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Johnsens celebrates 20 years

Date: 2/21/2011

Feb. 21, 2011

By Debbie Gardner

Assistant Managing Editor

WILBRAHAM — What started as a sideline at their center-of-town store has blossomed into a successful business for Betsy and Stuart Johnsen.

This year, Johnsens Catering celebrates 20 years of providing clients with exceptional cuisine — and complete event planning — for their corporate events, backyard barbecues, communion and graduation parties, weddings and holiday gatherings.

"We did our first party in 1991," said Betsy Johnsen, who, with her husband Stuart, began their local catering business shortly after the couple purchased The Village store in 1990.

Stuart is a classically trained chef with extensive experience both in European kitchens and American hotels. Betsy is a former baker and caterer with hotel management experience.

The couple, both originally from the Northeast, met while working for the Hyatt Regency hotel in Chicago. They and their two children moved to Wilbraham in 1987 when Stuart took a job with the Yankee Pedlar Inn in Holyoke.

"We found a gorgeous old antique house we fell in love with [in town] and it seemed like a good school district," Betsy said of their move to Wilbraham.

They also fell in love with the little store in the center of town and when it looked as though the owners were ready to sell, they made an offer.

"We always thought it would be fun to have a little village store," Betsy said. "We opened on May 9, 1990, our son's birthday."

Betsy described their version of the Village Store as "a kind of convenience store with a coffee bar and specialty groceries."

"It was really fun, the time that we were there," Betsy said. "I think we really got in tune with the people [in town] — you see everybody every day."

The couple also became well know for their catering expertise and by 2000, that aspect of the store's business began to take off. At that point, Betsy said she and Stuart realized they needed to decide in what direction they wanted to take their business.

"We realized we'd rather be [catering]," she said. The couple sold the Village Store and relocated Johnsens Catering to a combination storefront and kitchen at 2133 Boston Road.

"It was a scary move because we were moving away from the public eye, but it was the right move," Betsy said. "Back here [we're] not in front of the public eye all the time ... you're relying on word of mouth. But here we've increased our business and we've been doing a better job for our clients."

About three years ago the couple expanded their business again, purchasing a venue at 1432 Main St. in the Depot Village section of Palmer, which can accommodate functions for up to 75 people.

In addition to traditional catering services, Betsy said Johnsens also provides cakes made to order, pre-prepared frozen meals, store-made specialty candies and single entree items to supplement a client's party menu. About 25 percent of their business is walk-in, often to purchase some of the many pastries the shop produces or a regular basis.

"We make it a point that, when someone walks in, they get something to eat," Betsy said, referring to the shop's always-ready sample plates. "It's like being in mom's kitchen — you get to lick the bowl."

Though she credits Johnsens Catering's continued success in a down economy to both a "loyal customer base" and the couple's ongoing involvement with their community, Betsy also praised the dedication and hard work of pastry chef Vanessa LaCroix, kitchen assistant Craig Johnston and service staff Erika LaCroix and Edie Brodeur.

All have been with the business for five years.

"They all really care and you know how lucky you are to have that," Betsy said.

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