BARTOW — Lo Soukhavong was just a baby when he and his family arrived in Bartow.
Refugees from the country of Laos, the Soukhavong family was sponsored by the McLeod Presbyterian Church in Bartow and given an opportunity at a new life.
It is something the family appreciates to this day — even if there was a bit of a learning curve coming from Laos to Central Florida.
“It was a culture shock — my parents didn’t speak a lick of English,” Soukhavong explained. “We had to start somewhere and the church gave us an opportunity.”
Four decades later, Lo Soukhavong is known by many as “Chef Lo” and he has his own company — Millenia Catering, based in Orlando — that has nine full-time employees and roughly 50 individuals who work on a part-time or on-call basis. That company does more than 300 events a year.
In many ways, Soukhavong, 41, personifies the idea of the “American dream.”
Now, with the purchase of the building formerly known as the Peace River Country Club, he has chosen to invest in the community that once invested in him and his family. Soukhavong says Idlewood Investments LLC, of which he is the owner, closed on the property two weeks ago.
Rebranded as Idlewood Wedding and Events Venue — or just Idlewood, for short — the venue will be open for business within two or three months.
It is a homecoming of sorts for Soukhavong, whose company within the past two years has begun to invest in purchasing venues, beginning with the Dr. Phillips House in downtown Orlando — a historic venue that is on the national registry.
“This place picked us,” Soukhavong said, referencing Idlewood. “The fact that I have a connection here pulled me back in. … When we were growing up, this was the place where we’d go swim in the pool. I hate to see it sitting (idle).”
Soukhavong and his team had been exploring opportunities with other venues in and around Central Florida when Tripp Wallace, who he went to school with, brought this opportunity to his attention. For more than four decades, the venue had operated as the Peace River Country Club and was a staple in the Bartow community. Two years ago, Buddy Wise purchased the building and began renovations to reopen it before complications forced him to relinquish it.
While there were other venues that might have presented a more pronounced contribution to Millenia Catering’s bottom line, the potential to make something great for the community was intriguing.
“Tripp Wallace was the one who said I should look at it,” Soukhavong said. “After I started coming here and seeing it, I started believing that we could make it work.”
Work is ongoing at the venue, with improvements planned inside the building and across the property, including landscaping, repaving of the parking lot and a significant investment in the pool and patio area. Ambitiously, Soukhavong believes the facility could be event-ready in as few as 60 days.
Already, he says, Bartow residents have begun to stop by to ask when it might be open.
“The community knows this building — this was the place to go,” he explained.
Bookings for events such as weddings typically take place several months ahead of time, so Idlewood staff anticipate big events won’t be on the calendar until 2020. That said, the venue could potentially host smaller events as soon as the fall. A website with more information and booking instructions is under construction.
This is just the latest adventure in a journey for Soukhavong that included graduating from Bartow High in 1997 before attending Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island. Afterward, he worked at the Gaylord Palms Florida, where he became the Chef de Cuisine for the high-volume venue.
Fourteen years ago he struck out on his own. Soukhavong lives in Orlando with his wife and the couple has its first child on the way. It is an exciting time for the Soukhavong family and its business.
“I think this is going to be a place of celebration,” Soukhavong said, sitting in the main room of Idlewood. “There is going to be quite a bit of work but the bones here are very good.”
To learn more about Millenia Catering, visit milleniacatering.com/.
Contact Steven Ryzewski at email@example.com.