Chuck Schwartz has earned a reputation during the 50-year span of his career as one of the Steel City’s premiere caterers and not just because of his homemade latkes, gefilte fish and matzah balls.
Schwartz, who finally laid down his ladle last week to enter retirement, has been a steadfast and beloved fixture at countless weddings, brits, baby-namings, bnai mitzvah and corporate events throughout the Pittsburgh Jewish community and beyond since 1966.
“You didn’t have to worry about anything when you hired Chuck,” said longtime customer Martha Kreimer. “He has really been there for our family, catering our wedding, my son’s bris, his bar mitzvah party. I think many, many people have counted on him.”
A native Pittsburgher, Schwartz, 74, graduated from Taylor Allderdice and the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in business. After college, he spent some time in the U.S. Army Reserve, before joining his father, Mickey Schwartz, in a catering business in Shadyside in 1966.
The elder Schwartz had been seasoned in the food service industry as partner in a steak house in Squirrel Hill before he decided to focus on catering.
In 1977, the Schwartzes moved their catering business to Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill, building a new kitchen and deli counter and calling their enterprise Charles Catering.
Chuck Schwartz never attended culinary school, but instead educated himself on the ways of the business with “on-the-job training,” he said.
Charles Catering was busiest during the Jewish holidays, Schwartz recalled, when scores of Pittsburghers would visit his storefront to pick up ready-made foods such as matzah balls and matzah bagels for Passover, noodle kugel, brisket, gefilte fish and horseradish for Rosh Hashanah and latkes and applesauce for Chanukah.
“Those were phenomenal latkes,” said customer C.W. Kreimer. “And it was great applesauce.”
Schwartz remained on Murray Avenue for decades and finally downsized in 2013, moving his business to Etna, where he shared space with Cop Out Perogies.
He went in every day and never complained. Sometimes he’d work from 6:30 in the morning until 11:30 at night. They were extremely long hours. He is really dedicated to his customers.
In addition to Jewish life cycle events, many of which were held in area synagogues, Schwartz catered countless corporate events for various businesses and at Carnegie Mellon University. He catered large events for the Junior League back in the 1970s and served 2,500 people at events for Action Industries.
“Many of my customers have been with me for 40 or 50 years,” Schwartz said.
One of those customers, Anita Lopatin Smolover, has “had everything I’ve ever done, every celebration in my home” catered by Schwartz.
“It was always wonderful,” she said. “He is so caring, and everything was always lovely. He’s a wonderful, wonderful man.”
Running a catering business is not a leisurely pursuit. During the Jewish holidays, Schwartz would often put in 80-hour workweeks.
“Seven days a week, he was on call,” said his wife, Rose Schwartz. “He went in every day and never complained. Sometimes he’d work from 6:30 in the morning until 11:30 at night. They were extremely long hours. He is really dedicated to his customers.”
That dedication, conversely, has led to some regrets.
“I missed things with my own family,” Schwartz said. “I would miss a seder, or Thanksgiving dinner, because I’d be working. I missed some family functions and the wedding of a friend. It’s very time-consuming being a caterer. It’s like being a doctor on call.”
The catering industry has changed in the last several years, with chain restaurants such as Panera Bread and Subway offering the service.
“They all do it, but I did different things,” Schwartz said. “For me the business was personal. I always tried to go out of my way to make it a special event. And I was there at every event that I catered, unless it was just dropping off food for a small group.”
His generosity extended beyond providing the personal touch for the events that he catered.
C.W. Kreimer, chair of the Jewish Committee on Scouting, Greater Pittsburgh Council, noted that Schwartz lent his scouts thermoses for hot chocolate every year for the Scouts’ annual 10 Commandment Hike to various houses of worship throughout the city.
“If I didn’t call him one year to ask for the thermoses, he’d call me,” Kreimer said. “How many people do you know who rent their stuff as part of their business, but who give it to you for free and go out of their way to give it to you for free?”
Schwartz is looking forward to the freedom that retirement will bring, having the time to spend with family and friends and to travel.
“I will miss the business,” he said. “I’m sad, but I’m happy. I’m thankful to all my customers and friends for their loyal support and patronage over the years.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at ttabachnick