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PARTY PROFESSIONAL GROWN IN LOVE

WRITTEN BY SHANNON WIANECKI
IMAGES BY BARRY FRANKEL PHOTOGRAPHY

PARTY PROFESSIONAL GROWN IN LOVE

WRITTEN BY SHANNON WIANECKI

IMAGES BY BARRY FRANKEL PHOTOGRAPHY

ON A BEACH ON MAUI, CHEF LEE ANDERSON’S BUSINESS IS BLOOMING

“There are events and there are events,” says Lee Anderson. The chef-turned-entrepreneur clearly specializes in the latter. When we meet at her opulent beachfront catering venue on Maui, she wears candy pink lipstick and a matching pareau. Pink is her signature color; Anderson regularly works in hot pink chef’s coat, and in 2018 for her fiftieth birthday she threw herself a party awash in pink French tulips, toile, and paths carpeted in 60,000 pink rose petals. That was most definitely an event.

Anderson moved to Hawai‘i in 2004 with a vision. She wanted to create a top-class catering company. She came from Charleston, South Carolina, where she had worked in restaurants since age seventeen. “After so many years cooking, I wanted to learn about the front of the house,” she says. For on-the-job training, she took a hostess position at Spago in the Four Seasons Resort Maui. Her boss recognized her talents and promptly promoted her to banquet manager. During her time at Spago, Anderson catered to the resort’s celebrity clientele, ensuring their rehearsal dinners and anniversary parties were both flawless and memorable. 

In 2007 she launched Aloha Events, a small offsite catering company. Traveling from party to party, she got to know Maui’s booming wedding and event industry firsthand. She saw that what the island really needed was a one-stop shop for celebrations—an en vogue venue with a kitchen and coordinators included. So she leased a parcel of North Kīhei real estate from her father and began drafting plans.

“I LOVE THE WHOLE IDEA OF THE PARTY, THE CELEBRATION,” ANDERSON SAYS. “THERE’S NOTHING LIKE THE STRESS OF MAKING IT PERFECT—THAT’S WHAT MOTIVATES ME.” 

DON’T JUST DREAM IT — BUILD IT

Anderson worked with local architect George Rixey to design a space that functioned like a banquet facility but felt like a home. The result is a palatial two-story house shaped like a Hawaiian hale (house) with a pitched roof and huge open interior. Unique columns inside and out are shaped like poi pounders—painted jet black and textured like lava rock. 

Rixey and Anderson outfitted the house with every necessity for throwing epic parties: an extra-long commercial kitchen, custom bar, roomy dance floor, separate bride and groom quarters, and nautilus-shaped staircase that practically begs for a bridal train. The biggest draw, naturally, is the wide lawn that empties onto the beach. Sweeping her hand towards the panoramic view of the sparkling Pacific, Anderson says, “I tell everyone: ‘you’re sitting in my life’s dream.’”

Sugar Beach Events—a full-service catering venue—opened for business in July of 2013. Anderson’s assessment of the industry need was accurate; within three years she had made enough to purchase the property outright. The business has logged twenty-five percent annual growth over the past five years. It’s now a multimillion-dollar operation that employs sixty full and part-time employees and supports a wide range of community fundraisers. Anderson hosts wedding industry professionals at Sugar Beach for an annual holiday party, in addition to multiple year-round benefits in support of student filmmakers, people living with disabilities, and other local causes. 

This summer she’ll participate in “The Longest Day,” a global effort to cure Alzheimer’s disease.

While Anderson feeds her soul by giving back to the community, she satisfies her creative impulses with an ever-evolving inventory of décor. Her storage closet resembles a theater prop room, with opulent fabrics, various types of risers, and accent pieces designed to dazzle. She proudly shows off one of her most notable pieces—a European bicycle cart, which she climbs onto and effortlessly pedals around the dance floor. Dutch vendors traditionally used large pedal-powered contraptions like this to sell cheese or bread. Here on Maui, this one serves as the Sugar Beach Events mobile barista bar. The antique accoutrement gives Anderson’s events a contemporary chic feel.

Keeping ahead of the trends in entertaining is no easy feat. Anderson regularly invests in new servingware: Nick and Nora glasses for celebratory toasts, mini wooden cutting boards for cheese platters, and cigar boxes for smoked appetizers. To accommodate it all, she first filled her ample closets, then an outdoor hutch, and finally rented space next door in a neighbor’s garage. The extra effort and expense is worth it when she sees her guests’ delighted response. “Vintage tumblers are what’s hot right now,” she says. “Those glasses from the 1970s with Smurfs and other cartoon characters…It’s all about nostalgia.”

STAY SHARP

Anderson keeps her skill set as sharp as her kitchen knives. She belongs to the International Caterers Association and routinely attends culinary conferences. She seeks out opportunities to work with celebrity chefs and encourages her employees to do the same. “My role is to share and teach and help people be successful,” she says. Three of her chefs have won scholarships to study in New Orleans. As a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier, a philanthropic culinary organization led by women, she helps cultivate emerging cuisines and chefs worldwide.

When Anderson travels—which is often—she takes cooking classes wherever she lands. “I try to learn what’s local in each place,” she says. This year alone she will visit New Orleans, Nashville, Salt Lake City, Portland, Portugal, and Morocco. Back at home, she develops new recipes based on her excursions and incorporates the stories behind each one. Inspired by a milk-poached pork dish, she created a coconut-milk-poached fish entrée that suits Hawai‘i’s tropical atmosphere.

SHARE THE LOVE

Like most savvy business owners, Anderson credits much of her success to her exceptional staff. She slowly built up her team from ten to sixty. “It takes a lot to find the right people,” she says. “We’re like a family here.” It’s true. That eye-catching lipstick she’s wearing? It’s a gift from employee who knows her taste well. The pareau is another gift. Upstairs, in the groom’s quarters, three party planners laugh and work side by side, piecing together the elements of someone’s big day.

Sugar Beach Events hosts well over two hundred events per year. Despite the heavy traffic, Anderson strives to give each special occasion a personal and intimate feel. “Our clients mean something to us,” she says. “This building is filled with the love and emotion from every event that has happened here. I think people feel that when they walk in the door. It seeps in.” 

Using Sugar Beach as a springboard, Anderson aims not only to fulfill her guests’ desires, but also those of the community at large. Maui residents can attend on site cooking classes and movie nights under the stars. “I try to anticipate what the island is going to need,” says Anderson. Next on her to-do list: establishing a mid-tier catering company for local customers. Maui Ohana Catering will offer affordable, more casual menu selections for residents and business professionals. She also plans to offer a stand-alone barista service for clients who want fancy coffee drinks on demand. 

“Anything that keeps me in the party business,” she says, flashing a bright smile. “I really love what I do.” [eHI]