The Wedding Guys are proud to announce the first annual Bruce A. Vassar ICON Award. This award will be given out annually to an event industry professional who exemplifies what it means to be an innovator and leader in the local community and showcase a dedication to philanthropic efforts.
As one of The Wedding Guys, Bruce was an integral part of weddings for nearly 20 years. He co-produced the wedding shows UNVEILED, Twin Cities Bridal Show, and UNVEILED Rochester. Bruce also co-produced the Wedding TrendSpot Press Fashion Show for Bridal Fashion Week in New York and co-authored the annual Wedding Trends Look Book. He worked in television, helping with the creation of Randy to the Rescue and working on Say Yes to the Dress America. He was a leader and mentor to everyone that crossed his path in and out of the wedding industry. Bruce would be immensely proud of the work that this year’s recipients have done to pivot their talents into helping others in 2020.
For the inaugural year, we have chosen two recipients — Amy Zaroff and Maari Cedar James. These two outstanding women have dedicated their craft over the past year+ to helping the event industry and the Twin Cities community during the pandemic. Get to know how they got their start in the business, why they love what they do, and what it means to be honored with this award.
AMY ZAROFF, AMY ZAROFF EVENTS + DESIGN
Amy Zaroff was born and raised in the Twin Cities. Growing up, her sights were set on being a television producer. “I went to college and earned a degree in broadcast journalism. I worked as a production assistant and producer at several television stations and cable networks,” Amy says of her early career. After a 7-year stint owning a NY-Style delicatessen restaurant, she channeled her production and hospitality experience and purchased a 32-year old stationery and gift shop called “Give My Regards To”. Here, she “worked with their long-standing customer base to not only print their invitations but plan their events as well.” And 17 years later she is producing memorable experiences across the country.
Though remaining relevant is one of the most challenging parts of growing a business, according to Amy, she is hopeful for the future of Amy Zaroff Events + Design. “I am a firm believer that business ownership is meant to ebb and flow. The past year and a half certainly taught us all that whether we wanted to learn it or not. I seek to evolve every few years and reinvent in ways that feel relevant and innovative at that moment in time. Our future is bright and we look forward to remaining resilient in the months and years to come.”
Looking back, her most memorable moment was her first event “for no other reason than I proved to myself that when you set your mind to something, you can achieve it.” Since then, she has been producing imaginative and immersive experiences from charitable galas to extravagant weddings and unforgettable parties. Through it all, she has been proud to mentor others while helping them reach their professional goals.
When she seeks inspiration, she looks to her community, “We are blessed in the Twin Cities to have colleagues who truly believe we are better together. That inspires me almost daily.” She is a strong believer in collaboration over competition.
Giving back to the community is also a pillar in Amy’s life, “My grandfather and father have always taught me to live generously and give what I can of my time and my treasure,” she says. Currently, she is involved in the Beth El Synagogue, Share the Mic MN, the MN Events Coalition, Appetite for Change, Pabs Packs, the Hopkins High School ProPel program, Minnetonka High School Vantage program, and Hopkins High School DECA. When asked how she balances work, family, and philanthropy she says “Balance? What is that?” Something many of us in the events industry can relate to!
Amy first met Bruce when she purchased her stationery and gift shop in 2004, “I shared that I was new to the world of weddings and really just wanted to produce life’s most memorable experiences,” she says of their first conversation. They talked about The Wedding Guys wedding shows and how Amy could hit the ground running getting into the luxury wedding market. After investing in her future and securing her first clients at the show, she was able to begin producing memorable moments. “I will forever be grateful to him for his encouragement, confidence in me and my work, and his dedication to the betterment of our industry as a whole.”
When Matthew gave Amy the news that she would be a recipient of the Bruce A. Vassar ICON Award, she was stunned, “I told Matthew I was embarrassed to receive this because there are literally hundreds of individuals who embody everything Bruce stood for — integrity, grit, and light. I am humbled and honored to be one of the first recipients and promise to continue to carry Bruce with me in all that I do for our industry here in the Twin Cities and around the country. I live by the mantra “All You Have Is Your Name”, and Bruce lived his to the fullest. A lesson we should all take with us.”
MAARI CEDAR JAMES, PRESIDENT OF CHOWGIRLS CATERING
Maari Cedar James was raised in Uptown Minneapolis in the “80’s punk days”. Today, she resides in Northeast Minneapolis with her husband, three daughters, two dogs, and one “reluctant cat”. She has always been an avid lover of food, hosting, and imbibing which lead her to attend the Art Institutes International, and then as a chef with Chowgirls in 2006. Maari says she took on her role headfirst by “planning, cooking, hauling, setting and serving, taking a ragtag team of 3 to a 13-time MN Bride Best Of Winning Caterer.” After 15 years with the company and now as President, she says “The most rewarding part of growing Chowgirls has been the ability to create long-lasting jobs and careers that have allowed many employees to grow their own families and meet their own dreams, for example buying a house or returning to school,” while the most challenging parts are similar in being responsible for other’s livelihoods. She goes on to say it is vital to invest time and energy into learning how to reflect, communicate, and lead others.
This investment translates into the community beyond Chowgirls as well, “I think the future of Chowgirls holds not only a deeper understanding of our commitment to our community and fundamentally carving out more space than ever for that aspect of our work in our financial and visionary planning, but also an elevated rebrand of our highest end/luxe offerings to better tell the story of our love for hospitality, amazing food, and experiences,” Maari says of what we can expect next from this thriving company.
Maari explains that one of the reasons she loves her job is that she experiences life-changing moments first-hand. One of them stands out above the rest, “I had the honor of planning an end of life celebration with the guest of honor. She wanted to be there to enjoy her memorial with her friends and family which was an incredibly humbling event to be a part of and a lesson in enjoying this time we have together now.”
The women that she has led throughout the pandemic at Chowgirls and the MN Events Coalition fuel her inspiration daily, “I look to this fierce determination I see in our local industry to continue to grow and serve, not only our clients but this incredibly rich community of creatives with what seems like endless energy for new ideas!”
Maari is hopeful that leveraging these talents outside of the workplace will help to solve pressing issues in the community like food insecurity, access to profitable jobs, and racial inequity. “I believe the luxury industry has not only a responsibility but an incredible opportunity to collectively cultivate financial support for our neighbors in need via transparent and intentional for-profit/non-profit collaborations.” One person she looks to is The Sioux Chef who is working to fund an Indigenous Food Lab via their upcoming restaurant, Owamni.
Chowgirls walks the walk with a long-standing commitment to giving back including food and service donations as well as sponsorships. They have focused on providing for the arts, women, children, and food systems. As with the changing times, they are shifting their energy to focus on Black, Indigenous, Asian Americans, and neighbors of color as they dig deeper into wealth disparities and their effect on access to good food. She says that anyone looking to launch or grow a business should build their values into their plan from the beginning as it is an integral part of success.
Committing to her position as President and as an active member of the community requires balance. Her advice? “Take time off. Whether it’s a week every two months or every Sunday no matter what. I spent many years working early mornings, long days, and late nights. It’s taken me a long time to learn these boundaries and the value of recharging by shutting work down,” And although the hard work pays off, “Juggling many hats and goals takes its toll and requires rest to achieve.”
Maari’s history with The Wedding Guys began over connecting with other industry professionals from different areas, and even competitors, to just gather and support one another. She said that these experiences “paved the way for my vision of community in this industry.” She recalls one of the last times she spoke to him regarding their UNVEILED booth, “His care, service, and commitment to what was best for our company shined in his candid warmth and thoughtfulness around what would be best for us as his client.”
When she discovered she would be a Bruce A. Vassar ICON Award recipient, she was speechless and says that it is an incredible honor. She says she wishes to share the moment “with my MN Events Coalition steering members, Amy Zaroff, who has been an inspiration to me professionally for many years, and Christie Altendorf, who has taught me grace, poise, and professionalism this year by taking me under her wing as we endeavored to lead in such a challenging moment.” She says the award represents a way of being that reflects Bruce’s value, “To be a truth-teller with a generous heart, a holder of the highest standards and a beacon of sophistication in a way that always includes, never excludes, and the ability to lift others to see their own potential.”