In 1971, Rosa Nussbaumer and her husband, Bill, went to a fish fry in Knoxville. Instead of enjoying the fluffy, crispy breaded fish they anticipated, the couple was served something that looked straight out of a deep freezer.
Rosa knew she could do better and thus marked the beginning of more than 50 years of Rosa’s Catering in East Tennessee.
Today, Rosa’s Catering is run by her middle son, Phillip, who took over the business in 1990 after watching it grow in the converted garage of his childhood home.
“[My mom] is a fantastic cook, a self-taught chef,” says Phillip. “Her first catering event was a luau and she made Filipino Pork with bacon-wrapped bananas, which is a dish we still have on the menu.”
Rosa is 82 years old and has long since left her namesake business, but her focus and hard work in those earliest years set her up for success. At its inception, Rosa’s Catering was a quintessential 70s business, back when wedding receptions were primarily tiered cakes with nuts, mints, and punch on the side. Within a few years, the business expanded to larger events (this is around the time the attached garage morphed into a catering kitchen). Phillip and his two brothers often functioned as the labor, but it was the sort of experience that inspired Phillip to go into hotel and restaurant management. He graduated from UT with a hospitality degree in 1988 and went right to work for Aramark at Tennessee Wesleyan, then Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. However, his tried-and-true restaurant experience came from a year-long stint at Houston’s in Nashville’s West End. Though the restaurant closed in 2005, it was a bustling, high-stress, learn-on-your-feet place in the late-80s, what Phillip calls “the Marine Corps of the restaurant business.”
“It was hard work. You never had a day off. After a year, I called my father and said this wasn’t for me, that I needed to come home and think,” says Phillip. “He told me Mom wanted to sell the business, and I said I’d do it if I could move the business out of their home, which is what we did.”
With Phillip’s ownership came a remodeled kitchen-turned-commissary and eventually storage space for the growing stock of equipment. The updates Phillip made were primarily logistical and practical. Much of what made Rosa’s Catering successful in earlier years – incredible food notwithstanding – are business practices that Phillip continues today.
“We grow slowly but we don’t owe any money anywhere,” he says. “When the Great Recession hit in 2008, we lost 50 percent of our business. But we survived because we didn’t owe any money.”
Running a business debt-free also benefited Rosa’s Catering in 2020 when the pandemic forced operations to shut down. Coincidentally, the Nussbaumers had just acquired another business in 2019 – Sunsphere Events – and anticipated a banner year.
It was Phillip’s wife, Donna, who was particularly interested in shifting her corporate and property management career towards events. When the Sunsphere opportunity came open in 2019, the Nussbaumers jumped, as it paired so well with Rosa’s Catering and their passion for serving Knoxville and the surrounding community. Of course, it wasn’t without a hiccup.
“I officially left my job in February 2020 and then Covid hit,” says Donna. “The first go-to was to postpone events and do whatever we could to help people, but both companies had to refund money. We were all in the same situation.”
Fortunately, their good business sense paid off, and once the health department cleared events for limited numbers of people, both Rosa’s Catering and Sunsphere Events were able to reactivate the calendar and get folks back to celebrating their birthdays, weddings, and anniversaries.
“The Sunsphere got back to no limitations in March 2021, and we had 92 events last year,” says Donna. “Currently, we’re at 125, so it’s progressing nicely. We’re getting calls daily.”
The Sunsphere has five floors with Visit Knoxville occupying the fourth-floor observation deck and two radio stations on the fifth floor. Sunsphere Events holds two floors – the sixth level for larger events and the eighth (top) floor for medium-sized groups.
Despite the longevity of Rosa’s Catering, Phillip insists that complacency is never an option. Just as trends shift and change, so does Knoxville’s population and demographic. While there’s a well-established menu on hand, the chefs at Rosa’s Catering are proficient in myriad cuisines, from Indian and Middle Eastern to Italian and American. Because Phillip insists on feeding his employees daily, they have a make-shift test kitchen at the ready.
“One of the exciting things is that my son-in-law, Trevor, is working with me, so hopefully in a few years he’ll take over the business,” says Phillip. “We’re moving in the direction of Sunsphere Events running itself, so hopefully Rosa’s Catering will take care of itself too.”