Holiday entertaining treasures

Published 6:48 pm Sunday, November 28, 2010


Tanya McNelis, Karen Beckwith and Doug Beckwith cater to people’s holiday party needs. The day of this photo, they had already prepared and delivered a breakfast function, were getting ready to deliver a factory lunch and had a party in the evening. Photo by Kathie Hempel

Tanya McNelis, Karen Beckwith and Doug Beckwith cater to people’s holiday party needs. The day of this photo, they had already prepared and delivered a breakfast function, were getting ready to deliver a factory lunch and had a party in the evening. Photo by Kathie Hempel

With December comes the busiest entertaining at home season of the year. It is a time of joy and goodwill.

Well it can be, at least until the fifth trip to the store because you forgot the buns or the jellied mold won’t jelly, the cranberries won’t cran and the turkey burns. I remember one year I greeted guests with a towel wrapped around my head because after having my shower I realized that I had used baking soda rather than cornstarch in an attempt to thicken the gravy.

In the ensuing dig through the kitchen cupboard to find (I’m sorry) the one can of chicken gravy I thought I had, I totally forgot my hair. We all had a good laugh — OK, theirs was laughter; mine was hysteria — but secretly I dreamed of the day I could employ a full-time chef.

While I cannot supply you with a full-time chef, I do want to share with you a couple of kitchen divas that will help make any gathering from five to 500 a great success.

Karen Beckwith of Food by Karen & Co. and Jena Johnson of S’Wonderful Confections are standing by to create the perfect dinner or cocktail party, made to your specifications. Whether you are just inviting a few people in for hors d’oeuvres and dessert or are planning a full formal dinner complete with wait staff, these are the ladies that can make it happen, while you pamper yourself with a new hairdo.

Food by Karen & Co. just celebrated its 20th year of operation. Hidden from plain sight at 1125 Wayne St. in Niles, the company will make your food from scratch and deliver it to your location, whether it’s a club function, office party, wedding or that formal dinner at home. They can supply everything from the linen to the chafing dishes and crystal.

“We are known for our baked chicken and cheese potatoes,” Bethwith teases. “While I will share some recipes and tips, I always tell people that if I were to give them the recipe for the potatoes, I would have to do away with them.”

After years of working food service of every manner, from car hopping and cooking in a nursing home while still in high school, Beckwith told her parents that rather than going to college she would prefer to open a pizzeria. This was not in cards, however, as Beckwith married, moved out of state and gave birth to five babies. During this time the couple moved back to Niles.

As the children were growing, she said she was fortunate not to have to work; however, toward the end of her marriage, her husband asked where she thought she might like to work. The food industry still held the only answer for Beckwith.

She worked for a couple of years at Notre Dame, where she learned she enjoyed event planning. In answer to her husband’s question, Beckwith said she would love to be a caterer.

The location of the current Corral Bar at 701 North 13th St. was vacant at that time, and in its tiny kitchen Beckwith began the business, working with a partner for more than 10 years. When the partner retired at 60, Beckwith continued with the business.

“I was scared to do this on my own and found out I was right to be scared,” Beckwith said. “You can’t do catering on your own. The secret is to teach and grow great employees allowing them to not only learn but to fail and then learn from their mistakes.

“My youngest son, Doug, began working with me when he was eight,” she said. “After surgery on his shoulder, he now helps out regularly with deliveries, setups and tear-downs. There is so much more to this business than just cooking the food. I am lucky that the help I do hire tends to stay for long periods of times.”

For parties of 50 and more there is a set price, and depending on the menu, it can range from under $7 a head to $30 a head with everything from the linen, china and serving dishes, to a formal sit-down dinner including all sort of scrumptious offerings from prawn appetizers to a delicious variety of desserts. The company can deliver a hot meal within a 90-mile radius.

“Think of the cost of taking 20 people out to dinner,” Doug said. “This way you get to entertain at home. We do the cooking and then come to set it all up. You have a delicious meal and we do the clean up too.”

Speaking of desserts … a few years ago Beckwith, who prefers cooking over baking, teamed up with Jena Johnson. Johnson first worked with Beckwith at her Wayne Street location before opening up her downtown 222 North Front St. S’Wonderful Confections kitchen about a year and a half ago. The team still works closely together, sharing leads and events.

As a child, Johnson learned to love baking with her mother and grandmother. As an adult, whenever they needed a birthday cake or sweets for a party at the Tyler plant, where she continues to work her day job, Johnson was volunteered to supply the goodies.

“The store bought cakes they were bringing in were just not all that good. Once I began to bring in my own creations, I was asked to do weddings and other parties. After a while it became evident that I should become licensed and do it for anyone who wants baking for them,” Johnson said.

The smell from Johnson’s kitchen makes you want to roll in an easy chair, curl up and grab a glass of milk to go with cookies straight out of the oven. There are brownies and brownie truffle desserts frosted with buttercream or fudge or layered with caramel, pecans and coconut.

Johnson has a full menu of bar cookies, cheese cakes, cupcakes and cookies, some of which are covered with white chocolate and filled with raspberry or lemon. There is a flourless chocolate cake or choose from a variety of cakes filled with such mouth-watering delights as raspberry, chocolate mousse, peanut butter, whipped Bavarian cream and more. Top off your cake with an equally delectable choice of frostings. Made-to order wedding cakes are a specialty.

Both Beckwith and Johnson create their delicious meals, appetizers and desserts from scratch. Each woman takes particular pride in making each event a success and each attributes their own success to word of mouth advertising.

I know this works for them. A year or so ago I was asked to be the photographer for a regional conference hosted by the Four Flags Garden Club. The group wisely chose these to ladies to cater the event’s luncheon. It was delicious, with some of the best soups and pastries I have ever had.

Especially during this season, it is easy to understand why this creative team requests as much notice as possible to help you plan your event. While certainly in the case of sudden need like funerals, Beckwith can put together a great meal in a couple of days, she prefers to have at least a week’s notice so that she can take advantage of bulk buying and delivery rather than scrambling with the rest of us at the local grocery. Johnson, with her day job, prefers two weeks notice and makes the ordering process easier, by allowing e-mail ordering (which she loves) to swonderfulconfections Menus are available to help with your selection and you can arrange to pick up your desserts at the kitchen.

To discuss your order by phone, call Food by Karen & Co. at (269) 684-7739.

S’Wonderful Confections can be reached at (269) 449-3407 or (269) 687-2596.

Remember, you can order for delivery within a 90-mile radius of Niles. I know that at least one of their great meals will be headed to Buchanan real soon.

Happy holidays!