Operating a successful catering business is no easy task. You not only have to love to cook and entertain, but you have to learn the ins and outs of the food industry (unless you’re already familiar with the restaurant business), and rely heavily upon word of mouth.
It’s not for everyone. But for those who love food, love people and thrive in a fast-paced environment, it can be a rewarding career, indeed.
The sudden death of her first husband was the catalyst that sent Lori Cook down a path she had never envisioned for herself. With a 1-year-old daughter at the time, she was forced to rethink how to provide for her family.
“I tried returning to my job – moving bank execs to different parts of the country – but, apparently, Main Street, Ohio, is very far from Main Street, Iowa. I was let go. The company was sympathetic but, clearly, I wasn’t ready to return to a corporate job.”
Cook considered herself very lucky to find a job with The Olde Hitching Post Restaurant, in Hanson. She had no waitressing experience and no idea how hard a job it would be. Training was extensive and orders were taken by memory with no cheat sheets. Sauce on the side, temps, side dishes – all taken by memory.
“I learned a lot about customer service, long hours and myself,” she said, of her experience. “I was able to talk the owners, Arthur and Joan Leanos, to let me try and build a catering business (not an easy sell) and, after landing a few big clients and with their guidance, we were on our way to building a steady business. I loved the whole experience, from inception to execution. Taking our show on the road and having happy clients at the end of a job meant the world to me. I was learning a lot.”
When the Olde Hitching Post was eventually sold, Cook took a 9 to 5 inside-sales job that allowed her to spend more time at home with her daughter. It also gave her time to start experimenting in her own kitchen with menus that she’d been toying with.
“My coworkers enjoyed my dishes far better than my boss liked my sales numbers,” she said.
In 2005, the owners of their favorite lunch spot were looking to sell and the timing seemed right for Cook to make the leap into being a business owner and fulfill her dream of building a full-time catering company. After learning the ins and outs of how to run the sandwich shop, she set her sights on building that catering company – A Fork in the Road Catering.
“We currently have two locations,” said Cook. “Our busy Pembroke shop (located at 6 Union St.) is the hub for production to support both locations and our catering business. Our second location is in Norwell (376 Washington St.), established in 2017, and it houses a gift shop and is full of fun home décor, kitchen accessories and hostess gifts.”
Cook added that she is currently in the process of buying a restaurant in Pembroke. This will allow her team to expand their menus and showcase what they offer from their catering division.
“We plan to call it ‘Somewhere Else Tavern’ and will have ‘Traveling Tuesday’ menus that will let us provide menu options from different regions in the world. We are hoping to open early summer 2020,” she said.
Cook said her team has always been small, but mighty. “I have a solid crew of people who have been with me from the beginning and love this business as if it were their own, like I do. Our employees are a driving force for both shops. Their dedication is what sets us apart. We are a family.”
A Fork in the Road offers a huge selection of gourmet sandwiches, sides, soups and meals that are made from scratch. Its catering menu items and sandwiches have been featured in several local and regional magazines. Cook and her crew have been awarded the local Reader’s Choice Award for the #1 Deli for eight years in a row.
“Most of our sandwiches are named from street names in Pembroke, but a few are named for favorite customers like Inkie and Jan, best friends who, at 98, visit our shop every day. Our ‘Jinkie’ – a tuna melt – is named after them. You can order it ‘kinky’ by adding crushed red hot peppers, and they always giggle when you order a ‘Kinky Jinkie’.”
Cook said she and her team make sure their customer service is top-notch. “We treat our customers like family and I truly believe that they feel the same way. We build relationships, whether it’s a simple order of a full-service wedding with china and flatware. We guide our clients through the process to make the best menu choices, with budgets in mind, to execute the best events that are memorable as well as affordable.
“We are known for our BBQ packages in the summer months and my husband, Jason, owns A Bee Tent Rental, so we offer a lot of one-stop shopping packages. Teaming up with Jason and his team broadened our ability to offer soup-to-nuts packages with his wedding and graduation tent packages.”
Her team, she added, feel the best rewards are in knowing that their clients continue to look to them for all celebrations – baptisms, communions, weddings and funerals. The relationships they’ve built are the foundation of the business’ success and they respect that tremendously. This also allows Cook to look toward the future with optimism.
“In 10 years, I hope to have built a business that will continue to employ great people and will sustain my daughter and her family, as it did for me. I would love to have three more sandwich shops on the South Shore. I plan to seek new locations in the next two years.”
A Fork in the Road actively gives back to support the community that has supported it.
“We live where we work. We are neighbors. We are friends. We give a lot.” Cook said. “One of my favorite events we do is the Fish Fry, in Pembroke. It is the largest fundraiser for the Pembroke Historical Society and the funds are used to maintain our historical buildings. It’s a great day for families to come out and have a fun day and support our history. We supply staff, equipment and man hours at no cost. We are people supporting people and we are so very grateful to those who support us.”
When not in her kitchen, whipping up new creations to test out on friends and family, Cook and her husband spend their quiet moments on their boat – their “home away from home.” She’s also building a garden and loves to spend time digging in the dirt.
“I have been catering for 25 years,” she said. “I love it and it shows.”
Visit A Fork in the Road Catering online at fitrcatering.com