Oh, could that be actual spring out there, folks? Breathe in the sweet scents of damp soil and fruit tree blossoms! This month I interviewed Lawrence business owner Stephen Maceli, who owns and operates Maceli’s Banquet Hall & Catering. After beginning a doctoral program in Polish Language & Literature, he became involved in the service industry by helping friends with their events. He eventually left his Ph.D. studies behind to create his business. Maceli also has a rich history of involvement in the LGBT community in the area. He is far more than just another businessman!
1. Of course, many of us are familiar with the name Maceli’s as it is a successful local business with its banquet hall and catering. Why did you choose Lawrence for your business?
Actually, Lawrence chose me. I came here in 1988 to get my master’s degree in Soviet & East European Studies. After studying in Poland from 1989 to 1990 and spending a little time dancing on the Berlin Wall, I returned to KU, and for the next five years, I worked as a scholarship hall director to support my studies.
The scholarship hall system, at that time, comprised eight small residence halls in which each of the 50 residents performs some kind of task, such as cooking or cleaning. My primary responsibility was to order food and supervise student cooks. Being the perfectionist that I am, and not wanting to eat the student cooks’ mistakes over and over again, I got heavily involved in training the cooks and creating a cookbook designed to help student cooks create consistently high-quality meals. During my tenure, Grace Pearson Hall had the reputation of having the best food, and the GP boys were proud of that reputation. We also had the reputation of being the cleanest hall, for which the Department of Student Housing created the Golden Broom Award — which we won for the next four years.
My tenure as a schol hall director was unprecedented, and I think that the reason I stayed there so long was that Grace Pearson had become my own private bed-and-breakfast. Eventually I realized that it was time to get really serious about my academic studies, and as a result had to leave the bed-and-breakfast behind. Little did I know that passion was going to resurface in the very near future.
As my friends and family were starting to get married with more frequency, I began offering assistance with their wedding receptions, as I was still living on a student income. One thing led to another, and five years later, I opened my first commercial kitchen in the very same spot where a gay bar was briefly located in the mid ’90s, called The Hideaway.
Less than five years later, my business had grown so much that I moved to my present location, where I have been for the past 10 years. I must admit that I never did finish my Ph.D. in Polish Language & Literature, but hey, what would I have done with that anyway? I don’t regret my studies, not even for a second, for they helped me find my way to where I am today.
2. I know as an out queer person, I like to support LGBT owned and operated businesses. Do you feel that being an out gay man has affected your business in any way, positively or negatively?
That is really hard to say. Lawrence is such a gay-friendly city. Who doesn’t have a gay friend or two or three? When I came out publicly in favor of Lawrence’s Domestic Partner Registry as a gay business owner, the thought had crossed my mind, but it is something that I never lost sleep over. Plus, I hate to play into stereotypes, BUT a gay caterer is not out of the ordinary and perhaps even being gay works in my favor. There may be a few people who chose not to use Maceli’s because I am gay; however, for the past decade, Maceli’s has been the city’s largest private catering company and our facility is the third-largest banquet hall after the Holiday Inn and Abe & Jake’s. We are booked almost every Saturday year-round. That being said, I don’t give it a thought. People don’t think of me as a gay business owner; they think of me as a successful business owner who gives back to the community.
3. What is your favorite part about owning and operating a local business in Lawrence?
I must say that owning a business is tremendously hard work, and even more so one in the hospitality business. We work evenings and weekends when our friends are home relaxing with friends and family. That said, I am still excited to come to work in the morning. Every day is a chance to learn something new and create an even better product. Before the economy crashed, I used to call myself a caterer. Now I call myself a businessperson who caters. So many people have great ideas for businesses; however, they fall short in the actual running of the business. I have never felt more confident in the strength of Maceli’s and my staff, which only strengthens my enthusiasm.
4. You have done quite a bit of work in the community, both with the Douglas County AIDS Project (DCAP) and NetworQ. First of all, how did you initially become involved with the DCAP?
My first encounter with DCAP occurred in 2001 when the annual Art Auction took place at the Dance Academy, which was located next to my first commercial kitchen. I knew some of the board members and offered to help as I had in my possession lots of catering toys that would enhance their event.
Each year I assisted more and more, until Maceli’s eventually became the primary event sponsor until 2008. In appreciation of these efforts, I was given the Friend of DCAP award in 2007, and if I remember correctly, I joined the board the following year. It was not long after joining the board, I began to understand the ongoing struggles of niche nonprofits in Lawrence, Kan. As a business owner, I am constantly evaluating my own organization structurally and financially and was now applying those skills to DCAP. I realized that something had to change to sustain the missions of this valuable community organization.
At the time, a friend of mine, Nikki White, was the director of Health Care Access Clinic (HCAC) and together we dreamed of collaboration between HCAC, DCAP and Headquarters Counseling and Crisis Center (HQ). The inspiration for this particular combination was the KC Free Health Clinic, which provided all the services that these three offered and did it quite well.
My first attempt to get the DCAP board to talk with other organizations about possible collaboration was met with resistance from the board chair. Some board members believed that the present model had to be preserved at all costs. I believe that their allegiance to the old system was born out of the era when HIV/AIDS was a death sentence, and they were simply unable to adjust with the times. I am also of the opinion that many board members were unable to recognize the need for change in how DCAP operated. It is always easier to maintain the status quo than to attempt to change the system. But financial reports don’t lie.
Another change in how DCAP was to move into the future resulted from the waning financial support from the local LGBT community. As a longtime board member, I was always conscious of the increasing absence of those in the LGBT community. I realize that some in our community may not have the ability to support DCAP financially, some may suffer from donor fatigue and have already done more than their share in the past, some believe that since living with HIV/AIDS is no longer a death sentence, their support is not critical. Moreover, DCAP used to be a gathering point in an era where being LGBT was more difficult. It was a place to find mutual community support. One could even say HIV/AIDS was a rallying point for those in the gay and lesbian community as we began to find our voice and demand equal rights. But here in Lawrence, today, that kind of community is not necessary anymore and in my mind is almost extinct. This phenomenon is, in my opinion, related to why Lawrence cannot support a gay bar, which is another question in itself.
Going back to the original question — near the end of my first three-year term on the DCAP board, we were eventually able to have a conversation between the three aforementioned agencies. However, many participants had a difficult time visualizing how these agencies could work together. Each was still in the mode of operating as a completely independent agency. DCAP did not participate in any further conversations. However HCAC and HQ continued talking for a while with no results. After not finding a way to progress my agenda, I did not renew for a second term on the DCAP board.
It wasn’t even a year later that new realities at DCAP and HQ were becoming unavoidably apparent and boards of both organizations could see themselves going out of business if corrective action wasn’t taken promptly. It seemed to me that it was the perfect time to restart the conversations that had failed earlier. We got a few members who supported these efforts together and came up with a plan. This time we were successful and all three organizations were officially in favor of collaboration talks.
Together we applied for a grant from the Douglas County United Way to fund a facilitator who assisted us with those discussions. HCAC, HQ and DCAP met for several months. By the end of the year, DCAP had moved out of the United Way building into the Medical Arts Building, sharing an office suite with the HCAC administrative team. What was significant for DCAP was that our offices were no longer in a corner basement office but co-located with a major nonprofit human services agency on what we call the Lawrence Health Care Campus, the area surrounding Lawrence Memorial Hospital that comprises the Health Department, Bert Nash Mental Health Center, Visiting Nurses and numerous private medical practices. Our visibility and professional image increased dramatically.
During this period, the board of HQ experienced significant change, and the new board and the executive director decided that they were no longer interested in the kind of collaboration we were working toward. Well, that was almost two years ago and DCAP is a much more professional and respected organization in our community and among our nonprofit peers. Our cohabitation has proven to have been the correct thing to do. But as our board has become successful in addressing DCAP’s challenges, so has it in not limiting our options. Several years ago, we may have only envisioned a partnership with HCAC. Today our board is evaluating four other organizations that may be just as good as or an even better fit than HCAC. Our board has become something that I am very proud of.
5. One way that you have been involved recently with DCAP is by hosting drag brunches and charities in Maceli’s Banquet Hall. In what other ways are you currently involved with the organization?
I have been the chair of our annual art auction for the past two years. When I took the reins of this event, I decided to dilute what could be considered the boring part of our event, the actual auction, with live drag cabaret. For the past two years, our auction has been interspersed with performances by Loretta Martin, Daisy Buckët and Christa Collins. The auction has never been so fun!
6. NetworQ is a social organization in Lawrence. What are some of the upcoming activities for the group? If somebody is new to the area, what NetworQ activity would you most strongly suggest s/he attend and why?
Funny, NetworQ is another local organization that was created to be a place of community support for the local LGBT community. We are the only desegregated LGBT social organization in Lawrence. Over the past decade, attendance seems to have fallen, just like it has with DCAP events. Perhaps Lawrence is so gay friendly and members of our LGBT community are so content with their own lives and circles of friends as such that they do not feel the need to gather as a community as they did in the past. Even with recognizing this trend, our board has refused to disband.
There is constantly someone new to our community who finds us and tells us how happy they are that we exist. Perhaps we have become more like Lawrence’s own Gay Welcome Club. For the past few years, we have more casual gatherings at local restaurants and bars, have gone bowling, attended events such as Roller Derby together, and played games such as trivia and bunko. Attendance varies wildly, and there is no rhyme or reason why some months are better attended than others. There is always good food and drink … who wouldn’t come for that alone?!
Our Thanksgiving Dinner (not held on Thanksgiving), Holiday Gift Exchange and Pride Picnic in June seem to be our most popular events. Our membership has changed with the times as well. It seems that our online membership represents about 10 percent of Lawrence’s LGBT community. For many of our members, that level of participation is enough for them to feel connected. Our board often wonders if a negative side effect of living in a progressive university town is that we have assimilated so much in our heterosexual community and have such a sense of acceptance that we no longer need the kind of support that LGBT organizations provide. I must share that our board often feels a sense of loss at the absence of our once-tighter LGBT community.
7 & 8. Are you involved in politics or on any boards in Lawrence? Have you considered running for public office, such as the City Commission?
I definitely will run for City Commission one day, but as my business presently keeps me quite busy, I will defer for another five years. Successful community members and business people seem to have great success running for the commission. I strongly believe my 20-plus years of experience as a business owner have taught me to soberly weigh my options and evaluate pluses and minuses of my decisions. Learning to stay calm has been my greatest accomplishment. Perhaps that is something that also comes with age and experience
9. Do you think that Lawrence needs a gay bar?
I would love to have a gay bar in Lawrence, but history has proven that demand in Lawrence is not strong enough to financially support one. Most bars in Lawrence are so gay-friendly, there is really no need for members of the LGBT community to have a bar which is their own or where they can feel “protected.” Most of my friends would much rather go to K.C. if they want to go to a gay bar. By getting out of town, it also becomes more of an adventure.
10. Now, you and your partner, John, have been together for quite a while. What is your favorite thing to do for him to show him your appreciation?