Hernando County caterers — including one veteran and several newcomers — are entering their busiest time of year, the holidays.
In December, "we usually get about three times the volume of an average month," said John Mason, who founded John Mason's Catering in Brooksville 22 years ago.
The field is more crowded in recent years, with three catering firms joining the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce in recent months, said executive director Pat Crowley. Some of them have switched to catering because they see it as a less-risky alternative to owning a restaurant, which has a high failure rate.
Each of the businesses is carving its own niche.
John Sellers, owner of Chef Images, previously came to other people's homes and used their cooking equipment. But within the last year, he said, he bought and outfitted a "catering trailer" — not a food truck, he said — where he prepares specialties that include rib-eye steaks, blackened grouper, mussels over pasta and baby back ribs.
The new equipment has meant a big increase in orders compared with previous holiday seasons.
"The fact that I can cook the food at the venue where you are, that's what the people are really digging," he said.
Once strictly a pie-baking specialist, Nita Melaugh — co-owner of Betty Marie's Meals and More — has branched out, catering full meals out of Mason's Brooksville facilities to time-pressed families and filling dining requests for groups up to 200.
Culinary school graduates Ashley and Joshua Owens, owners of Passionate Chefs in Brooksville, call their catering "full service and personal." They work in a family's home kitchen to prepare an intimate dinner for two, or arrive on the scene of an event to serve an array of custom-ordered appetizers or a buffet meal featuring entrees of chicken, pork, beef or lamb.
Sellers regularly parks his trailer at Hernando Beach Marina, on Shoal Line Boulevard, where he serves customers from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays.
"Everything is customized to what you want," says Sellers, who has worked as a professional cook for 25 years.
While full dinners are Sellers' signature offering, he also serves conch fritters, hearty sandwiches, chicken tenders and meatball hoagies.
"I'm doing it for a decent price so you come back, and it doesn't break your wallet," Sellers said, whose dinners start at $8.
Sellers previously ran the cafe at the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa before deciding to become his own boss.
Burton Melaugh gave up restaurant ownership in Tallahassee and Dade City due to the long hours and the restriction of the same menu day after day. He joined his wife, Nita, in launching their catering business, which is named after the couple's mothers, whose recipes are their mainstay.
The couple caters everything from meals for busy families who need a break to large wedding receptions. Earlier this year, they put together a breakfast for 200, ordered by a business in Pasco County, on only 18 hours' notice.
"I've never cracked so many eggs in my life," Nita Melaugh said.
Ashley and Joshua Owens cook in either their own kitchen or in customers'. The couple will take over a customer's kitchen to prepare an appetizer medley, a meal for two, or a home-sized gathering.
Joshua, currently a chef at Southern Hills Plantation Club, Brooksville, previously cooked at the famous Bern's Steak House in Tampa. Ashley, a part-time chef at Glen Lakes Country Club, Weeki Wachee, earlier worked at Sideburn's in Tampa.
"We are passionate about food," Ashley Owens said.
They focus on "quality fresh ingredients for a healthy lifestyle," Ashley said. "One thing we're big about, playing around and coming up with our own recipes."
Mason said he has offered the "the same menu for 22 years, and it works."
His favorite dinner: creamy baked chicken breast paired with an oven roasted red potato and a signature broccoli and cheese casserole with almonds.
"So tasty," Mason says of the chicken.
Mason will grill rib-eye steaks for 200, do hot dogs and hamburgers for a cookout and recently catered a cupcake reception for a woman's 100th birthday party.
"No matter how simple or how complicated, we can handle most any event," Mason says.
Beth Gray can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.