Quest Maker

Quest Maker – July 2010
by Michèle Meagher

Meet Quest Maker Maria Catalano

Quest Maker Maria Catalano from a temporary income fix to passionate entrepreneurship

While Maria was still flying the skies as a US Airways flight attendant, she connected with a passenger who happened to be friends with Valerie Young of Changing Course. The friend sent Maria’s course changing story to Valerie who then shared it with me.

When circumstances prompted Maria to look for a way to supplement what she earned as a flight attendant, a friend’s casual request to help out at a dinner party led to a second stream of income. By the time the airline closed its Boston base and Maria stopped flying, her “temporary income fix” was no longer so temporary. The business she had pieced together had grown. And along the way she had become a fullly fledged entrepreneur doing work she absolutely loves.

At what point in your life did you decide to embark on your quest? Maria and US Airways flight crew In 2002, while I was a flight attendant with US Airways. I was about 54 then. That year USA went bankrupt. The airline took away 30% of the flight attendants’ salaries and 30% of our benefits. Several months later my husband lost his job. So I needed extra income in the household to support us.

I had good seniority at work which allowed me to get weekend and holidays off. I started thinking about how I could make more money. What could I do? While this was all taking shape, a friend asked me if I knew someone who could be a server and also clean up at a home party she was having. I volunteered to do it and I loved it. I could be a server! In my mind, I knew had a good idea because I could count on weekends and holidays off.

I started spreading the word by mouth to my friends that I was starting this service. It took a few years to catch on but once people heard about it or saw my service at a party, it took off.

How did you come up with the name? I was brainstorming with my sister. She thought of Happy Hostess and I just added an A and that’s how the name came up.

How has your business unfolded? Five years ago, it already had kicked into full gear on the weekends. When more than one person called for the same date, I started to employ more staff. Now I have professional staff of 6 who work parties for me. US Airway’s Boston base closed this past May, so since then I have had 7 days a week to expand my business.

What changes have been brought to your life? A Happy Hostess has put back the extra income into the household. It gives me independence to work my own business and work the days I want.

When I was working as a flight attendant I had my weekend and holidays off. Now I work them.

It has introduced me to new people and businesses, too. For example, several personal chefs who do the cooking at someone’s house use my staff exclusively to serve and do the clean up.

Happy clients with Maria I have joined some organizations and met people because now I am an entrepreneur. I has built up confidence to I know that I had set my mind to do something and it took off. I feel very positive about my decision.

Looking back, what’s one thing you wish you had known as you set off on your journey? In the beginning I just pieced the business together. I wish I had known about SCORE as well as the Small Business Development Center (SBDC). Both organizations have helped me a lot with the direction of my business.

I started working with SCORE about 4 years ago. I read about theorganization in a business magazine. I looked SCORE up and made an appointment at the local office. The counselors helped me prepare my first business plan.

After I had joined the North Shore Women in Business networking group, I learned about SBDC from my fellow members. The closest center to me is located in the Enterprise Center at Salem State College. I worked directly with SBDC’s regional director, Margaret Somer.

Margaret introduced me to the Million Dollar Women Symposium and Luncheon organized by the Entreprise Center. The 6th annual luncheon will take place this year on November 3 (click here for event details). The Center chooses 3-5 North Shore business women whose businesses are worth a million or more to participate in a forum where they share their stories. They always include one woman always has a business worth more than a million. I am so inspired and intrigued by them. Most of them with a simple idea just like me! The event is always sold it. I call Margaret a month in advance to tell her I am coming!

What made you decide you needed a business plan? Maria’s husband Bob is on staff too! I didn’t expect the business to last as long as it did or become as big as it has. I thought it would be a temporary fix till my husband got a new job. He did but people kept calling me.

The article about SCORE talked about the steps a new entrepreneur needs to take. One of them was to have a business plan, which SCORE could help them with. Until then, I was figuring things out as I went along with no direction. I thought, maybe I should go to SCORE and get one for myself. I truly didn’t think this was going to be as serious a business as it is or become a part of my life like that. I wasn’t taking it seriously in the beginning and now I do.

What is the one essential quality that you’d tell women to pack for their own path? Maria and staff member Determination. When the Boston base was closed, flight attendants could choose to leave and do something else or move closer to another base or commute to another base. Commuting, which many attendants do, means adding at least a half day for travel on standby to get there. And if you don’t get to your flight on time, you don’t get paid.

I was determined to replace my income when our salary was cut. When the company closed the base I was lucky. I already had my business going. I tried to encourage my peers to look at this as an opportunity to find a way to do what they wanted. But many of the other flight attendants didn’t have the confidence to try something new. They ended up staying in Boston and commuting to other bases.

Can you describe how you dealt with any obstacles on your adventure? Not obstacles on my way to creating a business. As a server when I encounter obstacles or problems, I rely on my experience as a flight attendant. We had to be cool and calm under pressure. We received a lot of training in making quick decisions and finding quick answers to problems using whatever tools we had on board. I can resource whatever I have to make things work at a party.

How did you make your dream happen? Having seniority as a senior light attendant helped! I could take off holidays and weekends, the days when parties are usually scheduled. Now that I have retired I have all my days off with plenty of time available for any event that comes up.

What has helped you stay on your quest’s path? I love it! I love the work that I do.

What’s been the secret to reaching your goals? Maria doing what she loves My secret? I give the best service. I place a personal follow up call to every customer after every party and I ask for their feedback. They love it. They call me back for repeat business. They love that I send the person they requested because she or he knows the layout of the kitchen and how that client wants the service done, when to put food out and how the client likes everything cleaned up.

What’s the best advice for your quest that you’ve ever received?

  1. One of the personal chefs I work with told me to take the ServSafe personal certification course so I would know how to handle food properly. My staffers are also trained because they have catering or food service all their life.
  2. To join two professional groups. North Shore Women in Business is a great networking organization for women with their own businesses. I also belong to Wedding Creators, a network for business owners who provide services to brides and others who need similar services. Both groups meet once a month.

Is there a particular quote, a movie, a book or a person that has sustained you? A person who has sustained me is my mother. In the 60s and 70s she was a hard working chef in an Italian restaurant in Springfield, Mass. Back then they didn’t call them chefs, they were cooks. Back then there weren’t many women in a restaurant kitchen either. She gave me the determination. The food industry runs through my blood.

Do you have a new quest around the corner? Yes, I want to expand to serving corporate lunches and also be available for memorial and funeral services, now that my weekdays are available too.