Award-winning Menu Maker Catering celebrates its 25th anniversary this year and the home-grown company is marking the milestone in a big way.
In July, Menu Maker officially moved into its first stand-alone location, complete with a custom-designed commercial kitchen and a grab-and-go carryout operation.
Company founder Mary Weary purchased the former Nick’s Italian Deli restaurant building at 102 Alpha Drive in south Franklin last year. An extensive renovation project got under way this spring.
While the red brick and stone building’s exterior footprint hasn’t changed, almost every inch of the building’s interior has been reshaped and repurposed. The kitchen — the heart-and-soul of Menu Maker’s new home — is “filled with my favorite toys,” Weary said. “The right tools make everyone’s work better.”
The uniquely designed retail space is equipped with mobile display cases which allow flexibility for in-house events and off-hour staging.
Located a block east of the busy Columbia Pike corridor just north of Mack Hatcher Parkway, Menu Maker’s new home is surrounded by a myriad of small businesses and new residential developments. This strategically made the decision to expand its business operation to include carryout service an easy one.
“We felt like this is a win-win,” Weary said. “Why not share our cooking in a new way?”
Beginning Monday, Aug. 14, walk-in customers will find a rotating selection of Menu Maker’s most popular items, including box lunches. Initial retail hours will be 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. with special-order pickup service available by appointment. Weary expects the hours to expand along with demand.
“We surveyed the neighborhood to see what the market wants,” Weary said. “Over and over again, we heard that our business neighbors want good food at an affordable price that’s an alternative to fast food.”
Company partners with nearby non-profit
Weary knows her company’s success hasn’t come by chance. To give back, Menu Maker Catering has selected new neighbor GraceWorks Ministries, located two blocks away at 104 Southeast Parkway, as its community partner.
Established in 1995 to provide a central place for Williamson County residents needing food, clothing and financial assistance, today GraceWorks focuses on four key areas— family support, instructional programs, seasonal needs and hunger prevention.
During September, the public is encouraged to drop off non-perishable food items, paper products, diapers and feminine hygiene items in bins at Menu Maker’s new location. Customers will also have an opportunity to “round up” their bill with a donation to GraceWorks. At month’s end, Menu Maker will match all donations and present a check to GraceWorks to support the agency’s hunger prevention programs.
Home-based business grows up, and out
Menu Maker Catering’s active client list includes Middle Tennessee’s largest corporations, wedding planners, and community and civic organizations. But 25 years ago, the company got its start in a more humble way.
“Wednesday Night dinners” helped put Menu Maker on the catering map and Weary estimates she has worked in at least 100 church kitchens in the greater Nashville area. At one local Baptist church, the mid-week dinner attendance grew from 75 to more than 300 while she was the church’s food and hospitality director.
The company’s first major client was the former Bridal Gallery in Franklin, which introduced a new concept to the Middle Tennessee market. The custom-built, “one-stop-shop” offered everything a bridal couple needed, from a bridal shop and chapel to a full-service reception venue. Menu Maker was its exclusive caterer for five years.
From its 1992 start, Weary has managed Menu Maker’s business operations from a suite of second-floor offices in the secluded home she designed and built with husband John 25 years ago in north Williamson County’s Hidden Valley community.
And for years, most of the company’s cooking was done there as well.
“I started small, and then kept upgrading,” Weary said of the licensed-and-inspected home kitchen which grew to 1,000 square feet. In 2012, the Small Business Administration of Tennessee named Menu Maker Catering its Home-Based Business of the Year.
Several years ago, however, it became obvious the kitchen operation had “outgrown the neighborhood,” she said.
In 2013 Menu Maker became in-house caterer for The Woman’s Club of Nashville, headquartered in the historic J. B. Daniel House in Green Hills. The former home’s kitchen became the new command center for Menu Maker’s food staff.
While the club’s Hillsboro Road location offered easy access to service the entire Middle Tennessee area, the building’s age, storage capacity and equipment limitations became more and more apparent as Menu Maker’s client list and services grew.
By early last year, Weary knew It was time to do something new.
Months of renovations result in state-of-art operation
When Weary learned the Alpha Drive building was being sold, Weary jumped at the chance to finally own and design a space that meets the company’s present demands and allows for future growth. Being able to add the small retail operation came as a bonus.
While she has helped design several commercial kitchens for others, “I’ve never been able o design my own kitchen,” she said.
Chef Michael Holmes and sous chef Ben Parsons are thrilled with the new 20-foot cook line. An 8-by-14-square foot walk-in refrigerator more than doubles the refrigerated space they had previously.
Event planner Christa Harris has a dedicated space to meet with Menu Maker’s catering clients and work with them to turn dreams into realities.
Though not currently in use, Weary kept Nick’s drive-through window, anticipating expanded carryout and client pick-up services soon.
Moving forward while honoring the past
Weary has seen tremendous changes in her industry – and in clients’ expectations – over the past 25 years.
In addition to the ever-constant evolution of entertaining trends and cuisines, the number of individual special diets “has grown to a list a mile long,” Weary said. At one recent lunch, Menu Maker accommodated seven special diet requests.
When she started, almost every job came through personal relationships, referrals from satisfied clients and professional networking. Today an interactive website and an active social media presence is a must. Menu Maker has both. In 2016, Wedding Wire named Menu Maker a 2016 Couples Choice Awards winner.
Yet Weary and her staff continue to rely on the tried-and-true methods to grow the business. Weary is the consummate networker. She is an active member of the Tennessee Wedding & Events Specialists Association and Williamson Inc., the county’s chamber of commerce. Menu Maker frequently supports local community efforts by donating food and services.
As Nashville-area restaurants and event venues seemingly pop up overnight these days, strategic partnerships are vital to continued success. Menu Maker Catering enjoys ongoing relationships with Belle Meade Plantation, the Adventure Science Center, the Williamson County Bar Association, Nashville School of Law and the Nashville Kennel Club among others.
Menu Maker Catering is located at 102 Alpha Drive, Franklin, TN, 37064. Contact Menu Maker at 615-791-9779 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit menumakercatering.com.