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The Black Diamond of Caterers

Bennie Ferrell Catering celebrates 60 years of business in the Houston community

Every holiday season for the last sixty years the Ferrell family has been working. Large parties, private gatherings, two hundred guests, fifteen people, and everywhere in between. Seafood platters, top cut sirloins, chocolate fountains, brunch bars, and artfully crafted desserts line immaculately decorated serving tables. Expertly trained staff anticipate needs before guests do, never allowing an unwanted empty glass or stomach.

The customer service business is not for the faint of heart. You miss holidays, birthdays, weddings, and family trips. Your business’s economic well-being depends on your ability to provide others an exceptional experience, often at the expense of your own. It is unforgiving work.

Since 1959, The Bennie Ferrell Catering company has taken on this unforgiving work with style and grace. Former Presidents, Houston’s Who’s Who, and Every holiday season for the last sixty years the Ferrell family has been working. Large parties, private gatherings, two hundred guests, fifteen people, and everywhere in between. Seafood platters, top cut sirloins, chocolate fountains, brunch bars, and artfully crafted desserts line immaculately decorated serving tables. Expertly trained staff anticipate needs before guests do, never allowing an unwanted empty glass or stomach.

The customer service business is not for the faint of heart. You miss holidays, birthdays, weddings, and family trips. Your business’s economic well-being depends on your ability to provide others an exceptional experience, often at the expense of your own. It is unforgiving work.

Since 1959, The Bennie Ferrell Catering company has taken on this unforgiving work with style and grace. Former Presidents, Houston’s Who’s Who, and Fortune 500 Companies have all called on Bennie Ferrell Catering’s talents over the last six decades. The result is a treasure chest of memories, and a legacy nothing short of Black Excellence.

To understand how Bennie Ferrell became one of Houston’s most successful boutique catering companies you must review the story of Dempsey and Doretha Parhms and do a little digging into African American history.

After slavery, newly freed Black people had few options for survival. Many turned to sharecropping (a controversial form of agriculture in which tenants rent plots of land to farm). Not without its own unique and complicated challenges, many sharecroppers wanted to escape the fields and systematic oppression that came with it in search of a better way of life. This desire brought the Parhms family to Houston after Dempsey returned from his time in the Navy as a cook.

When Mr. Parhms arrived in Houston one can imagine he was first met with optimism, quickly followed but the realization that jobs and opportunities for upward Black mobility were hard to come by in the legally segregated city. He would eventually land a job as a cook for a family in the polished River Oaks neighborhood. It was his classic cooking (Creole-inspired) skills and ability to navigate any crowd that elevated Dempsey to a more prominent status within the family’s domestic hierarchy.
Over time, he built a reputation as an exceptional cook, bartender, and respected member of the Black domestic worker community.

This is where the paradox of Bennie Ferrell Catering first begins. It is not popular to discuss Black people as the help. The notion is that doing so perpetuates a second-class citizen trope many Black people want to leave in the past. Yet, Black domestic workers, much like the sharecroppers and slaves before them, are a very important piece of the Black experience. A foundation that allowed many Black families to see significant upward mobility despite tremendous odds.

Chef Dempsey Parhms

Chef Dempsey Parhms | Photo Courtesy: Bennie Ferrell Catering

The Parhms family was no different. Inside River Oaks Dempsey was the chef for a family for 40 years, and supplemented his income by owning real estate. Yet, outside River Oaks, the Parhms family was making a name for themselves in Houston’s historic Third Ward neighborhood. Dempsey used his earnings as a personal chef to open a small grocery store for residents of Third Ward, while Doretha opened and ran a beauty shop next to the grocery store. The pair would go on to raise two children: Norma Lee and Dorothy.

Norma Lee would meet and marry Bennie Ferrell, also a domestic worker in River Oaks and avid cook. Bennie, much like Dempsey, built a reputation and network in River Oaks that would become the foundation of Bennie Ferrell Catering. After a banker’s convention had their catering company disappear just before their event – Bennie was called in to help fill the void. Taking a leap of faith – he took the job; rallying a “staff’ of other Black domestic workers, families, and friends to see the job through. This is how Bennie Ferrell Catering started.

From the beginning, Bennie and Norma Lee wanted their business to be taken seriously. The family turned their garage into a fully licensed commercial kitchen, which meant saying goodbye to their pet dog, much to the dismay of their now six children. They meticulously planned menus, table arrangements, staffing needs, and budgets. However, the rise to the top of an exclusive club is not easy, something Cynthia and Renee, daughters of Bennie and Norma Lee and the current owners of Bennie Ferrell Catering, often reflect on in between events.

“Southern society is comfortable with Black people in the back of the kitchen, but when those same people move to the front of the house you learn how comfortable people really are,” recalled Renee.

As the Bennie Ferrell Catering company started in the early 1960s not everyone was eager to do business with the new Black-owned company.

Cynthia and Renee, daughters of Bennie and Norma Lee and the current owners of Bennie Ferrell Catering. | Photo Courtesy: Bennie Ferrell Catering

Cynthia, who is now the company’s head chef noted, “One of the reasons we took such care with our menu was in part because we had to work hard for every ingredient we received. Many vendors would not even sell to us when we first started, so we had to get creative with the ingredients we had on hand.”

The 100% from scratch menus were as much about quality as it was about necessity. When the company first started everything was made from scratch – even the mayonnaise. Bennie and Norma Lee were determined to provide an experience unparalleled at the time. It was this intricate attention to detail that produced masterfully created menus and exceptional service which propelled Bennie Ferrell Catering to the top of the catering food chain.

Today, Bennie Ferrell Catering continues to provide exceptional service and food to Houston families, businesses, and organizations. Their coveted client list continues to grow under the direction of Renee and Cynthia. To date, they have hosted thousands of events, and served tens of thousands more palates.

Bennie Ferrell Catering is about family. We treat every customer, every guest, every potential client like family

Chef Cynthia Ferrell Sample

Often, that something is food. It was food that gave a family with domestic worker beginnings the opportunity to launch a business that 60 years later is still at the top of its game. In fact, we are now only beginning to appreciate and understand the legacy Bennie Ferrell Catering leaves behind. The chefs that Bennie and now Cynthia have mentored. The numerous Black restaurateurs who sought professional advice when launching their respective ventures. The endless employees who were able to supplement their incomes to provide for their families.

While it is easy to focus on Bennie Ferrell’s impressive client list, news sightings, and the prosperous lives the business has provided the family – the reality is it all started with a love of food and people.

Victoria Graham is a Houston – based urban education advocate by day, and Blackish Mom by night. When she is not empowering families to become advocates for their students’ academic success, she is writing at The Blackish Mom blog, providing an authentic voice for Black millennial moms. Join the conversation on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

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