Founder and co-owner of Red Tea Room Donna Wong puts the finishing touch on their most popular dessert— Lemon Meringue Glacée. Photo by Haley Ausbun.

Founder and co-owner of Red Tea Room Donna Wong puts the finishing touch on their most popular dessert— Lemon Meringue Glacée. Photo by Haley Ausbun.

Renton catering company pivots during pandemic

The Red Tea Room Catering’s move to takeout helped keep the company going— and get closer to neighbors

Event companies have struggled under the shutdown during the Coronavirus pandemic. But one local catering and commercial kitchen company, The Red Tea Room, pivoted in response, and as a result got closer to the community. While events were cancelled under the stay-at-home order, it offered individual to-go meal orders and meal donations for those in need.

The idea of offering a takeout meal for individuals and families was something The Red Tea Room had sort of considered before. But once the pandemic shut down the events that they catered, thousands of dollars of booked jobs vanished, they had to move quickly to protect their staff and business.

The offerings from The Red Tea Room are unlike a restaurant, the menu is limited but the customization and personal care for those with allergies, vegan or gluten-free, is unlike other types of pick-up meals. Some in the community refer to it as “fine dining takeout.” At the height of the shutdown, several times a week owner Donna Wong and staff prepared boxes of featured, ready-to-go meals, which people could then call in to order, and pick up outside the kitchen.

Before the pandemic, The Red Tea Room had seen steady growth year after year in the catering sector.

Founder and Owner Donna Wong grew up in Renton— her father owned Happy Valley Restaurant so she grew up around the food industry. Red Tea Room began in 2006 as a dessert business, and by 2010 it became a catering service for corporate events, weddings and other special occasions.

With a background in apparel design, Donna Wong is passionate about the presentation of the food they offer.

“Oftentimes food out there looks really good but isn’t, or is really good but the presentation isn’t there,” Donna Wong said. “I think our thing is that our stuff tastes great and looks great. We know colors and textures, and you can see that in our food.”

Negative experiences at a shared kitchen The Red Tea Room rented in Tukwila led to the company leasing its own kitchen space on Harrington Avenue Northeast in the Sunset area. They built the commercial kitchen from scratch, in a corner portion of a building that used to be a Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Being a commercial kitchen, the pick-up meal program was the first time Red Tea Room has had to market itself— and its location— to the general community.

”We’ve had to let people know where we’re at, they expect a big sign, but we don’t have that because we aren’t retail,” Steve Wong, Donna’s husband and Red Tea Room co-owner, said. “As far as catering is concerned, people know who we are, but the community was seeing our marketing for pick-up meals and saying ‘Where are these guys?’”

They also share the kitchen with others, like local food trucks, and have a tight-knit, trusted group of small businesses working respectfully together in the space. They’ve also worked with those businesses during the pandemic to make sure they can still afford to rent out space in the kitchen.

“Our ability to stay open and stay relevant is because we’re small, haven’t overextended ourselves, and been empathetic to the small business community,” Steve Wong said. “We want to support what other small businesses have been going through.”

As they were juggling finances, they also were donating meals to those in need, including as many as 400 meals a week to the South King Food Fighters, offering food delivery to people feeling hardships during the pandemic, and boxed lunches for Valley Medical Center and other healthcare workers on the frontlines. When they had extra meals from their to-go meal order program, they would think of someone they knew to deliver the food to, usually someone in a high-risk population that has had to stay home.

They’ve prepared well over 2,000 donated meals in the last two months, Steve Wong said. It’s a way to keep the business moving but also support community.

The Red Tea Room even got to know their neighbors better— an apartment complex right next door has used their meals for different giveaways and individual Mother’s Day offerings.

Now that things are slowly reopening in King County, The Red Tea Room is able to move back to more catering, and will be scaling back the pick-up meals to a few days of the month. But getting to meet more of the Renton community, including neighbors in the Sunset area, is something that will stay with the catering company long after the world returns to some form of “normal.”

“Our catering business hasn’t specifically been Renton-only, it’s covered the greater Seattle area. But what we’ve been doing lately has been getting to know a lot of people in Renton,” Steve Wong said.

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