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By Michael Kleiner
English Lit. That was the commonality when Allegra Derengowski and Rasa Stirbys Benefico first met at a Center City café in 2003. Catering was not on their minds. Allegra had majored in English Literature at Drexel University, while Rasa studied it at McGill University in Montreal. They became friends, but Allegra moved to Hawaii for two years.
When Allegra returned to Philadelphia, she learned Rasa was anxious to broaden her culinary career. “She didn’t like the restaurant scene,” said Allegra. “She wanted to branch out on her own. I came in as a good friend, and we ended up becoming really strong at what we do, me on the business and marketing side, her on the customization and beautiful menu side.”
It was 2008. To get off the ground, they rented kitchens, held tastings in their homes, and developed relationships with vendors and local farms. It was important from the beginning for them to use locally sourced food whenever possible. Just two years later, they were able to have a launch party at Fleisher Art Memorial in South Philadelphia, and two years after that move into the old Globe Dye Works building in the Frankford section of Philadelphia.
In the same week this year, they received “The Best of Philly Party Food” award from Philadelphia Magazine, and reached second on Yelp.com Best of Philadelphia. Yelp is littered with five-star reviews. That’s a meteoric rise that would be the envy of many businesses.
Globe Dye Works enabled them to build a commercial kitchen. It also enabled them to be part of a burgeoning building and community. Also occupying space in Globe Dye Works are SBN member Weckerly’s Ice Cream, Cake Life Bake Shop, Rival Brothers Coffee, artists, florists and other small businesses.
“The building is amazing,” said Allegra. “We felt it was the right place for us at the right time. We knew that whole building, the whole neighborhood, was going to be up and coming. We work with some of the other businesses here all the time, from event desserts to having our business cards letter pressed.”
Rasa feels strongly about her Lithuanian heritage, and when she was young she learned cooking from her grandmother. Her later experiences working in restaurants built upon that. This attachment to culture may account for her ability and desire to customize menus. Birchtree offers free tastings, which, it may be hard to believe, is a rarity for caterers.
“We do local, sustainable and seasonal sourcing for our food products as much as possible,” said Allegra. “We do that because it is the best product we can offer. The food is just amazing. For menu writing, farms often offer new or forgotten varieties of produce or herbs that inspire us, and the clients are really instrumental because we customize for them. They see a sample menu, but they want to incorporate a Latin American or Eastern European influence, or a favorite family recipe. Rasa takes the seasonal availability and mixes that with the cultural. She’s consistently coming up with these new beautiful creations. It’s really fascinating.”
What also sets Birchtree apart is they coordinate all the details and vendors on the day of the event. They have a significant list of collaborators on their web site, almost all of which are woman-owned.
“The staff at Birchtree-- Allegra, Chef Rasa, Annie, Jamie, Paige -- are kind, gracious, accommodating, and thoughtful,” wrote one customer on Yelp. ”They pay attention to the details so you don't have to worry at the last minute. We could not be happier about the services that Birchtree provided. The vision we had for our party- elegant, colorful but low key with amazing food- was brought to fruition 10-fold.”
“Rasa is a genius. Period,” wrote an attendee to an event. “She has a great way of explaining each and every dish that was being presented for you to devour. It's innovative, it's unique, it would convert any non-foodies in a heartbeat.”
Birchtree has been an SBN member for four years. They are committed to sustainability and participating in their community. “We do compost at all our events and daily in our kitchen,” said Allegra. “We feel like because we’re sourcing locally and providing employment as a small business, we are fueling the local economy. We want to keep growing, keep employing people, but we’ll always remain a small business, which I think is a healthy thing for any economy.”
One of the nice events Birchtree does for the public are quarterly Supper Clubs at different venues. “The Supper Club is a really great dinner,” said Allegra. “We sell tickets online, it’s open to the public, and we collaborate with really amazing vendors. We do it because we love to hone our own skills and we get to market ourselves really well that way. It’s good for everyone involved.”