Chef Kelli Lewton built Two Unique Caterers & Event Planners on a foundation of culinary passion and expertise. After completing culinary school, competing with the Michigan culinary Olympic team in and after college, and serving in multiple executive chef positions, she decided to build her own business, a brand dedicated to fresh, scratch-made food and extraordinary events.

“I’m straight up a cooking nerd; cooking and sharing food makes me whole,” said Lewton.

Indeed, Lewton and her team have found a number of ways to not only share food but also create events that run seamlessly for their diverse Southeast Michigan clientele: “I like to say we’re the Navy SEALs of hospitality. We bring everything that’s needed with us to the venue, to create amazing events and special days. We’re plating high-end, beautiful entrees for 200- and 300-guest weddings; executing intricate small and large plates, as well as themed food stations, for social and large corporate events; and even creating experiences at sports arenas for various teams.”

All three divisions of Two Unique — the social, business-to-business, and sports divisions — approach their clients with a partnership mentality. “Every relationship comes down to quality and personal attention. We invite clients to meet with us, offer them tastings and talk about what they’d like to achieve with their event. We’re like tour guides; we take everyone where they need to go through education and hands-on support so they can make good choices,” Lewton explained. “Building strong partnerships is where our success is really written.”

Lewton has done some writing herself in recent years, publishing a book titled “MYO: Make Your Own Party” in 2022. “I put everything I do to create memorable events into the book so people can do it for themselves at home,” she said. Below, she shared additional insights into her professional life and entrepreneurial success.

What inspired you to establish your business?

My passion has always been cooking! When I was just a young lass, my grandma would put me on milk crates so I could help her bake cakes, and I loved it. It was such a blessing to know from that young age exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I went to culinary school and have taught culinary arts for many years, in addition to running the catering and event business plus our home delivery services (prepared organic meals), and our urban grocery store and juice bar.

When I decided to start the company 35 years ago in a large kitchen rented from a private school, I had a clear vision of how I would deliver off-premises catering: I would build a stage with the food being the actors. Our fresh approach to catering set the stage for the development of our brand. Since those early days, we’ve really grown, now with two buildings and a wonderful team of people.

What challenges have you overcome in building your company?

We faced some pandemic-related challenges, as so many businesses did. Fortunately, we saw the COVID shutdowns coming and got in front of them by reinventing our home delivery program to better accommodate the needs of the moment. That sustained us until life, and business, got back to normal.

Our biggest challenge today is people don’t seem to want to come back to the hospitality industry since COVID; the appetite for this kind of work has diminished. We’ve always offered competitive pay and benefits, but hiring has become difficult. Employees can’t work remotely, and this isn’t a Monday-through-Friday type of business. We’re hospitality people: When everyone else is having fun, we’re working — and it’s hard work! I wouldn’t be the first chef-owner to tell you that we’re all scrapping for the same limited resources. There are only a few of us left in Southeast Michigan that can execute high-end off premise events. Businesses just can’t get the help they need. I’m fortunate to have a tenured team to help me navigate this issue.

Whom do you rely on for business counsel?

My PNC business banker has been a great financial friend to me; I can always count on her for new ideas and solutions to fit our needs. In addition, I’ve realized in recent years that external coaching can be very helpful. I only know what I know, after all, and everyone here follows my lead because I’m the boss, so I like to bring in advisors and coaches with fresh ideas to talk things over with me.

Within the company, we meet every week to discuss goals, encourage one another and hold each other to account. I rely strongly on my team to be there for me just as I’m there for them. My husband is a great advisor, too. He’s a brainiac who always says, “Let’s be quiet for a minute to think about this, put it on paper and weigh the pros and cons.” Team collaboration is the most important ingredient in our success.

What do you find most gratifying about being an entrepreneur?

I like to please people, to cook for them and make them feel special. That makes me feel good. When we cater a wedding, I’ll bring something special for the mother or father of the groom or bride, or something extra for the bridal table. I like to become a part of people’s lives, part of the fabric of these special days in their lives. Sometimes that’s to add to the celebration; other times it’s to lift a burden or ease a concern at a time of loss. I feel extremely gratified to be able to touch people’s lives in such a positive way.

What advice would you offer aspiring entrepreneurs?

Make sure that you’re passionate about whatever business you get into; passion is the jet fuel for being an entrepreneur. I own Two Unique as well as a couple of other businesses in the Southeast Michigan area, and in every case, passion has been my key to success. I don’t start companies just to make money. When you really love what you’re doing, the money follows.