This article appears in the Fall 2018 issue of Silicon Slopes Magazine.
Mary Crafts is a badass woman with a purpose.
She started Culinary Crafts in 1984 with no money to her name, seeking to provide food and shelter for two small children. She retires on August 28 as the founder and CEO of Utah’s most successful catering business, one that has served clients ranging from Robert Redford to Oprah Winfrey, Diane Keaton to George Bush. Her career has encompassed everything: hardship, belief, blessing, service. She has never forgotten her past, nor shirked the principles and people who helped her rise.
“When I was first married, I turned completely inward,” said Mary. “My husband was bi-polar, had a rage disorder, and I was a battered woman. I kept thinking, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ At that point, I decided I was going to pull myself up, start this company, and keep my children with me. They were just two tiny babies, one was six months and the other wasn’t quite two years. I thought, ‘I’m going to do this.’”
35 years ago, Mary began making dinner rolls, cookies, birthday cakes, even dressing up as a clown: “Whatever I could do to make a dime.” It was nearly 20 years before Culinary Crafts gained notoriety — boosted by a catering contract with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) at the 2002 Winter Games — and grew into a company with 60 full-time employees, 200 part-time, and corporate offices stationed in Pleasant Grove. The early days were much different.
“I started because I had to put food on my kids’ table and I had to provide for them,” said Mary. “No one was going to do that for me. I was on welfare at the time. And I thought, ‘I’m not living my life like this.’”
Mary has always been passionate about food and Culinary Crafts was an outlet for this passion. When she founded the company, her goal was simple: care for two small children. That first December, Christmas was approaching and Mary had no money.
“What happened that Christmas changed my life forever,” said Mary. “We didn’t have the money for a Christmas tree, we didn’t have the money for presents. My two-year-old was just starting to learn about Christmas and there wasn’t any of that joy in our home. Christmas Eve, there’s a knock at the door, I open it, and there’s a big basket of wrapped presents. I was so excited. There were toys for my baby, toys for my little boy, and I was overjoyed. The next moment, there was another knock at the door, I open it, and there’s a Christmas tree and a basket of groceries. I was so grateful. I went to the basement and brought out my Christmas ornaments on Christmas Eve. Just before we went to bed, another knock at the door. I went and there was an envelope, it had $1500 in it. 35 years ago, for a person with no money, can you possibly imagine what $1500 meant? We were losing our condo we were living in, it was being foreclosed — now I had enough money to rent a place. I remember sitting on my couch and just crying, promising the Lord that because I had been taken care of, because someone had served me, I would never forget it. From this point, the outlook in my heart wasn’t going to be turned in, it was going to be turned out. It takes that kind of a turn in life to realize you’ve been clutching everything as close as you can, so afraid of losing anything, because there was so little to lose….The person clutching everything to their chest cannot possibly receive all the universe has to give. That’s how I’ve lived my life from that point.”
At the core of Culinary Crafts success is one simple word: belief.
“People often ask me, ‘Mary, when you were cooking out of your condo and all you had to your name was $150, did you ever envision you would get to this point as the largest caterer in the state?’” said Mary. “And my answer is always yes. I always envisioned this and I think that’s true of any entrepreneur. You have to envision it in order to make it happen.”
The 2002 Winter Games was an enormous moment for Mary and Culinary Crafts, with the IOC contract opening doors with Sports Illustrated, NBC, and the Governor’s Hospitality Suite.
“That gave us a lot of national and international presence — we learned to cater on a whole different level than what was okay here in Utah,” said Mary.
Two years later, Culinary Crafts would get its first venue contract in Salt Lake City and Mary recalls the magnitude of that moment.
“Oh my gosh, I’m finally accepted in Salt Lake as a legitimate caterer and not just somebody from Utah County,” said Mary.
Nowadays, it seems hard to remember there was a time Culinary Crafts was anything but Utah’s largest caterer. They cater a variety of corporate outings, weddings, and social events, working at over 100 venues to make it happen. They own buildings in Pleasant Grove, downtown SLC, and are finalizing the details on a new space in Park City. Mary has hosted her own TV show, currently hosts her own podcast, and is referred to as Utah’s Martha Stewart.
“I have a lot of different passions — food being one, service being one,” said Mary. “I’m very fortunate that I get to serve people every single day.”
At a private gathering in the Utah mountains, Mary Crafts and her team would cater for the sitting President of the United States, George Bush. She remembers a helicopter landing, black Escalades pulling in, and security vetting of every member of her staff. In a career filled with incredible moments, this day would stand out among the best.
“I was inside the kitchen and realized on the other side of that swinging kitchen door sat the President of the United States of America,” said Mary “What are the odds that a little farm girl from Iowa was ever going to be in this position? Every time the door would swing open, I would see him. Whether or not you like the president, there is something about the office of the president that causes a moment of awe.”
She remembers a post-meal engagement with the president, where he expressed appreciation for the meal. She remembers a warm conversation with Laura Bush, who thanked and hugged her before leaving. But even moments like these cause Mary to reflect on where she came from and the blessings she discovered along the way.
“Those kind of opportunities I’ve had are fun and have blessed my life, but not anymore than when I was first working in SLC and we had all our leftover food in a van wondering what to do with it,” said Mary. “We’d pull up at Pioneer Park, open the van doors, and have the homeless come eat. We could see in their eyes the gratitude and appreciation, and that we were not offended or repulsed by them. The look in their eyes was as priceless to me as meeting the president.”
Inspired by her life’s experiences, Mary Crafts has always found a way to give back. She has worked closely with United Way, helping to raise $350,000 for early childhood education and disadvantaged mothers as the President of Women In Philanthropy. She has donated money to a variety of charitable organizations across the globe, working in places like Africa, Mexico, and the Caribbean. She has donated time to those in need, mentoring business students at UVU and volunteering for the Welcome Baby Program. At the heart of all these actions is Mary’s belief in a principle that’s described in a variety of ways: the law of abundance, the golden rule, karma, what goes around comes around. She’s sat on both sides of that fence. She’ll never forget being a penniless young mother blessed by the charity of others, and that’s why she’s become a successful business owner determined to play it forward.
“One of my favorite projects was Habitat For Humanity,” said Mary. “I was approached to help create a home built by 100% women for a single woman. They asked for 1,000 women to give $1,000 and put in the labor to build the house. What an honor that was. Everyday we were building, that woman came and worked right alongside us. I didn’t know how to swing a hammer but I was hanging all sorts of things, using a saw, and we really built that house. It was amazing. I took 10 of the women from Culinary Crafts and we worked, and worked, and worked. And one day when the woman was there, I asked her to tell me where her bedroom would be. And she said, ‘Right here.’ I gathered my women at that wall, put our hands on it, and I said, ‘We’re going to leave our energy here for you. When you’re in this house, your struggle is not over. There will be days when you won’t know how to put one foot in front of the other. I want you to come to this wall and feel our energy, let it strengthen you, because that’s what we have left here for you today.’ Those kinds of experiences, money can’t buy them. Even though we were the ones that built the house, I was the one who was richly blessed that day. My whole team was on cloud nine for having been there.”
On August 28, Mary Crafts is retiring from Culinary Crafts. She’s excited about her next phase, which she describes as a tremendous opportunity to be of service. She’s been working with the One Ummah Foundation in Bangladesh and plans on going there to help with the needs of 800,000 refugees. More of her time and resources will continue to be dedicated to charity work, shaped by a career that has touched on nearly everything: hardship, belief, blessing, service.
“I’ve decided my new tagline: a badass woman with a purpose,” said Mary. “The badass part is because I had to be strong. I hate it when people call me powerful, I reject that. But I had to be strong and I am strong. If I hadn’t been through the hell I’ve lived through, I would not be the woman I am today. I had to learn grit. That’s the badass part of me: I can get anything done. But I do things with a purpose. And I always want my purpose to be that when people were in my presence, there was no question that they were loved.”