Ah 2020. It has been quite a year, hasn’t it? As Fall approaches, we have passed many milestones for Celebrations Distinctive Catering and many milestones for me personally. I had my 50th class reunion on Zoom this year, and Celebrations celebrates 30 years this past summer. So, for another signpost, I am writing my first blog. We have just reopened six school cafeterias in Concord, Manchester and Nashua and I figured now was as good a time as any.
Thirty years ago, Celebrations Catering started as a very small catering company. Family-owned and family-operated. As I reflect on Celebrations, I keep coming back to perhaps that one word that defines it all: family. My daughter Becky helped put herself through college working with me during the summer. Today, she’s an integral part of our company. Last month, I took some time and went up to Maine with my youngest grandson, Xavier. We had a great time. Xavier also works at Celebrations – at least when he is not rock climbing that is. He likes being in the “back of the house”. We go out on events together and he’s my sous-chef. Elijah, his brother of Eli’s BBQ fame, helps as well. My brother Keith, loyal as the day is long, has been working at Celebrations for years. My sister Kim has worked her share of events as well. My wife Elizabeth helps at our schools and with authentic Filipino food. Sometimes, I wish I had a larger family these days.
Through the last 30 years, Celebrations has grown from renting space in a small church kitchen to a 5000 square foot facility on busy Second Street in Manchester. We started way back in 1992 by doing small dinner parties, cookouts, BBQs and luncheons for my friends, friends of friends, my parents’ friends, and parishioners in my church. We’ve grown from humble beginnings to doing large gourmet weddings, galas, corporate cookouts and parties, as well as the surprise birthday parties, 50th anniversaries, baptisms, after-funerals and school proms. You name it; we’ve probably catered it.
As the company grew, we worked diligently and continued to do more parties and larger events and grander weddings. We now provide food service in cafeterias for various schools. At the beginning of 2020, all 6 of our schools were up and running smoothly. Many calls for different events and wedding dates were getting set. And 2020 had a nice ring to it for wedding dates.
At the beginning of the year, before we knew anything of the far-reaching impact this pandemic would have on everyone’s lives, all was going quite well and according to plan. As I’ve heard before, if you want to make God laugh – tell him your plans. By the time COVID-19 caused the suspension of life as we knew it, our schools closed and there was no catering. Nothing. Honestly, folks, there was a time there that we really had no idea what we were going to do and how we were going to survive. You can’t cater if you don’t have anybody to cater to.
We all went home to our families and took some time to reflect. While food service is an essential business, business was essential to Celebrations. I’m not sure where we came up with it, but we changed direction from continued growth to going back to our roots. Meeting the needs of local families.
The only people needing food right then and there were families. Stranded at home; supply chains broken; and supermarket shelves bare. One of the first things we did was buy a couple of cases of toilet paper and other necessities for our employees and their families. We had to have some “essentials” to be essential. Families were home and out of work. We all know so many people who suffered through this with not enough of anything needed to survive.
Celebrations created our “Family of Five” Meals. We figured a basic family meal should serve about 5 people. If a family was more than 5, with our well-deserved reputation of preparing more food than you really need, we were not worried. If it was less than 5 people – leftovers.
The Family Meals needed to be affordable. We served complete dinners for only $6 a person. Of course, it wasn’t the same profit margin that we were used to, but one of the advantages of having a large kitchen is the ability to prepare large quantities economically. It was important that the food was prepared, delivered and/or picked up safely. We focused on comfort food – homemade and delicious -because that’s what we do. Making these meals affordable for everyone was what helped us -Celebrations and the community – get through those first months.
Generous corporate clients purchased family meals for their employees. Charitable organizations like the Rotary and Home Health and Hospice saw an opportunity to help not only Celebrations by purchasing meals but also help our bravest and selfless heroes. We delivered these meals to health care workers at local hospitals and to at-home health care workers. Our schools let all the student families know of the availability of these meals. Everyone had the same mindset.
**We ARE in this together, we’re going to help each other, and we are going to get through this**
Before I go any further, I need to just put out there how grateful I am for all our friends and families, our business partners and the local charitable organizations and churches through the years, doing what they have always done helping others in need.
The true heroes through all this, of course, are our health care workers. I think sometimes we forget just how interdependent we all are. If there is one positive to this pandemic, it is the spirit of cooperation, assistance and helping one another that became an everyday occurrence. Without this, Celebrations never would have survived. “We are all in this together” never has had more meaning for me and Celebrations. Thank you, everyone.
So, I must come back to families. What exactly are families? I have heard many definitions but perhaps my favorite, overheard at an AA meeting, “Families are a group of people who love and care and help each other”.
There are a couple of families at Celebrations Catering I really need to introduce to you. First, is Amy Strike and her family. Amy is our Vice President of Sales and Marketing. She is responsible for all our corporate client events and weddings. Every now and then, you may even see her scoop ice cream. Inside joke… if you ever meet Amy, ask her why. When I talk about Amy Strike and family, I mean both her daughters – Erin and Keira, who have been helping at Celebrations – and husband Tom, who has been very supportive.
Another family that you really don’t hear about – but you’re going to be hearing about them more and more, is Donald Robey and family. I’ve known my partner Don since he was 15 years old. He started working with me for another catering company when he was just a kid. Don’s daughter Jess works with us as well, and wife Denise and daughter Sammy have been helping for years. Don is the hardest working man I’ve ever met. He is a fantastic chef, and honestly, folks, you have been tasting Don’s food more than you’ve been tasting mine for several years now. Along with coordinating all our school cafeterias, he also manages all catering. When I think of him, that song from Beaches “Wind Beneath My Wings” comes to mind and for Celebrations Distinctive Catering, Don is truly an Essential Worker. I am proud to call him my friend and partner.
I just spoke with clients whose daughter’s Jack & Jill needs to turn into a smaller wedding. This was because of Covid of course. What I need to tell everyone is I catered this little girl’s Christening. That was 25 years ago and I was 43. Now I’m catering her wedding. That brought me to tears. This family is much more than just a client. We are friends. We are family. We are all in this together.
Back in June, I turned 68, and while I am still busy at Celebrations and will be for the foreseeable future, I seem to be spending more time with my family and friends. My role as chef, owner and president of Celebrations has evolved over the years. I am the founder of this family business, and Don is now our president. Please join me in thanking Don, Amy and Becky for all they do. Our little family catering company is much more than one family. I see my wish for a larger family has indeed been granted and has become a blessing.
2020 was, obviously, the Year of the Pandemic. Yet something perhaps even more dangerous and insidious are the struggles our country and the world has with racism. Our country has been trying to deal with racism for as long as I can remember and of course well before that. I believe, as human beings, we owe it to ANY person and ESPECIALLY those who we think and see as different from ourselves, to try to see them and recognize them as part of one family filled with love.
I feel each generation needs to find their own heroes. I view a “hero” as someone we look up to when we see something good, strong, powerful, and loving We want and need to recognize that in ourselves and others. My father was my first hero. Muhammad Ali was after that. Here are two more we recently lost.
Chadwick Boseman: A true hero portraying true heroes. So selfless, he chose to leave the public out of his personal struggles. He understood our need to believe in heroes in life and now in death. Thank you, T’Challa, the Black Panther, Jackie Robinson #42, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, and of course Mr. Boseman.
John Lewis. Another real-life true hero that left us all with a message of hope.
We have before us a spiritual mission… far from politics. In the end, my spiritual beliefs and my birth covenant with God call on me to “Respect the dignity of every human being.” It is truly that simple and truly that difficult. Every journey begins with a single step and only happens one day at a time.
I’ve really struggled for words on this, and it brought me back to – believe it or not – FOOD! And of course, FAMILIES.
I research food all the time. I go online; I Google recipes; I buy cookbooks. I take what I see, make it my own, and then I share it with you and my family. There is a huge, largely unrecognized African American cuisine throughout our entire country and indeed throughout the world. While I’m sure you recognize the name John Lewis, I’m going to introduce you to Edna Lewis (b. 1916 – d. 2006). I have no idea if they are related. But I do know Edna Lewis was born in Freetown, Virginia, and learned to cook when she was a little girl. I have several of her cookbooks and all I can say is this woman knows how to cook. I was struck by the depth of her knowledge and talents with all types of food and cooking. Edna’s cookbooks have delicious food within all the pages. I hope to humbly share some of that delicious food with you.
To honor Edna Lewis and her entire African-American family, Celebrations is going to feature food and recipes as interpreted from Edna’s cookbooks in our Family Meal offerings. After that, Celebrations is going to feature Family Meals of various ethnic groups, which if you know us you know we have done since the beginning.
My wife is from the Philippines – you might see some Lumpia someday. My brother’s spouse, Richard hails from Singapore and is one of the best pastry chefs I have ever known. I can’t duplicate his pastries – won’t even try! But we will certainly be featuring some Singaporean food soon. Our Mexican chef Ana offers up authentic Mexican cuisine “just like Mama”. Many more to come and WE DO TAKE REQUESTS!!
I did not know how to end this too-long blog and I apologize in advance if this is dumb or corny, but… I stumbled upon a box of Crayola “multi-cultural crayons”. 8 shades of human! On one end, the whitest white, on the other the blackest black and six other shades in between. With little effort you can create many more shades of human. The possibilities are endless. We’re going to give out a box of these crayons with each Family Meal we serve. In fact, you don’t even need an order. Come in and pick up a set. Pass it down to our greatest hope, the younger members of our families.
Again, we are all in this together, and as Tiny Tim would say – God Bless us, everyone.