The first food that chef Debbie Lowery, chief executive of Running Wild Catering, ever made was chocolate chip cookies when she was a teenager. Today, her aunts like to tease her that — versus thoughtfully adding and blending one ingredient at a time — Lowery threw everything in a bowl and stirred.
“It still turned out OK,” Lowery, 58, said.
Lowery could say the same of the twists and turns her life and career have taken.
The following is an edited transcript of a recent conversation with The Oklahoman from her offices at 3830 N Maney.
Q: Tell us about your childhood.
A: The oldest of three, I have a younger sister and brother. Our father was a homebuilder and our mother helped run his business from an office in our home. My mom’s mom, “Mimi,” lived with us. She moved in, to help my mom, who’s an only child, take care of me — and stayed. We were lake people. Mimi had a place at Fort Cobb and my parents, at Eufaula.
So, I spent most of my weekends growing up at the lake, water skiing and learning how to cook. At age 14, I started helping out behind the counter at a diner on Fort Cobb. And when I was at my parents’ lake place, my aunts on my father’s side (He’s one of eight siblings) taught me how to cook country dishes in large quantities, so that everything was ready at the same time.
Q: So, did you set out to become a chef?
A: No. Growing up, my mom would let me help post and extend bills, and do other accounting chores, for my dad’s business.
So I thought I wanted to be an accountant, and pursued secretarial accounting at Southwestern. But after two years, I didn’t want to stay in school. I wanted to be a homebuilder. But because I was a girl, my father pushed me toward interior decorating, which I did for two years before working as a contract builder for five years. We were rocking along pretty good until the oil bust, when I started waiting tables, at a barbecue place and Eddy’s Steakhouse, just to survive.
Q: What led you into catering?
A: My sister, who’s an accountant, was working for a restaurateur who knew that Johnnie Haynes, of Johnnie’s Charcoal Broiler, wanted to start a catering company, and wondered if I’d be interested. I went to work for him in June 1997, apprenticed with the American Culinary Federation to earn my certification as a chef in 1998, and by 2003, was a partial owner in Johnnie’s Catering.
As cook, delivery driver, dishwasher and more, I helped take the company from virtually no sales to nearly $1 million in annual revenues, before I, my long-term friend and coworker Teresa Walters and a third partner, Tom Deutsch, bought them out in October 2010. Teresa is our head chef and Tom, our finance man, while I’m the director of the company. We have five other employees.
Q: How’d you come up with your name, Running Wild Catering?
A: We were considering Catering Concepts and some other names, before Teresa said, “Why not call us Running Wild, because that’s what we do?” The name just stuck.
Q: What’s the mainstay of your business?
A: Our ace-in-the-hole is a 14-year contract with an institution for which we make three meals a day, including pot roast, meatloaf and grilled chicken. We also average 50 to 60 weddings a year; probably 70 this year, and top the list for caterers for wedding chapels and event centers in the area. We don’t do cakes, but heavier foods.
Sliders are popular right now, along with meats, fruits and cheeses, and dips. For guest lists of 25 and under, we also do boxed lunches and deli trays. We can drop them off, or customers can pick them up.