By Adam Sandel
Originally published on Advocate.com June 28 2014 5:00 AM ET
Lucas Mendieta always knew he was different — even before he knew what the word gay meant. Growing up in a South Carolina Bible belt town with a construction worker father and factory worker mother, he came out at age 15. It did not go well.
“I was physically and mentally abused by my father, who said everything you shouldn’t say,” Mendieta says. “I was very depressed, I tried to kill myself a couple of times, and I spent my sophomore and junior years of high school living in my car — until it got repossessed.”
Little did he know then that within 14 years, he would become one of the most successful entrepreneurs in New York’s catering industry. As CEO and cofounder of Cutting Edge Elite, Mendieta, who’s now 31, staffs events for some of the most elite Wall Street, fashion, hotel and celebrity clients in the country.
When the company launched in January 2008, it was just Mendieta, his business partner Nathan Perry, and a dozen friends whom they’d book as waiters, bartenders, and event staff. Today they have an office staff of eight, and 400 highly trained professionals whom they book for events in New York, Boston, Miami, and Los Angeles, with a goal of opening an L.A. office in 2015.
But the road to where Mendieta is today was a long one — paved with sheer necessity and pure determination. After “barely” graduating high school, he realized, “I wanted to be surrounded by freaks like me. My friends rented me a car and at age 19, I came to New York City.”
With nothing but blue-collar experience, he worked a series of menial jobs, including as a janitor on Wall Street. “My boyfriend at the time suggested I work as a cater waiter, so I lied about my experience to get my first job,” he recalls.
His desire for more work and to learn more about the catering industry led him to the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y. “They did a lot of events, so I kept calling them until they hired me,” he says.
There he received training, discovered that the company had trouble staffing events, and worked alongside the business-savvy Perry. A friend’s mother recognized Mendieta’s passion and bought him his first computer. With $1,500 and contacts with local catering companies, their fledgling business was soon born.
Mendieta recruits and provides multiple training sessions for his staff, who are booked according to the various needs of clients. “Sometimes they need to serve a five-course meal with wine pairings, so they need to have the food and wine knowledge to do that,” he says.
Other clients have aesthetic requirements for their events, such as ethnic diversity. “One client said, ‘I need seven guys who are about 6 foot 3 and look like Thor — and five girls who look like Barbie.’”
Seventy percent of his staff are artists, actors, and models, who appreciate the flexibility that the job provides. While he initially recruited staff through colleges, social media, and Craigslist, the majority of his new staffers are referred to him through word of mouth.
The game changer for Mendieta was working the 50th birthday party for A-list floral designer David Beahml who, along with famed caterer Laurence Craig, has become a trusted mentor.
“I really wanted to work with LGBT organizations, since their work is nearest to my heart,” says Mendieta, who has donated his services to fundraisers for the Trevor Project and New York City’s Ali Forney Center for LGBT youth. He has also worked with Live Out Loud’s The Homecoming Project, speaking to LGBT youth in New York schools about his experiences growing up gay.
Eight years ago, Mendieta had a homecoming of his own when his father was hospitalized with serious health issues.
“I didn’t want anything left unsaid, so I went down there,” Mendieta says. “I was ready to attack with a lot of anger and hate, but when I got there, I just let it go, just reconciled and moved on. I saw where he was coming from: a very macho guy from Guatemala with limited education who wanted me to be a certain person that I wasn’t.”
“I realized that I’d cultivated a real family atmosphere with my company, which the staff often comments on and appreciates.”
Sometimes in business, in addition to building financial success, it’s also possible to create a sense of family — where one hadn’t existed before.
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