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Mary Crafts-Homer’s Surprisingly Wonderful Journey

Always be a person of integrity. Integrity will bring you more power than you can possibly imagine.

Spend some time with Mary Crafts-Homer and you’ll quickly understand how a girl from the small town of Rowley, Iowa, became the founder and CEO of Culinary Crafts — the largest catering company in the state of Utah.

“I didn’t realize this growing up, but my dad was an entrepreneur,” said Mary, sitting in her office at Culinary Crafts’ bustling headquarters in Orem, Utah. “We lived in a little town of 250 people. When my dad came home from World War II, he bought the local gas station.”

Soon after purchasing the business, Mary’s father believed his small gas station could become a central place for farmers who lived in the region to pick up supplies. He initially tested this belief by sectioning off the back portion of his store to sell appliances. Once the station’s appliance sales started to gain traction, he decided the town needed a grocery store. So, he sectioned off another area of the station and started selling groceries. As his grocery and appliance business began to grow, he noticed another problem he could help solve. His customers needed a place to butcher their meat. So, he sectioned off yet another part of the station and opened a meat locker.

Eventually, as time passed and his customer base grew, Mary’s father erected a bigger building. He brought in an even larger selection of appliances, and even began to sell plumbing and hardware out of the new store. Before long, this enterprising man in the small, 250-person town of Rowley, Iowa, was the largest Maytag washer and dryer distributor in the state.

Mary learned a lot about business from her father, but he didn’t just instill in her a sense of initiative and entrepreneurship. He also taught her the importance of service.

“People wanted to do business with my father because they trusted him,” she said.

To illustrate her point, she recalled, “The only way people could get gas back then was in tanks. So, part of my father’s business was dedicated to delivering gas to farmers in the rural areas. Most of the time he had a crew that did that, but occasionally he would get a call in the middle of the night with someone on the other line saying, ‘We’re out of gas.’ He knew that if he didn’t go those people wouldn’t have heat. It was not about the $5 he was going to get for that tank of gas. It was about those people and keeping them warm.”

Watching her father and the compassion he displayed for the plight of others had a profound impact on a young Mary. Now that she’s a successful entrepreneur herself, she spends a significant amount of time and money working with a variety of different charities. Whether she’s helping to build schools for disadvantaged children in Africa, working with the United Way of Utah County, or contributing to and helping to build The Museum of Natural Curiosity (opening in 2014 at Thanksgiving Point), Mary is continually striving to follow her father’s example of service.

According to Albert Einstein, there are two ways to live your life: one as though nothing is a miracle, the other as though everything is a miracle. Those who know Mary well will tell you she lives as though every moment in her life is a miracle. Once you learn how she made it to the top of the catering world, it’ll be easy to understand why.

After graduating with a degree in Social Work from BYU, Mary was able to secure a job with the state of Utah. She worked as a social worker for five years. Once her eldest son Ryan was born, she couldn’t bring herself to place him in daycare while she was at work all day.

“I wanted to find something that I could do and still have my children with me,” she explained. “It didn’t take me very long after I was married to realize that I was going to have to be the breadwinner in our family. So, I thought, ‘What is it I like to do, that I could do from home?’”

After quitting her safe government job in order to be present for her newborn son, Mary started doing all sorts of different jobs in order to make ends meet.

“I taught piano and voice lessons for a while. I even sold Avon door-to-door, pushing Ryan in a stroller,” she said.

After some time passed, Mary began to wonder if she could make a living doing what she loved most: cooking.

“I’ve always loved to cook,” she said. “And not only do I love to cook, but I love to entertain.”

Though she had attained an appreciation for service and entrepreneurialism from her father, it was Mary’s mother who bestowed upon her a love for cooking.

“I learned from the knees of my mom how to cook great seasonal food,” said Mary.

Her mother can’t take all of the credit, however. The late Chef Julia Child deserves some recognition, as well.

“I always wanted to be Julia. I read her French cooking book from cover to cover and made every single recipe,” said Mary. “I watched her cooking show every Saturday morning and said to myself, ‘Someday I’m going to have a cooking show. I want to do that.’”

Of course, Mary hosted her own cooking show for 13 years, and she’s currently in talks with TLC and HGTV about possibly returning to television in some form, but it would have been impossible to imagine any of that happening in the early years of Culinary Crafts. As is the case for most startups, success didn’t happen overnight.

“I just started by making people’s dinner rolls, cookies, and birthday cakes,” recalled Mary. “Even dressing up as a clown and doing children’s birthday parties. Whatever I could do to make a dime.”

It’s incredible to think this remarkable woman — who has catered for the President of the United States, Oprah, Princess Anne, the Mayor of Beijing, Mitt Romney, and nearly every celebrity who’s ever attended the Sundance Film Festival — started her career by cooking dinner rolls and cookies out of her small condo in Orem, Utah. But indeed, those were the exact circumstances that led to the founding of Culinary Crafts.

“After running the business out of our condo for a year, we were able to move into a house that had three kitchens and nine colors of shag carpet. I was sure it was a polygamist home,” said Mary.

In its second year of business, Culinary Crafts managed to land a contract to cater the making of the temple film for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City.

“It was a big contract, but they didn’t know we were just brand new and tiny,” said Mary. “I always say, in the first 15 years of my company, we held true to the motto: fake it ‘till you make it.”

Nearly every entrepreneur who’s ever started their own business knows exactly what Mary’s talking about in terms of faking it. For example, new business owners are never just a block away from a client’s office conducting “other business.” There’s rarely “other business” to conduct. Yet it’s not uncommon for budding entrepreneurs to fake a reason for being in a client’s neck of the woods; even though it’s usually clear to all parties involved they’re only in the neighborhood because they need to pick up a check in order to make payroll by the end of the week.

“In those early years, people would call and ask things like, ‘Do you know how to cook poached salmon?’ And I’d say, ‘Oh, absolutely,’” said Mary. “Then I’d hang up the phone and say, ‘We’ve got to get to the library. We have to learn how to cook poached salmon!’ We didn’t have recipes on the Internet back then. We literally had to go buy a cookbook, or go to the library.”

The LDS temple film contract brought in enough money to allow Culinary Crafts to lease an actual kitchen. They rented out a small portion of a building in Orem, Utah. The contract even gave them enough money to purchase a used Suburban to make food deliveries. Prior to the Suburban, they were making deliveries in an old, black Cutlass, and having to make several trips to bring all of the food to each of the events they would cater.

Even after the temple contract, though, money was tight. They couldn’t afford to lease both a space for the business and a home. By this time, Mary’s second son Kaleb had arrived.

“My two boys would roll out their mattresses in the reception area every night and we would sleep here at the office. This business has been in their blood from the very beginning,” said Mary.

Most successful entrepreneurs experience a turning point. A moment when their vision for the future becomes clear. Mary’s story is no different.

“When I first started out, I didn’t have that vision. I knew how to be an entrepreneur because of my dad, but I didn’t have a vision for how to create a successful company. I really just wanted to work for someone else, get a paycheck, get my insurance taken care of, work 8–5, have my weekends off, and I’d be good to go,” said Mary.

In her book My Life In France, Julia Child writes, “nothing is too much trouble if it turns out the way it should.” In the early years of Culinary Crafts, Mary sure went through a lot of trouble, often times for very little reward. She was getting by on hustle and sheer willpower, but she was constantly worried about the future of her company. Then one night, a month after her 30th birthday, everything changed.

This is a part of Mary’s story she never shares publicly. Out of respect for her willingness to pass on such a personal story to our readers, here it is in her own words:

As I looked at what was before me, I really knew that I could receive an answer as to what to do. I made it a real source of prayer. I had a dream one night. And in the dream, I saw the entire thing. I saw all of those white vans lined-up outside. I saw this big company. And I saw how to do it. I saw how to start without money. I was taught all night.

The next morning, I got out of bed in a daze. I came downstairs, and I just kind of stood in my living room thinking, “What was that?” So, right there, I knelt down again and said, “If this really was a vision of what I’m supposed to do, could you show it to me just one more time?” And I literally remembered every piece of the dream.

I knew how to get started. I knew how to do it. I called 10 of my friends and asked them if they would host a tupperware party, but instead of tupperware I would be selling catering. I told them I needed them to invite a dozen of their friends, and I’d come and bring treats and food, and talk to them about what I could do for each one of them to make their lives easier. I would go into their houses with a lot of great goodies to eat, along with some fabulous Sunday dinner, and then ask each of the guests to host a party of their own.

Within a month or two, I had friends who were throwing parties up on the East Bench in Provo and on Osmond Lane. It started to spread quickly, but I usually only had enough money to do one more party. Eventually, though, I had enough money to do a bunch of parties. Then I had enough money to stop doing parties, and to actually start catering. The first five years were rough. The first 14 years were rough. There were times when I used to be in this office and I would kneel by the phone, and just ask for it to ring. “I need a client, please. I’m not asking for you to take something away from someone else, but if there’s someone that I can serve, please let them see my little ad in the yellow pages, or let a former client say, ‘Hey, you should call Mary Crafts.’”

But I never lost faith in it. I knew my business was going to be big because I’d seen it. What I didn’t know was what was going to happen to me, personally. I knew the company was going to be successful, and that we were going to be able to provide for our family. I didn’t know I was going to have a TV show. I didn’t know I was going to receive all of the awards I’ve received. I didn’t know that people were eventually going to look to me as being an entrepreneur. My only focus was to provide for my family.

Mary has been fortunate enough to be able to do much more than just provide for her family. When the 2002 Winter Olympic Games came to Salt Lake City, Culinary Crafts landed the contract to cater the International Olympic Committee. That deal led to the company getting the contracts to cater for Sports Illustrated, NBC, and the Governor’s Hopitality Suite. More than any other singular event, it was the 2002 Winter Olympic Games that helped Culinary Crafts become the prosperous company it is today.

“I finally realized, ‘You know, I really know what I’m doing. I’m an expert at this. And people pay me to be an expert. I don’t have to fake it anymore.’ That, for me, was a real wake-up call,” recalled Mary.

A year and a half ago, Mary purchased a building in Downtown Salt Lake, which she named The Tasting Room. It’s home to Culinary Crafts’ Salt Lake City offices, and they also lease it out as a venue.

In the early years, Culinary Crafts could only afford to lease a third of a building in Orem. They now own the entire space. In fact, the building has become too small, which is why they’re currently building a 19,000-square-foot commissary in Pleasant Grove.

“It’s a huge step for us,” said Mary. “I wanted this building we’re moving into to see the next generation through their time here. I believe we’re building a 30-year building; just like the building we’re in now has lasted 30 years.”

The new building will have a small café, a classroom to help educate the public on how to make great food, and enough space to expand the production of Culinary Crafts’ delicious gelato, which they plan to wholesale to retail outlets.

It seems almost preposterous to look back now on how the largest catering company in Utah got its start — with Mary cooking dinner rolls and birthday cakes out of her small condo in Orem.

“I don’t have a degree in business. I don’t have a chef’s certificate. I don’t have a degree in hospitality. I just like good food,” said Mary.

As she prepares to hand the company over to her more than capable children, Mary is beginning to think about her legacy. She plans to write a cookbook. As with most things Mary, it won’t just be an ordinary cookbook. It will be a book about how you start with $150 in the bank and become the largest caterer in the state of Utah. The book will also be about her transformation as a person.

Ten years ago, at age 50, Mary was struggling with her weight, and her personal life was in shambles. Now she’s 60, but doesn’t look a day older than 30. She’s been through a trying divorce, and has since been happily remarried. She’s lost 100 pounds, and has more energy than most 20-something entrepreneurs just starting out. Most importantly, she’s happy.

“I work every day to be my healthiest and the most fit person I can be,” said Mary. “I’m learning to not only follow my dreams in my professional life, but also in my personal life. I think the book is a piece of myself I’d like to leave behind.”

But she hasn’t finished writing her story yet.

“I still love to come to work just as much today as I did on day one. I love it still. I love every bit of it. I love meeting people. I love the creative part. I love to think about the marketing. I love designing the set. I love cooking the food,” she said.

That’s the advice she has for up-and-coming entrepreneurs: Do what you love. Mary believes if a person is living their passion, the money will follow. “If you’re the best at what you do, people will follow you,” she said. “I’m not perfect. Perfection will kill you; but excellence inspires.”

In the end, Mary’s philosophy on business and life hasn’t strayed much from that of her father’s.

“Always be a person of integrity. Integrity will bring you more power than you can possibly imagine. It will bring you more money. People want to do business with someone they can trust,” said Mary. “My vendors want to do business with me. They’ll give me better rates because they know I’m going to pay them. They know I’d sell my car and my house rather than not pay them. Through the recession, there wasn’t one employee I asked to wait on a paycheck, not one vendor that I told I needed another 30 days. I’m always going to pay them first. That level of integrity buys you power and buys you money. People don’t know that. They think they can’t afford to make a mistake the right way. The truth is you can’t afford not to make it right.”

In the same way every person who’s ever had the privledge of knowing Mary is proud to have had the honor, Mary’s father must be proud of what his daughter has accomplished.

She lives as though every moment in her life is a miracle.

Published 12/23/2013