You might say Mary Crafts’ legacy in the catering industry was pre-destined.
“I had a dream one night of how to be a caterer,” Crafts told Catersource. “In that dream I saw all these catering vans lined up and how beautiful they looked with our logo. I woke up the next morning and I knew just what to do, and I proceeded to do it and stuck to it.”
Mary Crafts, founder of Culinary Crafts, is this year’s recipient of the Michael Roman Lifetime Achievement Award. Here she participates in one of Culinary Crafts’ Chef Dinners, which allows chefs to put their talent and training on display in front of guests. Photo courtesy Culinary Crafts
Now, 40 years later Culinary Crafts has grown to become one of Utah’s most awarded luxury caterers, and Crafts is the recipient of Catersource’s 2024 Michael Roman Lifetime Achievement Award—all thanks to a dream.
“If you don’t dream it,” says Crafts, “you can’t create it.”
The Culinary Crafts team frequently comes together for family and friend dinners in order to try out new ideas. Shown is the first dinner following Mary Crafts’ retirement. Photo courtesy Culinary Crafts
Crafts will be recognized on February 15th in Austin, TX during Catersource + The Special Event.
“After retiring, there’s a constant fear that people don’t want to talk to you or that you’re no longer relevant,” she says, “but this honor really said to me that it’s a legacy I’ve created.”
We already know that Crafts’ path to the catering industry stemmed from a simple dream, but the journey was anything but simple.
“I had $150 to my name,” says Crafts. “Our car had been repossessed. We were losing our condo because of a non-payment of the mortgage. I didn’t really even know where our next meal was coming from. We were on welfare.”
Smoked salmon duxelle with preserved lemon on chilled watermelon radish. Photo courtesy Culinary Crafts
Crafts had a degree in social work, but she was looking for something where she could spend time with her children (Ryan, Kaleb, and Meagan).
“I think I was dragged kicking and screaming down the road of entrepreneurship. It wasn’t what I ever thought I would do. Even though my dad was an entrepreneur and had several businesses, I was really set on having the best stay-at-home mom life,” she says.
Eventually, Crafts started selling Avon door-to-door (with her children in tow), which led to selling breads and cookies, which eventually led to birthday parties.
“I would organize the party, play all the games, send the invitations out,” she says. “I even dressed up like a clown, and I did all of that for $50.
“All of the moms just sat on the sidelines and watched me, and I think they thought I was probably quite silly in that costume, but the kids loved me. When it’s your company, you’re willing to do whatever it takes to make it a success.”
Crafts continued to grow her client base and expand beyond children’s birthday parties thanks to what she dubbed “catering Tupperware parties” where she would host events at clients’ houses and showcase what catering truly could be.
A roaring ‘20s themed corporate party. Photo courtesy Culinary Crafts
“I would bring all the food and I would talk to them about what catering was because in our town in Utah, many people didn’t even know what a caterer was and what they could do for them,” says Crafts. “At that time, catering was a little six-inch plate that you would pick up off a table; there would be a little butter mint, a nut cup, and a little chicken salad sandwich, and I just knew there had to be something else, there had to be a better way. I was able to offer them something more than the crazy little six-inch plate of nothing.”
Being a trendsetter
In the early days, Culinary Crafts was considered a major trendsetter in the area because she was doing things that nobody had ever seen before: chocolate fountains, elaborate dessert displays, elevated buffets, gourmet cupcakes, and even French macarons. These ideas may not seem that innovative now, but this was back in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Culinary Crafts became so well known that they were even hired to cater the Sports Illustrated party as part of the 2002 Olympic Games.
“I wanted to be as innovative and creative as I possibly could,” Crafts says, “and that’s what really kind of put us on the map. We were discovering all sorts of different things: unique serving pieces, different ways to do stations, ways to not have chafing dishes all lined up on the buffet.
What Mary Crafts describes as “stuffed mushrooms reimagined” or “next generation mushrooms.” Photo courtesy Culinary Crafts
“It was a different adventure all the time, but my chefs, they had a love-hate relationship with me; they loved me because I was so creative and I was so fun, but they hated the fact that I was so creative, and every day brought new menus and recipes and they’d have to start all over again perfecting things.”
While magazines definitely offered some inspiration, the showcased ideas were already trendy by the time she read them, so Crafts relied on traveling the world and her own background to help Culinary Crafts innovate.
Culinary Crafts is known for hosting events in unique locations, such as this lavendar field. Photo courtesy Kristina Curtis Photography
“You can take any recipe and recreate it differently simply by the presentation,” she says. “It could be the same food, but it’s presented very differently with perhaps a different flavor or a different taste in it.”
Before cake pops were trending, Culinary Crafts was serving chocolate-dipped homemade marshmallows. Photo courtesy Pepper Nix Photography
Crafts eventually took her culinary prowess to the masses through her PBS cooking shows.
“I was Utah’s Martha Stewart,” she jokes.
Crafting a meaningful life
In reflecting back on her career, Crafts attributes a lot of her success to fear. Fear of failing. Fear of not delivering for her clients. Fear of being forgotten.
Culinary Crafts is always on the hunt for unique vessels. Here a salad comprised of housemade orange rolls on a bed of Asian salad is served in a disposable orb. Photo courtesy Pepper Nix Photography
“I felt like I lived my entire life in fear, and I was always afraid that I wasn’t enough, which to be honest, is what made me such a great caterer,” she says. “I was always there. I would never let anyone down. Whatever the client needed, I was there or made sure someone else was. I was approaching everything from this fear-based lifestyle. It wasn’t until I was 50, and we’re talking now 20 years of living and catering from that lifestyle, that I really became aware that catering gave me the opportunity for so much more. I was able to step out of living a fear-based life and instead I was able to learn how to serve myself and others from love; and when it became no longer out of fear, but when it became out of love, my clients felt the difference, and so did our crew.”
Culinary Crafts essentially put the Utah catering scene on the map. Here Mary Crafts poses with Visit Salt Lake City. Photo courtesy Culinary Crafts
It’s Time to Celebrate
Join us in celebrating this year’s Leadership Award recipients at our annual Awards Ceremony on Thursday, February 15th at 5:30 p.m. on the Keynote Stage.
Considered by many to be the Oscars night of the events and catering industry, during the Awards Ceremony the ACE, Gala, and CATIE awards are bestowed upon the best of the best in our industry. Cheer on the nominees and applaud award recipients as they take the stage to accept our industry’s highest honors! With the inclusion of lifetime achievement and volunteerism awards, this will be an unforgettable evening.
Congratulations to this year’s winners and we look forward to celebrating with everyone this February!
For Crafts, she attributes a lot of her success to her strong sense of integrity.
“I knew that the strongest tool I had in my toolbelt was my integrity,” she says. “People want to do business with people they trust.”
Mini tacos (pulled pork and mango salsa) served in lime boats accompanied by margaritas served in miniature tequila bottles. Photo courtesy Pepper Nix Photography
The caveat for getting into catering may have been to spend more time with her children, but Crafts admits that it isn’t the journey she ultimately ended up taking.
“When you start into this, you think you’re going to be your own boss and that you can call your own hours,” she says, “and it’s the one thing that I caution anyone about; if that’s why you’re going into this, run as fast as you can because it doesn’t take long for it to take over your life and it truly is where the buck stops. If you’re going to make a success of it, the bottom line does start with you and stop with you, and I lived my life that way.”
A salad comprised of fried lotus leaves, edible flowers, and duck breast. Photo courtesy Culinary Crafts
Crafts retired from Culinary Crafts just over five years ago, but she has since embarked on several new adventures: she wrote a book, she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, she started a podcast, and she started a new consulting business.
“I feel like I loved every single day of my career, but it was time to turn the page,” she says. “I knew I had retired from Culinary Crafts, but I certainly didn’t want to retire from life. The thing I learned about climbing the summit is that it’s never just one. There’s always another one out in front of me.”
Beef carpaccio with leek tapenade served canape style atop bamboo plates. Photo courtesy Jessie Alexis Photography
Culinary Crafts now rests in the very capable hands of Crafts’ three children, who are more than up to the task of continuing her legacy.
Culinary Crafts were awarded five CATIE awards in 2019. Here Mary Crafts poses with her sons Ryan (right) and Caleb (left). Photo courtesy Culinary Crafts
“They were a natural place for me to look, to pass on this legacy to,” she says. “They are heads and shoulders above where I was at their age, and probably heads and shoulders above where I ever was in business, and I love that.”
A caramelized vanilla cake (stacked naked style) topped with honeycomb served as centerpieces during an event. Photo courtesy Heather Nan Photography
So, what’s next for Crafts? For starters, she’ll be traveling to Ireland this spring to marry her longtime partner, John; and then, who knows?
“My biggest piece of advice to those who are building their company or to those who have built one is to never forget that our relationships are the only thing we end up with, so we should do our very best to keep them first place in our life.”
Celebrate with Mary Crafts and this year’s Leadership Award recipients on February 15th, 2024 during the annual Awards Ceremony. Photo courtesy Austen Diamond