By James Johnson
Dee Hodges, owner of Fayetteville catering business, By Special Request, doesn’t like to discuss age. People like to make assumptions about people of a certain age and after 28 years of defying expectations by maintaining a small business entirely by herself in an unpredictable economy, Hodges has found that it is better to show than tell. The “telling,” Hodges said, is typically handled by her clients.
“It’s grown almost entirely from word of mouth,” said Hodges, a native of Aurora, Illinois. “It is still word of mouth, even now. Sometimes I won’t hear from a customer for six or seven years and then out of nowhere, I get a call from them when they need something. People remember good service.”
Hodges’ catering business might not be what one imagines when picturing a caterer. Hodges cooks everything in her own home’s commercial kitchen and delivers pre-ordered box meals to her customers, already made and then leaves.
“I’ve found that people find it very awkward if someone is in the kitchen waiting for them to finish eating,” Hodges said. “No one likes that. If I have items I need to retrieve, I will simply come back later, or even the next day.”
Hodges box menus come in a wide variety and according to her, meet most dietary needs. Among the choices are boxes that come with sandwiches, almond and crumb-coated boneless chicken breast, a variety of salads, including oriental shrimp salad, sliced homemade meatloaf and even children’s boxes, with chicken nuggets, carrot sticks and dessert. On average a box will cost about $13 with a $15 fee for deliveries within Fayetteville.
Since 1987, Hodges has catered business meetings, large events, parties and even provided dinners for two and also for people going through chemotherapy, who may not have the strength to cook for themselves or feel well enough to leave their homes.
“I’m just sorry that so many people seem to be ill right now, but I try to be helpful,” Hodges said. “People like to have a home cooked meal.”
Hodges will regularly do lunches of up to 30 boxes, which seems like a nearly impossible feat when one considers that she cooks, prepares and delivers each meal entirely by herself.
“I have no living relatives and it is too expensive nowadays to hire help,” Hodges said. “But after more than 20 years, I should have learned a thing or two. I’m me and that’s it. I wear all of the hats. I shop for it, I unload it, I deliver it. I used to do even more than I do now, I think I have slacked a bit, but I still need to keep going.”
Hodges estimates that since starting her business, she has made about 53,000 deviled eggs.
“It adds up after 28 years,” Hodges said. “I enjoy it. I really do enjoy it. As long as I still enjoy eating deviled eggs, I think I’m okay.”
Before coming to North Carolina, where the cost of living is lower, Hodges had been living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with her late husband. Her husband owned a construction company and Hodges spent much of her time involving herself in nonprofit work, serving as president of the area symphony society and planning events, balls and galas for various charities. She said that her experience event planning, along with early cooking lessons from her mother, had helped prepare her for running her own catering business.
“I needed to come up with something and I figured that was what I knew how to do,” Hodges said. “While in Florida, there had been a successful catering business that did these boxes and I thought that could work really well here. I had friends who suggested folks to me and it just went from there.”
The business name and logo were created by a friend of hers who worked in the marketing business. Unlike most catering businesses, Hodges has chosen to avoid using social media or any websites to promote her business. She credits her dedication to friendly service for her business’ popularity.
“Once you’ve managed a ball or event at the race track for 400 or 500 people, you get to know a little bit about what people like and don’t like, as far as service,” Hodges said. “What goes over well and what doesn’t. Of course, in Fayetteville, it is very different than in Fort Lauderdale. There were a lot of tourists, but people stay here year-round. You just get to know the people and what they want and how different communities want different things.”
In recent years, Hodges has had to come up with more menu items to cater to a variety of dietary needs.
“People request gluten free and organic. A lot of people eat seafood, but then there are seafood allergies,” Hodges said. “It seems like people have more allergies these days than ever. People are being more mindful of what they eat. They want to eat healthy and most of what we offer is pretty low calorie. Right down to the low-fat mayonnaise. If someone has an allergy, they will tell you. I’ll call and ask and make special care to ask if they have any dietary restrictions.”
Outside of the boxes, Hodges said that she also offers full service meals, which she finds are very popular with single men, many of whom don’t know how to, or don’t want to, cook.
“We attract middle class, some low income too. I have customers, like, this mother and daughter, who every now and then, they want to have a special meal together, so they’ll spurge and order from me,” Hodges said. “Holidays used to be really good, though since the recession, or whatever you want to call it, a lot of businesses stopped doing holiday dinners for their employees. The end of the school year, a lot of parents will order boxes for teachers as a sign of gratitude.”
Another way economic changes have impacted her business is in the cost of products. According to Hodges, since starting her business in the late 1980s, she has seen just about everything go up in cost, from cantaloupes to paper boxes.
“Everything has gone up $5 or $6,” Hodges said. “You kind of have to pick and choose. Like any family, you have to keep up with what’s on special, if it is something you use. Nothing ever goes down. It always continues to go up.”
Despite the difficulties, Hodges can’t imagine anything else she’d rather be doing.
“I figure I got all my traveling out of my system before I was 30. I saw a lot of the world before meeting my husband,” Hodges said. “I think I enjoyed the planning of the trips more than anything else.”
To request Hodges services, contact 910.484.2591 as she is unique to other catering businesses: no social media.