museum on the River Walk and donstrangemarket.com, the company’s online store that sells Don Strange of Texas food and gifts for home delivery.

“Although many people come to us looking for an event or food with a Texas feel — one of our many specialties — we are able to do any type of function, from boots and barbecue to modern and upscale to vintage and cutting edge. You name it and we can create it with flavors your guests will remember,” said Di-Anna Arias, director of culinary vision for Don Strange of Texas.

Setting Culinary Trends

On their list of credits for not just following, but setting culinary trends, Don Strange is credited for commercializing the fajita, inventing the fried jalapeño and the grilled white wing, and developing the ever-popular display cooking and food station service. Don Strange of Texas’ culinary vision has forever changed the public’s perception of catered events and thanks to the “out of the box” approach, the reputation of the company is so far-reaching that it counts United States Presidents, movie stars, professional athletes and brides throughout the world as clients.

“I think what keeps us on the cutting edge is that we are always coming up with different ideas about how to make each party unique and memorable so our clients walk away completely satisfied. Word of mouth as been the bedrock of this business since the beginning and we never forget how important that is,” said Brian Strange.

Here is a decade-by-decade list of Don Strange accomplishments, from the 1950s to the present:

 1950s:  The Spark that Started it All

The spark that became Don Strange of Texas can be traced to the flames of the barbecue cooked behind the Strange family grocery store and customers looking for easy meals.  As the last stop on Bandera Road on the way out to Medina Lake, customers would stop and stock up on groceries for the weekend. The store was also a butcher shop, so it was natural extension to take the excellent quality meats and barbecue or smoke them for customers.

Barbecue, such as ribs, a Don Strange standby.

In the 1950s, people were looking for convenience — the era of the TV dinner began, casseroles were king and party hostesses usually made “California Dip” (the standard mixture of dry onion soup mix and sour cream) for people to enjoy.  So when the Stranges began offering barbecue ready to go, packaged with beans and potatoes for a full family meal, their customers couldn’t resist.

“That simple start was a result of my grandparents listening to their customers  — and it’s the basis of what we do today. In any business, you have to listen to your customers and in ours, it’s crucial. My grandparents saw what their customers needed:  good, quality food ready for their weekend at the lake, for their family celebration … everything we are today started with the simple idea of preparing food for our customers to enjoy,” explained Brian Strange.

1960s:  The World Comes to San Antonio

The business was going well, but no one could have anticipated the impact that the 1968 Hemisfair would have on the business.  Don was only 28 years old, but he had charisma and vision, and he wanted to grow the business by capitalizing on the wealth of knowledge that had descended on San Antonio. Things for Don Strange of Texas kicked into high gear when Strange started meeting people in the medical community:  The medical center was being built and the doctors were used to entertaining.  People were coming to San Antonio from everywhere and Don worked with them and learned from them, expanding the catering business and exploring new cuisines.

How many pounds of beef tenderloin has Don Strange served up since the beginning? Here’s a clue — it’s more than 10 million. Check out the numbers here, drawn up from the archives at Don Strange.

The influx of new people into San Antonio reflected a national trend in the 1960s: People traveled more. Thanks to the invention of the jet, getting to Europe or Asia was no longer a long, arduous trip. American soldiers home from overseas took their families abroad and brought home a taste for more exotic dishes, so American cuisine began to diversify.

Culinary trends at the time were crepes, Steak Diane, flambeau and serving things in the classic silver chaffing dishes. Entertaining in the 1960s was more refined and elegant than in the 1950s, in spite of the culture of the decade.

“Like fashion, culinary trends tend to go in and out,” explained Arias. “Crepes were big in the 60s and we’ve seen them come back with new ingredients and presentations. The comfort foods popular today got their start as casseroles in the 50s. New ingredients may add a different twist or dishes may be presented differently but good food never goes out of style.”

 1970s:  Oil Flows and Flavors Grow

Business continued to grow and word of mouth quickly spread about the unique catering available through Don Strange of Texas. The local art and business communities began working with Don Strange of Texas to create elegant galas, Texas barbecues and chuck wagon dinners in every venue imaginable. And when the oil boom of the mid-1970s hit, business flowed as fast as the oil was pumped.  Texas was in the spotlight and the rest of the nation wanted to know more. Texas-style entertaining became popular and satisfied taste buds talked up Don Strange of Texas.

Don Strange of Texas was the first caterer to break free of the traditional styles of catering around which the industry had thrived for years — the buffet meal line or the formal seated dinner.

After seeing them in the markets of Mexico, Don created food carts reminiscent of street vendor carts. Don used the carts as serving stations, creating elaborate settings for serving one portion of a meal. The concept changed the way San Antonio entertained:  guests would graze from station to station around an event, mingling, talking and enjoying fabulous food. Food stations at events are common now, but the concept was a Don Strange innovation.

Through the connections he had made over the years, Don was introduced to presidents, celebrities and dignitaries from around the world and they all wanted to taste his legendary Texas barbeque. Don Strange of Texas catered Henry “The Fonz” Winkler’s annual birthday party and became the caterer of choice for celebrities, governors and presidents:  nothing unites Republicans and Democrats like a good plate of barbecue!

In the 1970s, the American palate had finally been unleashed, and anything ethnic was worthy of consideration. Culinary influences at work at the time included an influx of immigrants, bringing with the exotic foods and flavors. Szechuan, Hunan, Vietnamese, Korean (and in the 1990s, Thai), flavors began their popularity. The popularity of Mexican food also began to soar: 20 years later, salsa would surpass ketchup as the most popular condiment in the United States.

 1980s:  Bigger and Better

The oil boom continued into the 1980s and things were flying high — literally. Don Strange of Texas could be seen traveling the state in small chartered planes and helicopters to cater events at ranches and locations from Midland to Victoria. Flotillas of catering trucks were constantly hitting the road from the company’s San Antonio headquarters, taking its classic cuisine to all corners of the state.

“Dallas,” the television show, was on air and all things Texas continued to be celebrated. Big, lavish parties were still the rage and the bigger the better:  Don Strange of Texas employed 24-ounce margarita glasses at some events. Whole sides of beef were cooked and served at events, cabrito was popular and Texas ranch-style food, like pan de campo (the official bread of Texas and a Don Strange of Texas menu specialty), was all the rage. And Don Strange of Texas did it better than anyone.

You’d see these fabulously cooked meats on display, hanging from wrought iron pieces that we’d had created,” said Di-Anna Arias. “No other caterer had anything like them. We still do that today: we vision a piece and have it made so our event displays and food set-ups are unlike anyone else’s.”

It was during the 80s that Don Strange of Texas as it is known today was born:  Don Strange of Texas, the company name, was born in 1986 when the caterer decided to rename the company from the old “The Party House” to formally recognize the growing popularity of the man behind the magic, Don Strange.

No Limits

“Our creed at Don Strange of Texas is never limit ourselves. There is no event too big or too small, nor any location too remote. Weather doesn’t stop us—we’ve catered events through ice storms, torrential rainstorms, driven around flooded roads and put snow chains on our catering trucks to get to wherever we’re headed to put on the best event possible, no matter what. And having our own unique venues also gives our clients options — we can create their event for them in one of our venues, or bring the party to wherever they’d like to go, ” said Brian Strange.

Ethnic and regional influences continued to grow: the Cajun trend grabbed everyone’s palettes as blackened dishes grew in popularity thanks to Chef Paul Prudhomme from New Orleans. Southwestern cooking began seeping into kitchens, people began enjoying Spanish tapas and Tex-Mex came into its own. Sweet tooths were tempted by decadent flourless chocolate cakes, truffles and chocolate crème brûlée.

When the stock market crashed in 1987, spending declined and comfort foods made a resurgence:  chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes and chili—all Texas favorites—were popular.

1990s:  Eclectic and Healthy

The decade started in style for Don Strange of Texas, catering two days of parties at the White House in honor of President George H.W. Bush.

Using a portion of the Don Strange Ranch, the company established the Don Strange Adventure Challenge Course on Kendall Creek. The course boasts the highest climbing structure in the nation and is one of only a few in the country that is handicap accessible. And by the end of the decade, Don Strange of Texas had further expanded its venue options available for clients: the company became the exclusive caterer for the Buckhorn Saloon and Museum on the Riverwalk.

The decade saw the beginning of the healthy cuisine trend, focusing on flavors from the Pacific Rim and the Mediterranean. Sushi and sashimi were favorites and perennially popular Italian cuisine began expanding to include polenta, focaccia and tiramisu. Fusion cooking, combining cuisines to create new flavors, was popular, and pure, intense flavors grabbed attention. And thanks to Martha Stewart, many cooks were expanding their efforts and trying new things at home.

2000s: Sustainable, Farm-to-Table, Back to the Basics with a Twist

Don Strange uses avocados in novel ways, a nod to new tastes, new health consciousness.

As San Antonio’s population has grown, the variety of tastes and influences has expanded the flavors sought by Don Strange of Texas clients. Asian influences, spices and curries from India, ethnic street foods:  no flavor is off limits, but the popularity of Texas cuisine is still strong. “No matter how far we roam, we always enjoy the flavors of home. And if you’re not Texan, you still appreciate good barbecue and fine Texas cuisine. It’s a standard that has never gone out of style,” explained Arias.  “There are some flavors that stay with us and Texas cuisine is a classic: we may update it, we may twist it, we may layer new flavors into it, but basic Texas cuisine is unsurpassed and why it remains a constant for people’s palettes.”

Flavors for this decade include bacon, something that Don Strange of Texas more than satisfies with its mouth-watering apple-smoked bacon with brown sugar known as “Christmas Bacon.” Available at events catered by Don Strange of Texas or through the Don Strange Marketplace at www.donstrangemarket.com, Christmas Bacon is an item that will never lose popularity. Other favorites for this decade include cupcakes, artisan foods, whole grains and specialty coffee and teas.

Comfort Food

Another trend of the decade that never seems to fall out of grace: comfort food. The first decade of the new century brought with it a return to roots feel, with people requesting homestyle comfort foods, served in classic china and with vintage décor.  Don Strange of Texas has its own take on comfort foods:  venison sliders and lobster mac ‘n cheese are popular items on the catering menu. “People enjoy a fun twist on nostalgia,” explained Arias.

“People want diversity, but they want it paired with quality and authenticity:  that’s the hallmark of who we are. No matter what cuisine we’re preparing, when we plan a menu, it’s authentic and we only prepare the freshest, most quality ingredients we can find. That attention to detail is reflected in the flavors of the food we serve,” said Arias.

While sourcing locally is a big trend, it’s been a way of business for Don Strange of Texas since the beginning. “We try to use local, small businesses to provide our ingredients. We want to know where things come from, know the quality of the product and trust that what we’re providing our clients is the best it can be,” explained Brian Strange.

Don Strange

Don Strange, the patriarch of the internationally renowned catering company, Don Strange of Texas Inc., passed away Wednesday, November 11, 2009, at the age of 69.

Don’s eldest son, Brian Strange, is at the helm of the business as President and CEO, steering the company to new heights while ensuring that the quality and consistency that has earned national critical acclaim never misses a beat.

 

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