Mike and Deb Althen figured one benefit of running a catering enterprise, rather than a restaurant, would be that they’d only have to be at work when there was work to be done. They didn’t count on being so popular that they’d still be busy all the time.
Now 20 years old, Elite Catering handles 650 gigs a year. Weddings, service club luncheons, community fundraisers and corporate events keep the Althens and their staff cooking most days of the year.
“I tell her we should double our prices and work half as much,” Mike said with a smile.
He’s the chef: She’s the business manager. The West Baraboo-based catering business began as a spinoff 20 years ago last month. The Althens were running a Merrimac restaurant when a customer asked to hire them for a catering gig. They agreed, a move that led to a monthly engagement. “That started it off,” Mike said.
They left the restaurant in 1998 and briefly ran the catering business from their home kitchen. When the Althens spotted a sign at the former VFW club on West Mulberry Street the next year, they moved the business there.
Over the years the family business has expanded and contracted. The Althens bought and sold downtown Baraboo’s bakery, and ran the sleepwear store Moonlight Specialties out of the West Mulberry Street building for several years. Today they only offer catering. An operation that once employed 45 people now has four part-time employees and a dozen on-call helpers.
“We got smart and downsized,” Deb said. “It has more flexibility than you have with a restaurant.”
“You have independence: You only work when you have work,” Mike agreed.
And there’s plenty of work. He fries doughnuts each autumn for Ski-Hi Fruit Farm. He serves fish frys at Devil’s Lake. Elite is the official caterer for the University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County, the Baraboo Rotary Club, Mid-Continent Railway Museum, Dells Boat Company and Crystal Grand Music Theatre. Throw in weekend weddings, church events and corporate retreats, and the Althens tend to have several pots on the stove.
“We cater to pretty much anybody and everybody,” Mike said. “We custom-build most every menu.”
Elite has served groups as small as 20, and gatherings numbering in the thousands. It has handled traditional Wisconsin fish frys, Ho-Chunk Nation powwows and a Wiccan wedding. “We just roll with it,” Deb said. “It keeps it interesting.”
The Althens said quality food and reliable service are what keep them busy; busier than they imagined they’d be 20 years ago. “We’re very attentive to detail,” Mike said. “We don’t show up 20 minutes late.”