During Houston’s great struggle with Hurricane Harvey, the city showed its world-class hospitality (the southern kind it’s known for) feeding and nurturing first responders and those in need.
Two shining stars in that mission, who threw their arms and resources open wide, are University of Houston alumni Avi Katz and Dave Smalley, who carried out into the community lessons they learned about hospitality at the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management.
Their efforts came as no surprise to Houston foodies who have watched Houston’s coffee and hospitality scene percolate under their capable hands.
Their dedication to the community and alma mater are strikingly similar. You could say they are a latte alike.
Avi Katz, Bachelor of Science in Hotel and Restaurant Management, 1997
When Avi Katz graduated from the Hilton College in 1997, he didn’t know beans about coffee. Now, on any given day you might catch up with him in the Guatemalan jungles or the hills of Mexico, searching for the freshest, most aromatic coffee bean. With his approval, it will make its way to one of the 2,500 restaurants or businesses that buy his coffee and, if you’re lucky, into your cup.
“Coffee is the most powerful commodity in the world in dollars, behind oil,” said Katz, whose journey post-college took him from behind a counter to becoming the most successful coffee micro-roaster in Houston. It’s no wonder. He takes his coffee very seriously.
“Coffee touches more humans in the world than anything else behind oxygen and water,” he said.
It certainly touched him. In his travels across Costa Rica and other coffee-rich climes, he discovered the “beauty of the people who grow coffee for the luxury of us to drink it, along with the disparity in the coffee-origin world and the coffee-consumption world.”
Katz took on the fight against exploitation, joining the “fair trade” movement to purchase ethically sourced coffees at fair, pre-determined prices directly from farmers, processing mills and independent green coffee buyers. Building those relationships has earned the company its reputation of being rooted in respect.
Through its Coffee Cause Program, Katz partners with charities and creates special coffees for them.
There’s “Bayou Blend,” benefiting Buffalo Bayou Partnership, and “Austin Bat City Blend,” with proceeds going to Bat Conservation International, along with so many others. Bonus points for all: Katz is the roasting partner behind the official licensed coffee of the University of Houston—The Cougar Blend—sold at the Nook Café.
After 21 years of wholesale manufacturing, serving some of Houston’s most highly acclaimed and discriminating chefs, restaurateurs and coffeehouse owners, Katz is putting a new jolt into his career, boiling and baking bagels to perfection at his new retail spot, Golden Bagel and Coffee, in the Heights. “I missed the exchange over the counter,” said Katz, who continues to master the perfect blend of ideas to serve Houston.
Dave Smalley, Bachelor of Science in Hotel and Restaurant Management, 1979
With 1,500 employees in the United States and Canada, there’s nothing small about Dave Smalley (Hilton College, Class of ’79) and his company, Spectrum Catering, Concessions & Events. On a typical day, Spectrum may cater up to 100,000 meals at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Tennessee or during Cirque Du Soleil’s North American Tour.
Maybe even more impressive, Spectrum owns a Zamboni ice resurfacer for the many ice rinks his company builds and manages during the holidays.
“I thought we were in the food and beverage business, but we’re really in the loading and unloading trucks and logistics business,” said Smalley. “Everything’s math.”
Funny about that—he transferred into the Hilton College after zoning out, he said, in a UH business and math class. Imagine that. Smalley didn’t think he was able to do business or math. Now he’s built an empire doing both.
His company’s latest success is a state-of-the-art proprietary software, built in partnership with Intellicheck, an identification authentication company, which catches fake IDs before an under-aged patron can be served alcohol. It’s robust—storing all valid driver’s licenses in the United States, Canada and Mexico—and reports findings in one second. In June 2017 at the Governor’s Ball Music Festival in New York, which welcomes 55,000 visitors each day for three days, the system nabbed 4,500 fake IDs by the second day.
“We want to continue to be the leader in technology,” said Smalley who admits that he continues chasing success.
Success isn’t a place you can be,” said Smalley. “Because if you stop, someone catches you and passes you or you backslide. It’s the same with innovation. If you don’t innovate and reinvent yourself and continue to move forward, you become extinct. That makes it very hard for anyone to compete with us, because they’re chasing what we were.”