On a Wednesday afternoon, folks driving through Jericho on Route 15 may notice an easel standing by the side of the road that reads something like: Chicken pot pie, spinach lasagna, beef stew, macaroni and cheese. Above it hangs a more permanent sign: "Welcome Kitchen Catering. Homemade meals to go Wednesday."
The "restaurant" is the restored farmhouse in which Becki Willis-Eaton makes a weekly, church-supper-style appearance. Sporting kitchen clogs and an apron, the 50-year-old with wavy, reddish-brown hair cooks up comfort food to go — including either chicken 'n' biscuits or chicken pot pie. She also offers salad with homemade dressing and gooey chocolate chip cookies. The bill usually comes to between $8 and $14 per person.
Willis-Eaton chats up her clients as she wraps their dinners. She does that roughly 40 times between 12:30 and 6:30 p.m. Then she washes the dishes, packs up her stuff, and heads home to West Bolton, where she runs another, more typical catering business out of her real home. Did we mention the Jericho place belongs to her former in-laws? It's a testament to Willis-Eaton that she's on good terms with her ex-husband's parents. Her customers are loyal, too — enough to keep Willis-Eaton coming back every seven days.
Take young parents Hugh and Shana Griffith of Jericho. Says Hugh, "We are a family with young kids, and we have a slew of animals and house chores that need to be taken care of, so it's absolute insanity. I enjoy cooking, but when you get to forgo the actual making of dinner mid-week, it's like the sun peeking through the clouds." The Griffiths are big fans of Willis-Eaton's crab cakes, ribs and guacamole. Of the guac, Hugh remarks, "It's really good. I have a sneaking suspicion she puts cream cheese in it, but I'm not sure."
Lisa Souza, 39, of Jericho, recalls that Willis-Eaton "put out a sign almost two years ago, and I think I was one of the first customers who came knocking on the door." She and her husband have two pre-school-aged children, full-time jobs and not much time to cook in their gourmet kitchen. After looking into other options, such as The Busy Chef in Essex, Souza discovered Welcome Kitchen, where the pick-ups work within her time frame and the prices fit her budget.
But the taste of the food really has her sold. "I absolutely love her chicken and biscuits, and she does really good fish, too," Souza raves. "It's a great service; I sort of plan my week around it."
Once upon a time, Willis-Eaton might have fondly imagined somebody else cooking up meals so she didn't have to. She didn't attend culinary school, and although she made three squares for her family, she wasn't a particularly enthusiastic home cook: "I was so-so about it," she recalls. She worked in the recreation field, teaching swimming. But when she decided to change jobs, she ended up behind the stove. "One day I decided to walk into Betsy's in the Champlain Mill and asked if they needed a manager. I got the job and started to learn gourmet cooking," she explains. Eventually she realized that she was ready to "offer my own foods and do my own thing . . . I'm pretty bold like that," she says.
But the way Willis-Eaton opted to run her biz was unusual. "I decided that, since I had a small child at home, I would do home-cooked meals to go," she recalls. In 2000 she began a meal-delivery service called The Welcome Kitchen. Customers would order a day or two in advance, and Willis-Eaton prepared and delivered the food from her base in West Bolton. She was on call every day of the week, driving as far away as Huntington, Burlington or Waterbury — she often spent two hours just dropping off a few plates. The business grew rapidly, based largely on word of mouth. "I never marketed," Willis-Eaton says. "I distributed menus everywhere, and I put some things in a couple of local markets. One summer I did a couple of farmers' markets for name recognition."
Though customers sometimes wanted her to cater their events, Willis-Eaton was too busy with her regular work: "I didn't have much exposure to catering, and I didn't really have a clue how it worked," she says. That changed when a couple she knew from a farmers' market asked her to cater their civil-union celebration. "I really wanted to support this woman and her partner," she recalls. "They would consistently give me work; they'd pass my name on." When that ceremony went well, Willis-Eaton found the confidence to begin catering more regularly, and business got better and better. "It was like a God thing. I wasn't manipulating anything, I just allowed whatever happened to happen, and it just kept growing," she marvels.
As her clientele grew, Willis-Eaton realized something had to give. "Gas got really expensive, and I was starting to do a lot of catering," she says. "I couldn't deliver anymore; it was not a productive use of my time." But, with a core group of 150 customers who had supported her for years, Willis-Eaton was loath to drop the meals portion of her business. So she asked her in-laws, Suzanne and David Eaton, if she could set up a pick-up point at their home once a week. They agreed. Says Suzanne: "My husband had been a State Farm agent, so we were used to having people come in and out. We have the space, and rather than not use it, I love to invite people to come in."
In 2006, Willis-Eaton mailed an announcement to her customers, asking them to make the transition to once-a-week service with her. They did. With a steady and enthusiastic client base for both her catering and her hot meals, Willis-Eaton seemed to have it made. She had long since upgraded from her daughter's rusty "beater car," which she'd driven on endless deliveries, to a van stenciled with the company logo.
But that growing success made her realize other aspects of her life needed to change. "I knew my marriage needed to be over, and I knew I needed to stop drinking," Willis-Eaton says candidly. "I felt out of touch with who I really was."
As she worked on her personal life, Willis-Eaton drew moral support from her work. "My business was something I clung to, because not only was it supporting me, it wasn't something I worried over and fretted and micromanaged," she says. "I allowed myself to be guided by my intuition, and that helped me have the courage to have that same attitude in the other aspects of my life."
In 2007, Willis-Eaton quit drinking and filed for divorce from her husband. That move could have spelled the end of Wednesday-night dinners at her in-laws' home, but the Eatons didn't see it that way. "I knew Becki before she married our son, and there wasn't any reason for us to change our relationship because they were no longer going to be married," Suzanne Eaton explains.
For her part, Willis-Eaton says, "Their commitment to doing the right thing and being supportive of me remained. It was very awkward, but we worked through it. They've always been warm and compassionate . . . A lot of healing has taken place."
Now, with her divorce finalized and a year of sobriety under her belt, Willis-Eaton says, "I have made quantum leaps in getting back to being true to myself." The business is going well, too, she attests: "I'm not making a ton of money, but I'm supporting my son and myself, and making a profit. I'm kind of shocked when I realize it's happening."
Willis-Eaton's newfound confidence comes through when she talks to her customers. "There's more going on there than an exchange of food," she suggests. "They feel that, and I feel that. It's just one outlet for me to do what I'm supposed to do in life: really care about them for those five or 10 minutes. There's good stuff coming out of that kitchen, and it's not just the food."
Sometimes, though, Willis-Eaton has to put herself first: " A couple of weeks ago I'd promised strawberry muffins," she recalls, "and it came down to making the muffins or going to [an Alcoholics Anonymous] meeting. So I went to the meeting."
When folks asked after the muffins, she told them the truth: "I'm really open about my alcoholism, and I'm very open about my spirituality," she explains. "You face your fears, face who you are, and you deal with life. When you're open to the flow and are in tune with that, it's almost a spiritual thing. If you face it and walk through it, there's so much on the other side."