A Matter of Taste

Simply Yum!
by Annie Locke

Connie Randall looks back on her years of business with pride… and a satisfied stomach.

After 35 years in catering, Connie Randall has seen it all. As owner and operator of A Matter of Taste in Peoria Heights, she has been asked to cook moose, wear a Hawaiian costume and even prepare pheasant—heads still attached. These are all fond memories to Randall, who eagerly recounts her favorite stories of the business.

“The challenge of catering is not the creativity at all. I love that aspect of it,” she says. “I love sitting down with people, across the table from them, and creating exactly what they want.” Since its 1979 founding, this personal touch has carried A Matter of Taste through the decades, making it the region’s longest-running, female-owned catering company.

Starting from Scratch
Randall grew up cooking with her father, making soups and grilling steaks. Her culinary passions started young and only increased with time, as she worked as a waitress at the Country Club of Peoria and Stephanie’s, a now-defunct, high-end local restaurant, while attending Illinois Central College in the ‘70s.

After college, Randall was able to put to use the relationships she had built with the women at the country club. Asked to work various private events in their homes, her confidence as a cook grew, and she began to identify a potential market for a catering company.

At the age of 28, after a short-lived move to Florida with her then-husband, Randall returned to Peoria and again went to work as a waitress, a single mother struggling to support her son on her own. Amidst her financial challenges, she returned to her childhood passion in full force. “I thought to myself, ‘I deserve more and so does my son,” Randall explains, “so I am going to create this business to support us.” Eventually, her small catering business became A Matter of Taste, and she left waitressing to manage it full-time.

Today, she attributes much of her early success to the support of the women she met at the country club. “At that time I was so poor, I couldn’t even afford a phone. And these ladies… knew where I lived and would leave Post-it notes on my door saying, ‘Connie, I need help [catering] this certain day’… or ‘You are an asset to us,’” says Randall. “It was very touching. I don’t know if I would have had all the confidence I ended up having if it wasn’t for those women at the beginning who taught me so much.”

Custom Catering and Freshness
Ultimately, Randall’s three-and-a-half decades of success can be attributed to the exceptional quality of her cuisine—and her ability to transform culinary requests into savory dishes. Today, when asked to identify her cooking style, she simply replies: “Yum.”

On one occasion, a client asked her to cook moose, and she researched methods for treating the meat. She decided to slow-roast it with celery and onions like a turkey, and accompany it with a barbecue glaze containing just a hint of coffee flavor. The party’s hosts never told their guests they were eating moose, Randall laughs, recalling their raving over her dish, unaware of its contents.

Beyond her custom catering, Randall has built her business on a philosophy of freshness. She emphasizes food’s nutritional value and believes our diet affects our mood. Besides making all her food from scratch, she handpicks all of her ingredients and is a faithful customer of the farmers market at Metro Centre. “I have developed relationships with a couple of those growers for 20-plus years,” she explains. “I think it’s important to support those local farmers… They are as obsessed with growing as I am with cooking.”

While her cooking style is consistent with the recent movement toward organic and sustainable eating, she does not think of herself as “farm-to-table”—Randall simply cooks her food the way she knows how. “That’s just the way I’ve always done it,” she says modestly. Her way has garnered a loyal following, in addition to numerous honors and awards, including the People’s Choice Award for “overall flavor, freshness and good taste” at the Peoria Riverfront Museum’s Fore the Fun Of It! fundraising event in April.

In addition to Randall’s catering services, A Matter of Taste offers a weekly “soup subscription” during the winter months of January and February, featuring both a savory and a sweet soup ready for pick-up every Wednesday. Her best seller is a deconstructed chicken pot-pie, complete with chicken, vegetables, and bits of pie crust inside a creamy broth.

A Lasting Legacy
Over time, Randall has seen a world of change in her industry. She recalls the early days of business, when clients would regularly host formal parties in their homes, including afternoon tea and events featuring the accompaniment of classical musicians. Today, these types of formal occasions are far more rare, and her kitchen has evolved to fit today’s more casual style of entertaining.

Randall also identifies a rise in food allergies and intolerances as a major shift in the catering world. When she first started A Matter of Taste, allergies were occasional and limited; today, dietary restrictions, including gluten and peanut allergies, shape many of her menus. Randall believes the increase may be due to genetically modified foods and additives in processed foods—another reason she prioritizes the use of fresh, local products in her cooking.

With the help of her two devoted assistants, Barb Hobin and Phyllis Sauder, Randall has cooked for three generations of Peoria families. Some of her current clients are the children and grandchildren of previous ones, and she’s even catered for some of their children’s parties. On A Matter of Taste’s 35th anniversary, Randall wrote to Hobin: “Behind a little bungalow’s closed door, this business has chronicled three generations of families in Peoria. The journey is complex and full… We’ve made the gathering around many tables meaningful. Hearing laughter and conversation, seeing tears, all seasoned with the taste of our healthy food.”

Looking upon the business she has built with pride, Randall thanks her loyal clients, her dedicated team and the Peoria community. “Catering has been the ultimate way to raise my child, support myself and be independent,” she says. “The loyalty Peoria has given me, and I to them, is so important to me.” For this entrepreneur, it’s always been—and continues to be—about that personal touch. iBi

For more information, visit amatteroftastecatering.com.

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