BY ANDREA CASH
When Chef Beau Bennett of Beau Catering suddenly died of an intracranial brain hemorrhage on a Friday in October of last year, his staff had to simultaneously process their devastating loss and successfully pull off three large catering events that same weekend.
“The show must go on,” says Lauren Erickson Bennett, Beau’s wife. “There is still an event, and people are looking to you. … As the caterer, you’re the backbone of the event. … You have to keep it moving along.”
Lauren gives the team credit for wanting to do well for their colleagues, for the business’ reputation, and for their clients. The team had never executed an event without Beau at the helm. She also recognizes that, through their dedication and steadfastness, they exhibited “pure love for Beau.”
Most of the staff has come on board since the onset of Covid. Lauren says that’s even more of a testament to how much they care about their work – they were relatively new to their company environment but chose to stay as the business weathered the storm.
Since Beau died at the age of 45, the business – which was launched in 2009 and is based out of the Piedmont Food Processing Center in Hillsborough – has been busier than ever. “This was a hard spring because this is the first time since Covid that it was a regular, busy wedding season plus all the things we set up during Covid – the marketplace, the drop-off meals. … We actually have sort of tripled the business,” Lauren says.
Lauren co-owns and operates a financial planning and investment management firm – working with a lot of small business owners – but wanted to keep Beau Catering open because there are 20 to 30 people at any given time relying on it for all or part of their income. “I felt like we had to give it the best we could and not shut it down,” Lauren says.
It’s also “the one place I can say Beau’s name without feeling kind of awkward,” she says. They were together for 22 years and married for 10, having met as restaurant co-workers.
Sometimes, in a given day, the staff will hold three to five tastings for clients who are planning events, and they catered two to three events each week through the busy spring wedding season, which will happen again in the fall season.
It’s no secret that the food industry is challenging, and catering brings unique obstacles as the team must set up in unfamiliar spaces and for unfamiliar audiences – during high-pressure events that often represent some of the most important hours of a client’s life. The team can only function well if everyone shows mutual respect. “In general, it’s really important to keep positivity – but not in a cheesy way,” says Lauren. “And honesty. Honesty breeds positivity. You have to hear people when they have an issue or a complaint on how something could be done differently. You have to listen and respond.”
“Everybody is expected to do anything – and they do,” Lauren says of the Beau Catering team. “And that’s why the living wage is so important.”
Payroll has consistently been the catering business’ largest expense. Lauren says it was always Beau’s goal to pay people not just a living wage but a thriving wage. (The business became an Orange County Living Wage employer in March 2019.) Staffers start at $16 per hour – 15 cents more than Orange County Living Wage’s 2022 living wage – during a probationary period. Their hourly rate quickly increases if they do well. Most on the team make $18 to $25 per hour, plus tips.
“If someone is consistently worried about money and bills and paying for the kids or whatever the personal thing is, and then you add in that you are asking them to do really challenging work, you are not going to get substantial work out of them,” Lauren says. “And they aren’t going to be positive. The morale is really important.”
Feel the Love Friday – a social media initiative – came about within a month of Beau’s death because Beau passed away on a Friday and by that Saturday, there were rumors on the Internet saying that the business had closed. Their social media team came up with the idea to keep Beau’s presence front and center in an upbeat way. Every Friday brings a positive post: about staffers preparing meals to uplift a nonprofit, about a special memory of Beau, about a team member. “It’s a way to keep Beau as part of things without being too sappy and weird,” Lauren says.
Beau, a native of Washington, North Carolina, first worked in a restaurant in his hometown, but got his first kitchen job at Crook’s Corner after taking on odd jobs, including working in the construction industry. He was trained under renowned Crook’s Corner Chef Bill Smith.
Lauren says that Beau thrived in chaos and loved working with his hands. His cooking philosophy centered on using as few ingredients as possible – Beau believed that the best food was also the simplest.
Beau Catering launched in 2009. The Beau Show – where Beau would speak to event crowds and describe the food as it came out – was a signature of Beau’s business and an extension of his effervescent personality. But, Lauren says, “the Beau Show was a real show, all the time.”
“Beau was the kind of person you root for twice as hard because you know he is rooting so hard for everyone else,” Hillsborough Mayor Jenn Weaver wrote in The News of Orange following Beau’s death last year. “He was the kind of person who finds genuine happiness in other people experiencing their own successes and life milestones. … This one person touched so many people’s lives in a purely positive way.”
The chef was known for his larger-than-life presence and friendly nature. And that, in so many ways, is his real legacy.
“There’s no real reason to keep the business going if it’s not going to have the same emotions and feelings and fun that was there before,” Lauren says. “There’s no reason to do it if the team isn’t making money and enjoying themselves and feeling empowered.”