Wedding News

How Cescaphe’s Joe Volpe Went from Dishwasher to Running a Philly Wedding Empire

What brings so many brides to Cescaphe? The lobster claws are nice, but the answer has more to do with its founder’s Northeast roots.

Joe Volpe. Photograph by Emily Assiran

It’s a Wednesday night in November, and Philly’s posh Down Town Club is packed. Standing next to the stage is Joe Volpe, the founder of Cescaphe event group. He’s presentation-ready: clad in an impeccably tailored blue blazer, dark hair slicked back, salt-and-pepper beard freshly trimmed. “I’m nervous to speak,” he admits just before he’s set to kick off the night. Considering he’s in the business of hosting parties, this is a surprise.

At the other end of the Georgian Revival ballroom, young brides-to-be snap photos of floral-covered mock tablescapes and text them to their mothers. Near the appetizer display, dads tuck informational folders under their arms before piling freshly cracked lobster claws on small china plates. It’s the last Cescaphe University night of the year — a wedding-planning seminar the company puts on once a month for its soon-to-be-wed couples. Tonight’s speakers are from Beautiful Blooms, the event florist company Volpe owns.

Though he looks the part, Volpe, 49, doesn’t have the air of a corporate CEO. Onstage, talking to the 284 people in attendance, he’s brief and earnest, like a man of few words offering a toast at his daughter’s wedding. He congratulates everyone on their upcoming nuptials, says he hopes tonight will “demystify the planning process,” cracks a joke about wedding costs, and a minute later is off the stage.

Volpe may not like being the star of the show, but what he’s built at Cescaphe (pronounced “CHESS-kuh-fee”) is worth your attention. Over the past few decades, the wedding industry has gone full-blown bridezilla. Rom-coms, social media and reality TV have turned the no-frills “cake and punch” church-basement reception of the ’50s into weekend-long galas for which even the hotel door hangers are personalized. Brides of all types are now hardwired to believe that over-the-top-indulgences — welcome baskets, Snapchat filters, second dresses just for the reception — are as necessary as the vows themselves.

Philly’s fully a part of the wedding boom. Industry forecaster The Wedding Report estimates that our metro area had $1.105 billion in wedding-related sales in 2016, and WeddingWire says the average cost of a Philly wedding is $34,400 — the nation’s sixth highest, ahead of flashier towns like L.A. and Miami. In the past 14 years, Volpe has carved out a significant portion of this lucrative market. His Cescaphe empire includes six popular city venues, wedding decor and transportation services, a hotel booking concierge and more. In 2017, Cescaphe produced 747 weddings, its highest number in a year to date. That’s 327 more weddings than Philly behemoth Finley Catering averages annually, and 447 more than Starr Catering Group and Garces Events combined. And that doesn’t even include the 260 galas, fund-raisers and corporate events the company also organized. Tonight’s free University night is just one benefit of signing on to be a Cescaphe bride.

Which raises the question: What brings so many brides to Cescaphe? The lobster claws are nice, but you don’t sign a $20,000-to-$75,000 party contract for free lobster alone. The answer has everything to do with Volpe and his rare mix of learned-on-the-street business smarts and authentic desire to make every last one of those weddings feel one-of-a-kind.

It’s nearly impossible to get Joe Volpe to talk about Joe Volpe. In his office near Spring Garden one afternoon, I’m listening to him give credit to everyone else for his success. He likes to talk about company milestones as if they’re happy accidents. “We’re genuine, we work hard, we’re doing good for people, and we love what we do,” he explains, like it’s just that simple.

If you’ve been to a wedding in Philly in the past 10 years, there’s a good chance it was a Cescaphe wedding. In addition to the Down Town Club near Washington Square, Volpe’s venues include the Cescaphe Ballroom and Tendenza in Northern Liberties, the sprawling Vie on North Broad, the iconic Water Works on the Schuylkill River, and, coming this fall, a yet-to-be-named Center City spot at Broad and Locust. (Cescaphe will end a run at the Curtis Center in March.) On any given weekend, Cescaphe is responsible for the good times of a lot of people: Last year, all six venues were booked on the same night 97 times. Although the company declined to give numbers, it has seen a 44 percent growth in revenue in the past five years. Cescaphe is a Philly wedding factory.

What Volpe lacks in stage presence, he makes up for in operational know-how. He’s got Cescaphe’s system down to a science. Here’s what it’s like to be a Cescaphe bride: After spending a day touring venues, you’ll settle on a favorite. After that, a team of dedicated event managers are there from when you sign your contract to when you walk down the aisle. Couples pay a standardized per-person fee of $135 to $225 that grants access to the same lavish package — the venue, a champagne greeting for guests, a three-course dinner, a top-shelf open bar, a massive gourmet dessert display, and the Cescaphe signature, an opulent cocktail hour (actually 90 minutes) featuring 40 different butlered appetizers, a raw bar, hot stations, and an antipasto display.

Volpe is strategic about what is — and isn’t — included. He provides the bones of a successful party — free-flowing booze, a well-configured space, too much food — but leaves the stuff that makes weddings personal, from flowers to music, up to you. But he’s also no dummy: If what’s most appealing is convenience, you can book additional services through Cescaphe. Along with Beautiful Blooms, Volpe runs a trolley company and a hair-and-makeup salon and has a department that can arrange hotel-room blocks. That’s Cescaphe’s allure: It lets you cross off the unsexy parts of your “to do” list without having to “do” much of anything.

On paper, the wedding planning shop Volpe has built would make any Silicon Valley bigwig jealous. “You don’t always see a visionary and an operator in the same person, but Joe has a way about him to see forward,” says Natalie Parks, Cescaphe’s VP of operations. “He’s a driven man.”

In his office, though, Volpe waves off any such notions. The way he tells it, his success is about head-down, sleeves-up hard work, a couple of “happenstances,” and being the “people-pleaser” his mom raised him to be.

The youngest of three, Volpe spent most of his childhood in a rowhome in Wissinoming. His father passed away when Joe was four, and his mom, Lucille, didn’t work, so all the siblings pitched in. When he was 12, he picked up shifts at a neighborhood sandwich counter owned by Les Friedman. Friedman sold the deli in 1985 to open Colleen’s, a restaurant and catering hall in the Park Towne Place apartment complex in Logan Circle, and took Volpe with him. Volpe worked his way up from dishwasher to the point person for all catered occasions and stayed on after graduating from high school. The hall hosted every kind of event — anniversary parties, first communions, bar/bat mitzvahs. Volpe’s first wedding was in 1990 — the bride was a cousin — and it quickly became his favorite kind of party. “This is somebody’s trophy day, a day their families come together and create this one magical experience,” he says, almost as if he hasn’t produced thousands of them before. “There’s a lot riding on the night, so the satisfaction and the gratification when you’ve done that, it’s so much better.”

As the wedding business ramped up at Colleen’s over the next decade, so did Volpe’s reputation with high-profile clients. “He was a solid guy and a hard worker,” says real estate developer Bart Blatstein. “And he cared. Everything had to be just right. He worked to please.”

Volpe knew Colleen’s was bringing in enough wedding business to fill a second hall. He discussed the idea with Blatstein, who showed him the old Imperial movie theater in Northern Liberties. It had been in disrepair for 50 years; there was a hole in the roof and a tree growing out of one side. “I wish I could say it was unbelievable, but it was actually kind of scary,” says Volpe. But it was big, and the ceilings were high. Volpe knew he had his spot.

Armed with a bank loan, Volpe, 34 at the time, leased the space from Blatstein in March 2003. He and Friedman parted ways almost immediately after.

Volpe’s family and friends came together to help him transform the space that would become Cescaphe Ballroom. Blatstein helped navigate city permits. Brothers John and Michael chipped in on demo. Wife Andrea took on interior design. Parks, who had waitressed at Colleen’s, swept the floors and hung crystals from chandeliers while eight months pregnant.

Volpe’s job was drumming up business — not exactly easy when the luxury wedding venue you’re selling isn’t actually built yet. “I swear to God, I think people booked these weddings because they felt sorry for me,” he says. “I would walk around this ‘venue’ explaining it to them like it was right in front of me. These people would look at me like I was out of my mind, but somehow, they wrote me a check. I booked 55 weddings in a dirt pit.”

Though Volpe’s event experience was varied, he wanted Cescaphe — a portmanteau of Francesca and Sophia, his daughters’ names — to handle only one kind of celebration: weddings.

The stories people tell about the lengths Volpe will go to for his clients are legendary. When one bride’s church rescheduled her ceremony during the blizzard of 2016, Cescaphe rallied her vendors to reschedule the reception. When unexpected scaffolding marred the Curtis Center’s main entrance, the company draped over the construction and worked with the city to move the valet lanes in time for a wedding the next night. When Cescaphe took over Water Works, Volpe got permission from the city to set up a tent in the fall and spring, so brides who want to get married overlooking the river don’t have to pay for a tent rental; instead, the 60 couples who use it each year split the $20,000 to $25,000 cost. The company doesn’t make any money from the rental. “We can either make 200 people blown away and extremely happy, or we can make an extra dollar,” Volpe says.

The Cescaphe way has earned Volpe repeat customers in what’s typically a buy-one-time industry. Beth Moylan, of Pennsport, hosted her eldest daughter’s wedding at the Ballroom in 2008 and her middle daughter’s at Tendenza four years later. “It’s one-stop shopping,” Moylan says, noting she went home with leftovers both times. “Plus, they really know how to throw a party. I felt like I was a guest at my own daughters’ weddings.” Her youngest child isn’t engaged yet, but Moylan says she’d book Cescaphe again in a minute.

Back at University night, the Q&A session has wrapped. Volpe jumps into the crowd. It’s here, shaking hands with couples, that he’s most at ease, though he’s spending more time at the negotiation table these days. Three years ago, he inked a $3 million deal with the idea of creating a Cescaphe campus in Fishtown. It will have a bigger commissary, space for his satellite businesses, and a gym for his 449 full-time employees.

Last October, Volpe shelled out nearly $8 million to buy Tendenza from Blatstein. The deal included the adjacent parking lot, where Volpe plans to create a hotel-like building solely for the guests of couples getting married at the venue. “The best part of a wedding is catching up with everyone,” he says. “We want to elongate the experience.”

As Volpe, former salami slicer, schmoozes hundreds of high-paying brides, grooms and parents more sincerely — and effectively — than most CEOs, something hits me: He didn’t get here by accident. Yes, he cornered a market with grit, self-taught smarts, and a work ethic that won’t quit. But at the core of it all is Volpe’s hospitality, which just happens to be our particular brand of hospitality: He feeds you like a South Philly Italian grandma; he doesn’t nickel-and-dime you; he hosts University nights because he knows weddings are an investment and he wants his couples to feel like it’s money well spent. And after all these years, according to everyone I spoke with, he’s still the first to plunge his hands into a sink of scalding-hot water when the kitchen’s short a dishwasher.

Published as “Weddings, Inc.” in the February 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.