Kathleen O'Neill and Mary Rembelski started the Canapé Cart catering company in the early 1980s. Some 20 years later, they are still rolling along, catering all kinds of events, large and small, private and corporate, and having a lot of fun doing it.
Metro Times: Which came first, the food business or the party business?
Kathleen O'Neill: I was a teacher. I didn't know the difference between a clove of garlic and a bulb of garlic. We just took out some cooking magazines and dove in headfirst. We were probably too inexpensive, because the same people gave us another job soon after the first. It was a hobby at first, but then I was laid off from teaching and the phone was ringing for catering, so we went into it full time. We got a kitchen we needed a licensed kitchen in order to do corporate parties and got serious about full-time catering.
MT: What do you mean you got a kitchen?
O'Neill: We sent letters to several churches and synagogues whose kitchens were used only occasionally. We ended up at a church in Ferndale. The kitchen is large enough to have served us well for all these years.
MT: You must have some interesting stories.
O'Neill: Our forte has been our ability to deal with a crisis. For example, when the lights went out the big blackout we had planned a huge wedding in Detroit and the bride insisted that we proceed even without electricity. It became a candlelight wedding.
We borrowed grills from neighbors. We set up torches. Someone from Ann Arbor who had power brought us down food which was properly refrigerated. It was great. There was a sense of community. The theme was a 1920s nightclub. At the last minute, the power was restored and the three bands were able to play. We all had fun.
Another time, on a hot summer day, I took what was supposed to be a lime mousse out of the refrigerator and it was soup. There was no way to serve it. In the midst of my panic, I noticed some beautiful old vintage champagne glasses. Eureka. We filled the glasses with the "mousse," garnished it with fresh berries and called it summer dessert fruit soup.
MT: How do you pull it off and keep things running smoothly?
O'Neill: I think of it as a stage production. The guests are the audience. We never want them to feel the pressure that we are under or that things aren't going as smoothly as they should. The people that are working the front of the house must be professional; know how to handle the customer, be really good listeners and find out what they want, make them feel comfortable. Behind the scenes, the big thing for us is to be totally organized, to anticipate any kind of problem ahead of time: the entrances and exits, the equipment, the foods, the presentation everything.
MT: What size parties do you like to do?
O'Neill: We are pretty flexible. We've gotten into wine tastings where we pair foods and wines. Another thing we like is putting on hands-on cooking classes at our kitchen. It's fun for everyone. We are also about to start doing some beginning cooking classes. Check our Web site, canapecart.com.
MT: Are you and Mary both chefs? Do you have staff that does the cooking?
O'Neill: We both cook with our staff. That's the fun of this business. We go to cooking classes whenever we can and we try to meet other chefs and cook with them and exchange recipes and ideas. Brian Polcyn from Five Lakes Grill in Milford and Rick Halberg from Emily's and Tutto Benne have been generous in sharing ideas and resources, even extra labor.
MT: Have you ever thought about opening a restaurant?
O'Neill: Sure. I've told somebody that if I ever decide to open a restaurant, they should shoot me. The idea of owning a restaurant is romantic. It is a ton of work. It is not about preparing your favorite dishes and going into the dining room to have a glass of wine with your friends.
MT: There seems to be a lot of competition in your business, but you don't seem to advertise much.
O'Neill: There is a lot of competition. I think that there is room for everybody. And you are right we don't advertise much. We are on the preferred vendor list at some venues that use us repeatedly. It's one of the rewards for doing a good job for 20 years.
MT: Do you like what you do?
O'Neill: Mary and I love what we do. We love owning our business. We love the creativity and food and cooking and we love people.
Canapé Cart is located at 2441 Pinecrest Dr., Ferndale; 248-548-8880.Jeff Broder does this regular food interview for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]