By Tina Irgang
Pictures of Citron dishes and interior/exterior shots by Sachs Photography
Decades ago, circumstance thrust Charles Levine into a catering career that he never planned on, when he found himself running the show at Baltimore’s Pimlico Hotel & Restaurant. Since then, Levine has opened his own catering business, Charles Levine Caterers and Events, and on Nov. 7, his first restaurant, Citron, officially opened its doors. Along the way, the Baltimore business scene and the wild world of catering took Levine on a journey that has landed him in front of U.S. presidents and the Rolling Stones, and given him a special role in the lifecycle events of many.
You got your degree in accounting and business. How did you end up with a catering business?
Levine: Out of college, I wasn’t sure of where to go. My uncle was one of the partners of … the Pimlico Hotel. So at a young age, I went to work in the business and it was a very, very busy operation. It was one of the premier five restaurants in Baltimore. It was the premier catering company in Baltimore. I went to work there, and then circumstances had it that I was thrust, at a young age, into a lot of responsibility. What happened was, the founder passed away. One of the founders went down to open another property. And, I was a sponge. Every business has its ebb and flow and sometimes you’re fortunate to be somewhere, and I was extremely fortunate. Then, quite frankly, you start finding out things about yourself that you didn’t know. You find out that you like structure. You start understanding design. And there were some very good teachers that I was involved with. There was a private chef, who is no longer alive, but she was really talented and I studied with her. There were some other design courses that I was involved in, and then it was all opportunities. I was in the food business at the restaurant until I went out on my own. I was there for nine years, and then the opportunity came for me to go into my own business.
How old were you when you started taking on that major responsibility?
Levine: I was all of 23. I was young. But in those days, the Inner Harbor opened. The Meyerhoff opened. [There was] Brooks Robinson’s hall of fame inauguration at this hotel in Lake Oswego. There was the commissioning of the USS Baltimore. … So all of a sudden, all that stuff happened, and I was there. I did the rededication of the Statue of Liberty, and I ran that in New York. You don’t look at it then — you’re just working — but these were great things. …
It was a very different time. There wasn’t one Kevin Plank. There wasn’t on Brian Rogers from T. Rowe Price. You had these guys who were instrumental in pushing the business in the Baltimore region, and the environment was so conducive to business. When you look back on it now, if you needed something done, Walter Sondheim could cut through everything at City Hall to capture a major area where a party could be held for a major corporation. … The point is that it was a different time, and the phone just rang, and you just did this work and you had a lot of opportunities.
For instance, when we lost the football team, the Maryland Stadium Authority hired me to represent the city and the state. The business leaders were involved financially with the Stadium Authority, so when there were the NFL owners’ meetings, I would go out and I would cater. They would set up a hospitality suite, and all day long for days, people would come in and there would be presentations for Baltimore. We flew fresh crabmeat in; I brought fresh linen and serving pieces, and worked in conjunction with the resorts or the hotels. … That’s where it all started. I was a product of the business environment and I was given the opportunity.
You’ve worked with clients who have run the gamut, from the Rolling Stones to presidents. And you also work with regular people having dinners and weddings. How does the experience differ?
Levine: Every event is important, but the work that takes more is the social work, because it a client who has envisioned something they’ve never done before. … Everything is about balance. If it’s a nonprofit event, you want to take care of the people who are coming, but you don’t want to look like you’ve gone too far. … We’ve always been one-on-one with a client, so we have always taken the energy to have them figure out what they really want. It is much more work, and I have been more intricately involved at times in some of the social work than even some of the big stuff that we do, because it’s somebody’s lifecycle event. And the truth is, we still cry when a bride walks down the aisle. … We have always put our energies into everything, whether it is the most prestigious event or the simplest thing. There really is a way to do it right.
Catering is an art because you are going off premise, you’re working with equipment that’s not calibrated, and it’s not state-of-the-art. You have moving parts, you have weather, you have all of the intricacies in someone’s moment that’s so important and it’s all at the same time. And, unlike golf, there are no do-overs.
How will your restaurant, Citron, be different from the catering business?
Levine: Our orientation is not going to change from the way catering is, where this is [the client’s] only moment. But we have some advantages now. Now we have a state-of-the-art kitchen; now we are not taking the show on the road. We can now work on the experience and elevate the experience that [customers] have at Citron. We [have to] get oriented to the new place, and some of the new staff and team [have to] get oriented to catering, because everyone is going to be cross trained and everybody has to know what got us there. The opportunity of catering will give us a foot up. It’s a tremendous foot up because there’s a client base that exists and there’s name recognition. We have a phenomenal location. We have water; we have the outside. You’re not going to believe the view, you’re not going to believe the access, you’re not going to believe the size. We have great design inside. The technology is there. Everything is set up.
Why did you decide after being in catering for so long that now was the time to open a restaurant?
Levine: This has been in the works for almost three years. … I’m very proud that the Baltimore scene has evolved to the degree that it has. You have people that concentrate on tapas; you have people that concentrate on pizza; you have organizations that are neighborhood-oriented. You have proprietors that are touching a lot of different elements. I just looked at the county, as a resident of the county, and realized there’s room for something else. The location is terrific. The people involved have been right. And I guess I personally didn’t want to finish my career — I guess it’s just who I am — I didn’t want to just continue to only cater.
How did you get good at building relationships with people and why are they such an integral part of what you do?
Levine: It’s their world and you’re a part of it, and they trust you and they bring you in and there’s a lot of respect. You want to please them and you obviously want them to be happy; you want to learn from them. And how do you get into their world? I think they saw that when I was younger, I worked really hard and I really tried, and they saw talent and they saw respect. People like to be around people that they respect. I can’t get off the word respect. You answer a phone. You learn what an expectation is and you exceed it. You set high bars and you blow through them and you are responsive. You better be darn good. … And then they have to like you and want to be around you. I tell brides, when you hire a photographer, look for the talent, look for the end result, but then who do you really want around you at your wedding?
What do you love about what you do?
Levine: I love great wine. I love good food. I like people. I like challenges. … I like the fact that people have left here and become executive chefs. People have left here and gone into other professions. … I like where it has taken me. There have been some interesting people along the way, and there have been some opportunities — the time I met Ronald Reagan and the stories behind people like Howard Head (from Head skis and Prince tennis rackets). …
What I take personally the most out of it is you feel like you can do anything. You feel like you can make better decisions because we have no mulligans. There are no do-overs and there’s no time. You have to be quick on your feet, you have to do it right and you have one opportunity.
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Human Element is a regular, web-exclusive column that aims to get to know the leaders behind great companies. Rather than talking about business models and growth strategies, CEOs open up about what motivates and guides them in their professional and personal lives. To be considered for The Human Element, email firstname.lastname@example.org.