The passing in mid-July of Bob Piane Sr., 87, a pioneering caterer for more than a half-century, marks the end of an entrepreneurial generation. Piane put himself on the national map at least three times.
First was Piane Catering’s selection in 1986 by an industry trade group as the first-ever 5-star off-premise caterer. Second was his invention of the “double wok,” a double-bowled kitchen appliance that came out just at the peak of the wok-cooking craze. The third time was about 20 years ago when the Vatican granted him knighthood in the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher in recognition of his commitment to Catholic principles, service and charity.
More than that, Piane and his family were known as the preferred caterers of choice to generations of everyday Delawareans.
“I’ve run into people quite often who will tell me how my dad, and our family, did their wedding, their confirmations, their parents’ wedding, even their grandparents’ wedding,” said Bob Piane Jr. of his father.
The Piane family touched the lives of thousands of Delaware families. They first did an event for me in the late 1980s at our North Star-area home, and, in 2005, our wedding reception was one of the last events they did before Mr. Piane retired. It was near-impossible to spend any time at all around the Piane family without being pulled into their love, charm and charisma.
For me, that came in 1994-95, when Bob Piane Jr. and I were among the 14 delegates from Delaware to the 1995 White House Conference on Small Business. When you worked with one of the Pianes, the bonus was that you got nearly all of them.
It was an unlikely connection, this Protestant Illinois farm boy with these native Wilmingtonians from the St. Anthony of Padua Parish, Roman Catholics devoted to the Little Sisters of the Poor. But it took only a couple of years before they’d made me “an honorary Paesan” and anointed me Piane family consigliere.
Life was not always golden or rosy for Piane, who experienced his share of life’s troubles as well. Most notable was the passing in 2003 of his beloved wife, Angela Marsilii Piane. His family celebrated his passing as a reunification in heaven,“where Mom was waiting for him,” said Bob Piane Jr.
From a personal experience as a boy with “a holy presence” in the old home at Bancroft Parkway and Fourth Street at the Little Sisters of the Poor, Piane devoted himself to them throughout his life. Ironically, he ended up living with them the last four-to-five years of his life at their home on Salem Church Road, across from Christiana High School.
He modeled successful business community leadership, as a “gold lifetime member” of the NAACP. In his Brandywine Village catering operations, he provided jobs for hundreds of minorities over the years, many of them on “the re-entry path” from prison to re-establish themselves in the community, learning to do kitchen and service work.
Like anyone else in his life, his employees were treated as trusted members of the Piane family, allowing them to grow from those entry-level positions in their self-regard, competence and professionalism. Indeed, Bob Piane was one of a kind.