The Kowalski Family
Attitude and Service Span Generations
By Dawn Robinette
Photography by David Teran
Attitude is everything. It’s an oft-used expression, but for the Kowalski family, it’s a “Rosemary-ism.” And it’s something that is baked into everything that has sprouted from the seeds that Rosemary Kowalski and her husband planted when they opened their first restaurant in 1946. “I didn’t even know how to boil water, but we served plenty of barbecue and lots of beer for 25 cents a bottle,” she explains.
“One day, a customer asked if I’d do the catering for his church bazaar. To tell the truth, I wasn’t even sure what ‘catering’ was!”
But attitude is indeed everything, and Rosemary’s always-positive attitude, paired with a dynamic work ethic and a passion for always exceeding expectations, fueled what is now known as The RK Group, a family of culinary and hospitality service companies that has grown over 75 years to span Texas, the U.S. and now, international services.
“I was a young woman trying to make her way in business. I even drove a truck, and that was really a no-no, as far as men were concerned. I guess driving a truck was not appropriate for a woman. My philosophy was just push ’em aside and do the job.”
While her attitude, impeccable service, and undeniably fantastic food started it all, The RK Group has never been a one-woman show. Husband Hank grew up with a family-owned bar in Hamtramck, Michigan, and that helped spur the young couple to start their own restaurant. Then son Greg grew from working events to becoming CEO and President, and daughter Mary Carrington worked for the company through school and continues to be a trusted advisor.
And then there’s the third generation, where grandson Travis serves as Chief Administrative Officer, granddaughter Jennifer Heinz is Chief Strategy Officer, and granddaughter-in-law Jamie is Vice President of Corporate Relations. And they all work side-by-side with RK herself. At 98, Rosemary serves as Chairman Emeritus of The RK Group, still going into the office two to three days a week.
“I’m so blessed to be in my 90s. But I told somebody I was 78. Honestly, I just said I’m 78, and then I corrected myself,” she explains. “It’s a matter of how you feel. I have such a positive attitude about life that I feel more 78 than I do 98.”
And the second and third generations of the family are carrying her legacy and positive attitude into The RK Group’s next 75 years.
“Even before Travis and I got married, he said, ‘Hey, there’s a party in Horseshoe Bay, and they need all these linens. Can you run all these up there?” explains Jamie.
“We were testing out if she was going to fit in,” laughs Rosemary before noting how important the entire family is to the business. “I am thankful to have a family that is so capable, who also realized the ethics of hard work. They’ve expanded our company tremendously,” explains Rosemary.
“Unlike the game of tennis, you only get one serve in catering, one event, one special occasion. You have to get it right the first time. You must always strive for perfection,” is another Rosemary-ism.
“Her attention to detail made her successful, and she’s passed that on to her family. And not just the children and grandchildren. It’s the work family too. Everyone has this real attention to detail,” notes Jamie. “What guides the family is continuing to offer the top service, not just in San Antonio but around the globe.”
“We don’t like to tell people no. If we’re asked something, and it’s not something that we’re necessarily familiar with or that we’ve not done before, we’re going to figure it out. We have subject matter experts within the organization that have historical experience doing a myriad of different things. Here’s how we’re going to execute it, and here are lessons learned from previous experiences that we can apply to this, pushing forward with our attention to detail, with our customer service, with the respect we have for all of our colleagues,” explains Jennifer.
“It all comes down to just being part of a team. The ‘Rosemary-isms’ are written all over our building. ‘Always say please and thank you,’ ‘The back door is just as important as the front door,’ ‘Treat everyone with a smile,’ and yes, ‘Attitude is everything.’ All of that is instilled in us and all of the employees that work for RK. It’s incredible when you get to work with people who understand that and who want to have that success and want to keep pushing and figure out what’s our next challenge and how can we work together to make it successful,” Jennifer adds.
Some would say successful is an understatement. The RK Group is woven into the fabric of San Antonio’s history. From a key role in HemisFair 68, where Rosemary worked for more than a year to help the city secure the event, then provided service and staffing for more than 100 of the pavilion booths, to more than 40 years of servicing events like the Witte Game Dinner, Zoo Ball, Charity Ball and more, including being the food service provider for the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center for the past 50 years, there’s little that The RK Group hasn’t touched. And Rosemary herself served Pope John Paul II during his visit.
“Rosemary was able to serve breakfast to the Pope. She had this big spread and huge elaborate breakfast. But all he wanted was a simple apple. So, she had to find an apple, polish it up and deliver it to him,” explains Jamie.
That encounter was the inspiration for the logo of RK Cares, the company’s philanthropy initiative that Jamie spearheads, formalizing what Rosemary has been committed to since the beginning. “That’s the way I was brought up. I was born and raised on the south side of San Antonio. This city means so much to me. Giving back has been important since we first started.”
“The RK Cares logo has a hand serving an apple with a little halo over it. That’s a nod to Pope John Paul II and Rosemary,” explains Jamie.
Rosemary also served Queen Elizabeth II when she visited San Antonio. “Before the Queen had her lunch, she drank a gin and tonic. Instead of one of the waitresses serving her, it was me. So that’s the way I met the queen,” laughs Rosemary.
She’s quick to point out that VIPs receive the same treatment as every guest. It’s a Rosemary-ism. “Treat every person the same. Whether they open the back door or enter on a red carpet through the front door, everyone is important.”
That includes everyone on the RK team. “We’re a family-owned and operated business, and we’re a big business, but we’re really a small business inside. We can’t do any of it without the team members that we have that work for us. Some of them have been with us for 40 years, for 50 years. I really think that’s a testament to everything that Rosemary has taught, that Greg has taught, that we – Travis, Jamie, and I, and other members of our leadership team – try to continue to teach,” explains Jennifer, who, as Chief Strategy Officer for The RK Group is charged with directing the effort to further broaden the reach and impact of its diverse programming.
“We are one big team, and we can’t do anything that we do without the individuals that are part of our team. We all really take pride in knowing if I don’t have that answer, I know that this person on my team does. It’s really a mutual respect.”
While the team and the company have grown, its roots and commitment to San Antonio are stronger than ever. Jamie works to support public affairs and corporate communications while driving business development through brand awareness and media relations, a role that has her deeply involved across San Antonio.
“It’s really about continuing Rosemary’s legacy and commitment to San Antonio. Look at HemisFair 68. She knew it was a difficult position to put herself in, but she took that risk. I just want to emulate that as much as I can,” explains Jamie.
At 98 years young, what habits are a must for Rosemary? “I start my day with a visit to the beauty shop and a good breakfast,” she shares with a smile.
And what would she tell her younger self if she could go back in time? “Don’t wait until you’re 70 to start exercising!”
But the best Rosemary-ism of all may be one that reflects Rosemary’s infectious positive attitude and love of fun. “Be nice and drink tequila.”
Wardrobe and styling by Julian Gold San Antonio