Leslie Moore has catered parties for presidents, governors, celebrities, CEOs, graduating seniors and a few hundred brides.
This summer, however, the 70-year-old owner of Word of Mouth Catering is trying to take it easy, driving a few times a week to his wedding venue in Kyle to swim in the pool in between immunotherapy sessions for lymphoma.
He’d rather, of course, be doing what he does best: orchestrating elaborate experiences that turn into memorable moments in people’s lives.
But life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans, and nothing in Moore’s life is what he could have planned when he was a young Black man growing up in Corpus Christi, working at a whites-only country club.
That was his first experience in hospitality. His family wasn’t welcome in many restaurants at the time, so the country club was his introduction to what white people expected when they went out to eat.
"I saw these buffets where they were throwing away the food afterward," he says. "I thought, ‘What is this world I’ve stepped into?’"
After moving to Austin in 1969 to study engineering at the University of Texas, he eventually found himself at the Headliners’ Club, another elite dining room where the power dynamic between patrons and servers was etched in silver.
Having grown up during segregation, he wasn’t surprised that its lingering effects influenced the hospitality industry, but he also aspired to carve out his own place in it.
He dropped out of college just a few hours short of graduating and continued working in the food industry as a freelance bartender and server. He didn’t want to become a chef, but "I had a good background in high-end service."
That experience led him, in 1975, to an interview with Victoria Hentrich, who managed the Tarry House, a private club in West Austin, and often catered events at the LBJ Library and the Governor’s Mansion.
"I told her she should hire me," he says, and after hearing about his experience, she agreed.
This was during the days when party food meant Tex-Mex, barbecue or surf and turf. Hentrich, a former schoolteacher who had lived in Boston, was bringing East Coast sensibilities, Moore says, including finer fare and fancier invitations, to high-end clients across the country.
Working with Hentrich is when Moore first started traveling around the U.S. to experience party culture in South Beach, New Orleans and Los Angeles. Moore can still recall the smallest details of these gilded parties, when wealthy hosts spent unimaginable money on unconventional events.
He remembers one event in Palm Beach for a woman who was hosting a birthday party for her husband under a clear tent right on the beach, with fresh orchids and caviar in an egg cup whose shell had been dyed to match the tulle and marbleized silk that draped the tables.
"I had the invitation list in my hand, and I’m looking at this list: Zsa Zsa Gabor, Burt Reynolds, the Q-Tip heiress," he says. "Every detail was amazing. It changed my perspective on my world and of catering. I was just an innocent bystander kid from Corpus Christi, but I saw that you can make a business out of this kind of luxury."
By the early 1980s, that kind of money started to flow into Austin. High rises were going up downtown, and banks would pay for huge opening parties for each of them.
Moore remembers catering incoming Gov. Mark White’s inaugural party in 1983, which grew from 1,000 to 7,000 people in the weeks before the event. He hired Matt’s El Rancho to make the chile con queso and bought a literal ton of beef tenderloin for tacos. On the day of the event, they set up 10 buffet lines and Greg Koury, who now co-owns Manuel’s and worked with them back then, wore a white tuxedo and directed the lines. Staffers made sure each guest got enough food, but not too much, lest the last guest not get their own plate. "We overthought this thing so much," he says. "It worked beautifully."
Hentrich and Moore were regularly putting together events that cost $25,000, $50,000 or more throughout that decade’s economic boom. However, when the savings and loan crash of 1987 came, they parted ways. Moore started his own catering company called Parties Parties.
"Austin was on this decline, but I figured out that the lawyers were doing OK," he says.
He started offering toned-down menus that he’d pull together by browsing cookbooks for their simplest dishes, often selling the menu before he’d prepared the recipes.
Moore eventually met another caterer in town, Rebecca Wallace Ford, who had been running a small catering business out of her home called Word of Mouth since the early 1980s.
"There was just something about him," Ford says of their first meeting. He had not only a personable demeanor, but also a clear vision of what he was good at and what he wanted.
"I said, ‘If you’re catering, why don’t you come help me with a party and we’ll get to know each other?’" she says. "We talked and talked and hit it off immediately. We could bounce ideas off each other, and he was so good at the logistical thinking. And he knew all the waiters."
They decided to merge their companies and keep the Word of Mouth name. "She was the food person and I was the business person," he says now, more than 30 years later.
Partnering with him "revolutionized what I had started," she says. She remembers a time he called in a helicopter to deliver beer when the truck didn’t show up. "He’s the most charming and delightful person. He can talk to anyone."
Their partnership was an immediate hit. They grew 20% a year and were voted the best caterer by the Austin Chronicle for a decade straight, until the newspaper retired the category.
"Catering is a very personal thing," Ford says. "We were part of people’s most special days. Bar mitzvahs, weddings, holidays. There were people we did the same holiday party for 12, 15 years, coming up with a new menu each year."
Nonprofits depend on caterers to help throw successful fundraisers to help them raise the money they need to operate. Politicians hire them to sway donors. Businesses rely on them to make good impressions with their potential clients, and families need their help to mark important occasions. "People don’t forget a good party," she says.
In 2001, after hosting parties for notables including Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Ann Richards in the 1990s, Ford and Moore were ready for a change, and just weeks before Sept. 11, they sold the company. Moore continued working for the new owners for a few years but eventually left; in 2008, he bought the company back. Ford took a job as the head caterer for the Texas House of Representatives at the Capitol.
The wedding industry, particularly in the Hill Country, was starting to take off, so Moore focused on catering to brides- and grooms-to-be. In 2015, he bought the Winfield Inn in Kyle so he could offer venue and catering services at the same time. It’s a covered outdoor venue, which he hopes will allow families to celebrate together later this year.
Without Ford there to handle the food, Moore tackled the business side of things and let the chefs run the kitchen.
"We hire people who have a dream to do something else," he says. "Music, artists, actors. This business is good if you need something to do when you’re not doing your other job. It’s not easy to manage creative people, but when you give people creative license, you get much more out of them than when you set a formula for them."
He’s operated his business with that philosophy, and that has earned many staffers’ loyalty.
He’s lost some of his best chefs to the restaurant industry, which he understands. "They don’t have that kind of recognition unless they get out there and create it," he says. Rebecca Rather, Mark Paul, Stewart Scruggs and Emmett Fox also passed through Word of Mouth’s kitchens back in the day. He helped former staffer Lou Lambert open Jo’s Coffee on South Congress in the late 1990s before Lambert launched his own mini restaurant empire.
Fox says that when he first moved to Austin in the early 1990s, he worked part time at a number of places, from Jeffrey’s to Spaghetti Western, and eventually spent about six months with Moore before being hired to take over the kitchen at the Bitter End.
"(Moore) is one of the calmest and nicest people I have worked with, by far," he says. "I tell cooks all the time that you don't have to work with bad people, and it is because of him I say that."
Fox remembers the small house they worked out of on 38th Street near Red River. "We would have several different jobs going out at the same time on the same day, so being very organized was so important." That’s where he learned to keep detailed lists and check them twice, and how to handle a situation that didn’t go as planned.
"Even if mistakes were made, Leslie never got mad or upset," Fox says. "He might say something to let you know not to make the mistake again, but he did it in a way that never made you feel bad or disrespected."
Fox went on to open Asti, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this summer. "I think catering is much harder than having a restaurant," he says.
For more than 40 years, Moore has been in the in-person event business to make clients feel like family; during the pandemic, that sense of family is now a little different.
When the coronavirus hit Austin in March, Word of Mouth had a year’s worth of weddings on the calendar. "It wiped out my entire spring business," he says. "Most of those weddings move to fall," but it’s still unclear how many of them will take place.
He’s tried to keep as many people on staff as possible. Since 2015, his team has operated Word of Mouth Bakery at 917 W. 12th St., which is where they continue to sell baked goods, prepared foods and family meals for pickup and delivery while the catering side of the business is on hold.
Last year, Moore bought and renovated a kitchen and warehouse on Burleson Road, and he also acquired L’estelle House on Rainey Street, which they turned into a private event space that, since March, has been dark.
Moore is always looking at real estate opportunities, and he recently closed on a second bakery at 1506 S. First St., in the former Seventh Flag Coffee location, where his team will continue to sell croissants, soups, sandwiches and those family meals.
"It’s been hard to not have any contact with people," he says. "We’re bringing in enough money to pay the people who make the food. I’m committed to keeping everyone on until the end of the summer, but I don’t know if we’re going to be able to do these weddings in the fall."
Moore and his wife, Magdalena, didn’t have children, but he feels like his employees have been, in many ways, like his kids. His current staffers are making sure he gets regular meal deliveries as he deals with a "totally treatable" skin cancer that requires a year of immunotherapy treatment.
Recently, they brought roasted Brussels sprouts and game hens with a brioche dressing and sage gravy. "That was a new one to me," he says. "‘I told them, ‘I want you all to remember that come Thanksgiving.’"
Moore is keeping himself busy trying to keep his business alive, but he does have more quiet time than usual these days, and he’s been thinking a lot about what’s going on across the country and his place in it.
A few weeks ago, he was reading the letter that Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in the Birmingham jail in 1963. "It sounded like he could have written it yesterday. We’re talking 57 years ago, and we’re still going through the same thing," he says.
As a Black man in a white industry, Moore has experienced micro- and macro-aggressions, subtle comments about how he presents himself or not-so-subtle questions from people wondering why he’s in a certain place at a certain time.
He has been encouraged by the diversity of the crowds at the protests in the past month. "This struggle is something that we can’t win alone, and there are many more of you than there are of us. We have never achieved much unless there’s a strong white contingency."
About five years ago, he traveled to Africa for the first time with Turk and Christy Pipkin, founders of the Nobelity Project, which helps bridge educational gaps for students in Central Texas, Honduras, Mexico and Kenya.
Moore was on the board of the nonprofit for 10 years, and on that trip to Kenya, the group visited schools that were part of the program.
"At every school, the kids would ask him where he was from. I’d say, ‘I’m from the U.S.,’ and they’d look at me quizzically," he says. "They’d say, ‘We thought you were a Kikuyu, a Swahili-speaking tribe.’"
That trip planted a seed of curiosity about his own ancestry that he hopes to pursue soon. "I’m from here, but I’m still looking for my tribe."
His health prognosis is good, and he’s in no rush to retire. "I’m a jack of all trades and a master of none," he says. "And I’m not living by someone else’s rules."