Hot dogs, Hy-Vee and Le Cordon Bleu
Food writer Holly Ebel says Marilyn Gleason continued a family tradition when she saw a food vendor selling frankfurters and thought, "I could do that!"
Who would have thought that a hot dog would be the inspiration for starting a business?
In the case of Marilyn Gleason, of Stewartville, it was seeing someone selling them at Rochesterfest that lit her entrepreneurial fire. "I could do that," she said to herself.
Being a woman of action and true to her word, by 1989 she had purchased a concession van and was making the rounds from Gold Rush at the fairgrounds, to Western Days in Chatfield as well as local celebrations and auctions. At those first events she sold barbecued pork, chicken, hot dogs, sodas and home-made bars.
Business was so good that it wasn't long before she had added three other concession trailers, and her mother-in-law had joined as a cooking partner. They made a formidable team. As word of how good her food was got out, she was offered more auction business, and it wasn't long before others wondered if she could prepare food for family gatherings, weddings and funerals.
Interestingly, as the internet began to become more popular the auction business went into a decline, along with that part of her business.
What to do?
Gleason Catering, her own catering business, came to be. But as her catering business began, the concession part of the business faded away, and those trailers are for sale.
A piece of land in an industrial area of Stewartville became available and, thinking it was now or maybe never, Gleason bought it.
But before building the new home for her business, Gleason took time to research every aspect of catering such as the layout, and what would work most efficiently as well as equipment needed. Finally in 2000 she moved in, and Gleason Catering was cooking.
In addition to a full schedule of weddings and funerals, an important part of her business is providing lunches in that area for SEMCAC, the senior nutrition program that feeds between 60 and 80 seniors five days a week.
"Those numbers go higher when meatloaf, potatoes and apple pie are the lunch that day," Gleason added.
While SEMCAC in Rushford plans the menus, her chef and staff do all the cooking. "That account is what really kept us going all through COVID," Gleason said. "I was also able to keep all of my employees."
What has been an especially significant factor in her success are the potato and macaroni salads, two Midwestern staples. I'd heard raves about the potato salad even before I met her and what I'd heard is true – it's really good.
Customers as well as family had been urging her to place it in Hy-Vee. Easier said than done.
As Gleason tells it, "I would take samples into the various deli managers who said they'd call me, but then never did. I was determined and finally contacted the Hy-Vee South manager, Jerry Halverson, whom I knew slightly. After a tasting of both, he said he'd give them a try that weekend, which also happened to be the Super Bowl."
Gleason took over a case of the salads, and demand was so great she ended up taking over four more cases that weekend. All local Hy-Vee's now carry both, sporting the Taste of Gleason's label.
That has now added an additional dimension to the business on top of all the catering. At this point, it's the salads that get the attention. Last year alone they went though 19,050 lbs. of potatoes, all peeled by hand, and 3,260 lbs. of macaroni.
Next on her menu? She is experimenting with a vegetable salad, maybe a variation on a three-bean salad, hoping to add to the line.
Gleason is also looking to expand the current facility. She definitely needs more room. She also recently heard from someone in Washington State who wanted her to send some of the potato salad.
"So I'm trying to figure out the best way to do that. Who knows, maybe we'll be adding mail-order to the business," she said.
If there is such a thing as a DNA cooking gene, her family definitely has it. Her great-grandparents cooked for summer camps up north and sold homemade candy and baked goods from their house. Her grandmother was the cook for Phoebe Mayo Walters, and her mother, who has a full-time job elsewhere, is often in the kitchen helping out as well.
Her 25-year-old daughter, Anna, a Le Cordon Bleu graduate, is the chef at Terza Ristorante. See what I mean? It's definitely in the family.
To reach Gleason's Catering, call 507-533-7858.
Post Bulletin food writer Holly Ebel knows what’s cookin’. Send comments or story tips to firstname.lastname@example.org .