KOLA — About 20 years ago, Joyce Pickering baked and hand-decorated cakes for a little extra income.
Working from the family’s tiny kitchen in the Kola community of Covington County, Pickering whipped up special occasion cakes mostly for beauty shop clients and country neighbors.
Around the same time, her husband, Dan Pickering, switched from farming to selling bait-and-tackle, and soon his customers were placing orders, too. Because her casseroles were the first ones dished up at church potluck dinners, requests for meals began rolling in.
“It got to the point where I had to choose because we couldn’t do everything,” said Joyce Pickering, owner of Joyce’s Catering. “I had a beauty shop in town that I later operated from home. Hair and food don’t really mix, so the days I was in the beauty shop, I wouldn’t do any baking. I chose catering because it had more profit and growth potential and I knew I could get other people to help me. Dan would help me cook, but he wouldn’t shampoo.”
Pickering’s business quickly outgrew her tiny kitchen, so she transformed the family garage into a commercial kitchen, buying a second-hand Viking range and other items made in Mississippi.
“The hardest part in the beginning was finding enough good part-time help for catering jobs,” Pickering said.
With orders rolling in, Dan quit the bait-and-tackle route to help his wife full time.
“When we first started working together, all he did was pass through the kitchen,” said Joyce Pickering. “He started out as my helper, but now we’ve done a complete turnaround. I’m his helper now.”
The Pickerings’ daughter, Phyllis Knight, joined the family business and quickly found her niche in hand-decorating sugar cookies, which have been sold at Foodworks in Jackson and Joe Muggs in Hattiesburg.
Customers in Jackson routinely order 20 dozen or more at a time for special occasions.
Another daughter, Joy Pickering, recently moved from Knoxville to assist in the family business. Before he moved to Hattiesburg, their son, Ronnie Pickering, ran errands and did odd jobs to help out.
“When we started out, we made a lot of trips to Sam’s and Wal-Mart,” Joyce Pickering said. “We now get some supplies from Quality Foods and Crumbley Paper Co., but we still make a lot of trips to Sam’s and Wal-Mart.”
Two years ago, the Pickerings opened The Meadows, an 8,300-square-foot facility located next door to their home with a 40-by-60-foot meeting room to comfortably seat 175 people. Special events, such as wedding receptions and anniversary parties have accommodated 250 people, with the overflow crowd spilling into a large covered patio.
“Deciding to build The Meadows and take on that debt was a difficult decision,” she said. “We were concerned about the location. Our address is Seminary and we have a Collins telephone, but we’re located in the Kola community. As remote as this sounds, though, we’re located only a mile and a half from Highway 49 at the south exit of Collins, so we thought it would work.”
The rustic building made of cypress and located in a shaded, park-like setting is booked year-round for family and class reunions, baby and bridal showers, weddings, anniversaries and other special occasions.
The Meadows rents for a flat fee of $200 for reunions. For other events, the rental rate includes a meal priced at $11 to $20 per person. The rental fee also includes decorating and clean up.
“As it turns out, there are a lot of people that don’t want to get their home all cleaned up and ready for things like that and it just works out great,” she said.
The Pickerings’ first big test came less than three months after they opened The Meadows when on Jan. 1, 2000, they catered a wedding reception for Freddie McNair, the brother of Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair, and his bride.
“That was the day everything was supposed to fall apart,” she said. “I asked Freddie, ‘You’re planning a wedding reception on that day? What if we don’t have any electricity?’ He said we’d have it by candlelight. I said, ‘What if we have cold food?’ and he said that’s OK, too. But nothing really happened, as we all know. And it was a lovely reception.”
Business organizations, such as the Covington County Chamber of Commerce, find The Meadows an ideal respite from the norm.
“They’ve done an excellent job of providing a place for large groups to meet,” said Ray Strebeck, former part-time director of the Covington County Economic Development Authority.
“I’ve been to several events at The Meadows. For instance, I’m a member of the Rotary Club and we go there for our annual banquet. I’ve been to a couple of chamber events there, too. They always do it up in style. The facility and its ambience, located sorta back in the woods, gives you a restful, peaceful atmosphere to conduct any kind of business and feel comfortable while you’re doing it. It’s an outstanding facility,” he said.
The Pickerings cater approximately 150 events onsite and about 100 events off site every year, including Wednesday night dinners at Collins Baptist Church.
At their onsite bakery, they whip up more than 200 wedding and groom’s cakes annually. Pies, cakes and hand-decorated cookies are made to order. Only casseroles are made ahead and kept in the freezer.
“People bring us their dishes to put food in, so their guests will think they cooked it,” she said, with a laugh. “That’s no joke. We have quite a bit of that.
“They don’t have time to cook, so we do it for them. I have one lady in particular who orders $200 or $300 worth of stuff and she brings me a carload of dishes to put it in. She’s a very good customer.”
Unlike most businesses, Joyce’s Catering doesn’t have store hours. But regular customers know when and where to find the Pickerings.
“Whenever we have orders, we’re there six days a week,” she said. “If we have off time, it’s usually on Monday. I try to limit what we do on Sundays, because I prefer to have it where we can attend church and Sunday school. We have a lot of family reunions on Saturday and Sunday and we always have one person there for their convenience to heat things and provide whatever they might need.”
As the need arises, Pickering expands The Meadows’ offerings.
“A friend that helps us part-time told me people are always telling him, ‘Oh, I forgot to bring my camera,’ and that I need to fix a place to sell disposable cameras and other items people forget. So I’m in the process of having shelves made to put in a particular spot,” Joyce Pickering said.
Pickering recently ordered T-shirts for employees to wear on catering jobs and to sell to the public. Other than running a regular weekly ad in the county newspaper, The News Commercial, and distributing brochures with price lists, Pickering relies on word-of-mouth advertising for all other marketing.
“We have regular customers from as far away as Laurel, Hattiesburg, Sumrall and Jackson,” she said. “We figure if we can deliver what the customers want and exceed their expectations, they’ll come back. Fortunately, they have.”
In the meantime, the Pickerings are teaching a new generation about catering.
“Phyllis’ two kids, Ashley and Justin, are 10 and 12, and they take turns helping us with events,” she said. “Ronnie’s daughter, Danielle, is only five and she already wants to help. We think it’s important to let them be a part of it.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com or (601) 853-3967.