When it comes to catering, Judy Keys gets the job done.
“One job was with a bride; they had a beautiful tent, but they had no backup plan for rain,” she says. It didn’t just rain that day — it poured. Despite the inclement weather, a collapsing tent and water up to her ankles, Keys organized and ushered the bridal party and guests along so the party became a success.
“You just have to rise to the occasion and make the event as perfect as it can possibly be, even with some curveballs thrown in,” she says.
In the 24 years she has owned Pink Peppercorn Catering in Elyria, Keys has had many home runs, in spite of the occasional curveball. Her loyal clients, whom she acquired by word of mouth, have hired her to serve a variety of creative dishes for graduations, corporate events, large weddings of 1,200 guests to small continental breakfasts for four. She has become so well known that she has catered for three Ohio governors.
Keys, 52, grew up in Oberlin, and she spent most of her time cooking in her kitchen. After graduating from Notre Dame College of Ohio, she taught nutrition at a hospital and food preparation at a skills center for developmentally disabled adults. In 1986, she left to start Pink Peppercorn, which she now runs with the help of her daughter-in-law, Erin.
In the years since, Keys has expanded her business to offer more than just catering. She cooks in people’s home kitchens, plans and executes food-and-wine pairings for local vineyards, including Vermilion Valley Vineyeards, and teaches cooking lessons. But more than anything, she says the best part about her job is the strong relationships she has forged with clients.
“We have a lot of customers that are weekly or bi-weekly customers … they don’t even tell me what to make … they know that they’re going to get a good homemade meal at a reasonable price.”
It’s not just Keys’ commitment to clients that has made her business a household name, it’s the effort she exudes, whether she’s making time-honored recipes from scratch or researching new ones. She has made jerk chicken and plaintains, a recipe she learned in the Caribbean, and Irish shepherd’s pie. She takes on new challenges, such as New Orleans favorite stuffed turducken — a partially boned turkey stuffed with a boned duck, which is stuffed with a small, boned hen.
“I consider myself very blessed to not only have found something I feel very passionate about, but that it’s been able to provide me with a fairly decent living. … A lot of our customers have become our friends.”