By Audra Distifeno for TCAJOB
From “last dinners” to Rotary and Kiwanis meeting lunches, company picnics and wedding rehearsal dinners, brothers Dean and Dale Shepard made thousands of meals from scratch over the past 29 years, to the day. Dale Shepard’s wife, Linda Shepard, served those meals while managing the dining room and staff.
“The two things I hang my hat on are that we never ran out of food at a function and we were never late,” said Dean Shepard.
When the siblings bought Leo’s Catering on Oct. 1, 1983, their sole mission was to provide consistently good, homemade food and excellent service to patrons. They closed the doors on Oct. 1 after making the “tough decision” – one they put off twice — to retire.
“We still have our good health,” said Dale Shepard. “Some people wait too long to retire and then don’t have their health, so they don’t get to have any fun. Someone once told me that retiring is like having kids — if you wait until you can afford it, it’ll never happen!”
The 64-year-old chef has worked in the restaurant industry since he was 17, and Dean Shepard worked in hotel industry restaurant from a young age.
The two decided it was “time to look for something new” and ultimately purchased the catering business from Leo Boyce, who had opened it two years prior.
On their first day, Dale and Dean Shepard cooked up and served dinner to 250 people. Boyce Shepard helped them out, and it ended up being a learning experience.
The two observed efficient practices, as well as some they didn’t want to repeat. From this, they shaped their business with a very simple focus.
“A restaurant needs three things: it needs to be clean, have good service and good food,” said Dale. “With those three things, it’ll work.”
And to keep up with those three goals required persistence.
“Many small businesses fail because some people just aren’t persistent enough. They want dividends on day one,” said Dale Shepard. “Dean and I worked for two years and never took a day off when we started. There were days we looked at each other and said, ‘Will we be here next month?’”
Despite the economy softening at times, like during Hanford layoffs in the 1980s, the Blue Moon and Leo’s Catering came out unscathed.
During the challenging times, Dale Shepard said, “We’d swing a new angle. That’s what would save us.”
The duo cooked every single meal that was catered from their kitchen for the past three decades. And quality has always been the focus.
“Anybody can be cheapest. The key is to serve quality food and be paid fairly for it,” said Dale Shepard.
Another essential of their success was simply being there. At least one, but usually two, of the siblings have been present at every function they have ever catered.
“It’s just best if the boss is there to make that hard decision. Then you don’t have to put that burden on your staff. Whatever decision that’s made is your own to live with,” said Dale Shepard.
His advice to other restaurateurs is simple: “Don’t ask people if they want more water or bread or coffee; give it to them!”
And consistency, consistency, consistency is key.
“We developed a recipe for every single thing we served here. Twenty years ago, an item would taste the same as it does now,” said Dale Shepard. “People appreciate it when they can count on a favorite meal tasting the same each and every time.”
He recalls that for several years, Doc Hastings or an aid called before he’d be in the area to make sure chicken fried steak would be ready for him.
“I always wanted to serve the best that I’m capable of cooking every day. In 30 years, I never served leftovers. I won’t eat leftovers, except maybe spaghetti. I always cooked fresh to order,” Dale Shepard said.
Dean and Dale found it a challenge, not a burden, to cut their own meat and make sauce from scratch. And the 300-plus recipes they developed show their dedication.
For about 25 years, Dale, Linda and Dean served dinner by reservation at The Blue Moon every Friday and Saturday evening. The menu changed weekly at first, but they changed the format to monthly at one point. An appetizer, soup, salad, sorbet, and dessert, along with a choice from four entrees – beef, poultry, seafood or pork – were served. They stopped the Friday-Saturday about four years ago in order to accommodate larger events on the weekends.
Their three largest venues were serving beverages and finger foods to a crowd of 10,000 at a Hanford employee meeting; regularly catering Boise Cascade’s Annual Picnic (3,500-5,000 people); and the Hanford 50th Reunion Dinner for about 2,500 people.
Dean laughed at the memories of trucking food between the business and the fairgrounds because there wasn’t an oven on-site to bake chicken for the multitudes.
The brothers are satisfied with their major decisions while running a business together. One perk is financial freedom and not starting retirement with the stress of worrying and wondering how they’ll make ends meet.
“We never borrowed a dime. We self-financed the business and paid for every item as we went along,” said Dale Shepard. “We have piles of equipment because for us, it was just better to own than to rent.”
The ever-changing party sizes – from 10 to 5,000 people – required the business owners to stay on their toes and to be prepared for just about anything.
In 2010, Leo’s Catering received the City of Kennewick’s “Downtown Revitalization Award” for their efforts in remodeling and renovating the building inside and out.
Dale, Dean and Linda Shepard didn’t slow down when the weeks drew closer to retirement. Instead, they served about 1,400 meals for one event the week prior to leaving and on their last day, catered a wedding with 65 guests.
“The hardest part of retiring was telling the Rotarians and Kiwanis,” said Dale Shepard. “I saw these guys every week for years, more than most people see their best friends or families. We always joke that I’ve attended more meetings than any of the members. I will miss them.”
Another difficulty was leaving the loyal employees.
“We’ve had 15 part-time employees. Many have worked for us for more than 20 years,” said Dale Shepard. “We could call them and say, ‘We have something going; do you want to work?”
None of the trio would change anything significant about their business, though Dean Shepard said if he could, he’d reduce the average number of hours worked.
“I won’t miss looking at my watch,” laughed Dean Shepard. “Between the loyal clients and loyal employees, it couldn’t have been a better run.”
Dean Shepard appreciated the change of location offered through the catering business and seeing the insides of beautiful homes and buildings, a perk not offered in most jobs.
“One of the most satisfying things was requests for last dinners (for people with terminal illnesses). It was tough, but I liked that people called us to do it,” said Dean Shepard.
Dean Shepard looks forward to spending more time with his grandson in San Diego, traveling the Northwest a bit, and of course, “tinkering” on myriad projects – woodworking, welding, machining, cars — with his brother.
“We’re gear-heads at heart. We work with our hands and like motorized things,” laughed Dale Shepard. He and Linda love the RV life and plan to leave for a month or so, riding quads on the Oregon Coast’s sand dunes, immediately after retiring.
“It’s really bittersweet,” said Linda Shepard. “I won’t miss the work but I’ll really miss the people.”
“The biggest compliment we ever received from a patron was, ‘It’s kind of like we came to your home for dinner,’” said Dale Shepard. “That’s what we strived for.”
Persons interested in the building or a possible business venture may contact Dean Shepard at 947-4305 or Dale Shepard at 947-4071. The brothers are happy to accommodate walk-throughs of the 7,000-sq.-ft. building at 20 N. Auburn, Kennewick.