Harriet Dopkin has been cooking since she was 8 years old.
Cooking has always been her passion. Julia Child was her idol. Her family was long in the restaurant business, owning the Beef Inn in Pikesville and Miss Shirley’s Café in Roland Park; Shirley McDowell had been a beloved Dopkin employee and friend, inspiring the Northwest Baltimore favorite that now has locations at the Inner Harbor and in Annapolis.
Dopkin knew she wanted to pursue a career the same field, but not necessarily at home. So when the time came, armed with a degree in the Classics from St. John’s College, she headed out to study culinary arts in the U.S. and Japan.
In 1991, she returned for a visit.
“This was [going to be] three months with my husband to explore Baltimore, to spend quality time with my parents,” Dopkin said. “[But I] found myself in the kitchen.”
Soon, Dopkin took over the business her parents had founded in 1980, turning it into The Classic Catering People, a full-service caterer based in Owings Mills, Maryland. A thriving company with an impeccable reputation, The Classic Catering People has a mission that goes beyond a good meal.
“She’s got a heart as large as the great outdoors,” said Dopkin’s friend, LIfeBridge Health President & CEO Neil Meltzer. “This is a woman who truly cares about people who work for her and cares about the community at-large.”
On Wednesday, May 2, 2018, the Maryland Chamber of Commerce will honor that far-reaching leadership, inducting Dopkin into the Maryland Business Hall of Fame.
A member of the invitation-only, peer-evaluated Leading Caterers of America and several other industry organizations, The Classic Catering People was named the Daily Record’s 2017 Reader Rankings No. 1 caterer. It also won a 2018 WeddingWire Couples’ Choice Award.
But its success is about more than great ingredients and a healthy bottom line. Under Dopkin’s guidance, her team combines a passion for hospitality and culinary arts with a commitment to the environment, education and community service.
For 20 years, the company has sponsored and participated in the Days of Taste® program to help Baltimore-area students discover fresh, healthy foods. The team takes part in numerous career days, has hosted and led culinary classes at several schools and organizations, and co-sponsors an annual scholarship for a Stratford University Baltimore campus student pursuing a career in entrepreneurship and the hospitality industry.
Reaching out to give more, The Classic Catering People is an annual sponsor of Race for Our Kids, hosted by Sinai’s Herman & Walter Samuelson Children’s Hospital. It has been a major sponsor of The Journey Home, Baltimore’s mission to make homelessness rare and brief. The company also continuously supports several other local organizations: the National Aquarium, Girl Scouts of Central Maryland, Our Daily Bread and St. Vincent’s Villa, to name a few.
All of this is evidence of a relentless philosophy that working with others makes communities stronger.
“Harriet uses the word ‘collaboration’ a lot,” said Classic Catering Vice President Larry Frank. “I think that she relies heavily on her ability – and she does it well – to really pull and collaborate with all of us at any level.”
Dopkin takes that approach with her own service, too. She is on the executive committee of the United Way of Central Maryland Women’s Leadership Council-Tocqueville Society, as well as the host committee of the Johns Hopkins Medicine annual women’s health conference, A Woman’s Journey. In 2012, she was named a Distinguished Women Honoree by the Girl Scouts of Central Maryland. In 2014, she was recognized as a top 100 Minority Business Enterprise Award winner, and The Classic Catering People won a Maryland Business Philanthropy Award.
“I’ve thought a lot about the fact that having a compassionate heart has a place in business,” Dopkin said. “I actually think that is a natural way to do business.”
“We joke that we’re a nonprofit, because we don’t know how to say no,” said her cousin and business partner, David Dopkin. “We really enjoy that we’re able to give back to the community that’s served us so well over the years.”
The diminutive woman who has become a giant in Maryland’s culinary and hospitality industry doesn’t like to talk much about herself. But her induction into the Maryland Business Hall of Fame, she said, strikes an emotional chord.
“This is a lineage. This goes back generations, and it’s not just my family right now about whom I speak. I’m talking about the men and women in this [Classic Catering People] building, outside of this building, who wear the green, who ride in the green trucks and really do their best every day to make special moments for our community.”
Dopkin joins Community Bank of the Chesapeake Chair Michael Middleton, as well as retired Lockheed Martin Chair & CEO and former U.S. Army Acting Secretary Norm Augustine, in the Maryland Business Hall of Fame this year. The awards are part of a celebratory evening at the Hilton Baltimore BWI Airport Hotel beginning at 5:30 p.m., featuring keynote speaker Gov. Larry Hogan. Register at mdchamber.org/events.