BOND HILL – Convinced they had home-run tasting food, Jesse and Gardenia Roper came out of retirement to launch their own catering business.
The couple started Roper’s Catering in February 2009 along California Avenue in Bond Hill.
After making sweet potato and chess pies and other Southern-style food from home for friends and family for years, Jesse says his wife urged him to go into business.
“She thought my food was good enough to market it,” Jesse, 78, says.
Both had been retired for 15 years before becoming entrepreneurs. Jesse had worked for 40 years at what is now Siemens manufacturing in Norwood. Gardenia retired from Procter Gamble after 33 years.
The Ropers met at Aldi while Jesse was buying milk and butter to make pies to sell for Thanksgiving dinners seven years ago, leading to marriage in 2007.
“We’re so humbled that we were able to start a business in hard times, and now we’re rapidly expanding,” says Gardenia, 65.
The couple’s menu is scoring big for the Ropers.
Roper’s Catering reached an agreement last month with Jungle Jim’s International Market in Fairfield to provide the store with 9-inch sweet potato and chess pies. In less than a week, Gardenia says her business sold more than 120 pies at Jungle Jim’s.
“The agreement is a big deal because we can now sell our pies to a larger market beyond (Cincinnati) city limits,” Gardenia says.
The business also began selling pies to Remke bigg’s in October 2009 after Jesse’s sweet potato pie won third place for best dessert out of 35 entries at the bigg’s annual soul food bake-off that year. Roper’s Catering now sells its pies to Remke bigg’s in Pleasant Ridge and Hyde Park.
The couple pooled their retirement savings to buy their 1,500-square-foot building and equipment for their business. Gardenia handles the operational functions while Jesse does the cooking.
He has been baking pies, bread and other items since he was 17 growing up near Birmingham, Ala. He went to cook school while serving in the Air Force.
The couple initially operated the business as a restaurant, but closed it to focus on the growing pie and catering business.
The Ropers say 60 percent of their revenue now comes from selling pies to businesses and individuals. The most popular items are the 9-inch sweet potato, chess and apple pies and peach cobbler, which sell for $6.99 to $9.99.
Forty percent of the revenue comes from catering items including barbecue ribs, fried chicken, collard greens and macaroni and cheese.
The business caters to parties of five to 500 people.
The Ropers expect sales to increase 10 percent this year and next. Actual dollar figures were not disclosed.
They also plan to hire an operations manager in 2011, allowing the Ropers to focus more on generating new business.
Jungle Jim’s says the pies have been hot sellers.
“Our customers love them,” says store owner Jim Bonaminio. “We sold out so quick that we needed to get a rush delivery.”
Don Fine, director of deli/bakery operations for all 14 Remke bigg’s locations in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, says the Ropers’ pies and peach cobbler are among the best-selling items where they’re offered in Pleasant Ridge and Hyde Park.
“Their products help set us apart from our local competition, and local customers love them,” Fine says.