By Austin Mirmina.
(Feb. 9, 2017) — Much like her recipes, Sue Bauer built the Cooking Company from scratch.
After signing her first store lease in April of 2001, a determined Bauer crouched on her hands and knees and commenced the shop’s tedious two-month inception.
“I remember being down on the floor grouting the tiles,” Bauer said. “We did everything.”
It was an intense process that saw Bauer and a handful of helpers, including family and friends, complete major renovations inside a previously gutted building. Bauer joked she was painting trim for so long that she couldn’t wait to exchange her brush for cooking utensils.
That resolution became the driving force behind the culmination of a joint catering and take-out food market called The Cooking Company, located in both Haddam and Killingworth, Conn. For years, the company has delighted customers with its homey environment and delicious variety of soups, salads and entrees.
Bauer gained interest in cooking at a young age. Growing up in Long Island, NY with a large family of seven siblings, she started making desserts at seven years old, with the help of her mother Janet and oldest sister Lynn, both of whom influenced Sue’s enthusiasm in the kitchen.
“I always wanted to do something with food, ever since I was a kid,” Bauer said. What began as a hobby preparing desserts eventually became a professional career – but not before a bit of self-realization. Once an unhappy accountant, Bauer changed course and found her life’s work by taking action.
After moving to East Haddam, Conn. in 1995, Bauer began working as a Certified Public Accountant – first at Price Waterhouse and then Aetna. She recognized her dislike of crunching numbers, admitting she “didn’t really care for it that much.” She envisioned a more satisfying line of work relating to food.
“I used to daydream about having my own business,” Bauer said.
At first, Bauer was hesitant to pursue her dream. The busy restaurant lifestyle, with its irregular hours and hectic holiday schedule, didn’t appeal to her. Instead, she had the idea to open her own food shop, a flexible alternative that would allow more time for other hobbies such as skiing, gardening and kayaking.
Bauer never stopped thinking about turning her fantasy into reality. She decided to leave accounting and gain experience in the food industry by working at Ann Howard (now called Apricots), a catering business in West Hartford, Conn. that closed in 2000. From there, she accepted a job at Vanderbrooke Bakers and Caterers in Old Saybrook, Conn.
At Ann Howard, she learned how to work up front handling customer service, while Vanderbrooke introduced valuable catering experience dealing with large-scale cooking and volume. Both positions prepared Bauer for the transition of becoming a business owner.
With her newfound expertise, Bauer felt more comfortable opening her own shop. She overcame financing hurdles, and struggled to find a bank that would lend her money in the “high-risk” food business. Eventually, she was able to secure a loan from Valley National Bank in New Jersey.
Public anticipation for The Cooking Company’s grand opening built primarily through word of mouth. The original store in the Tylerville region of Haddam officially opened on June 7, 2001, and the first customers arrived only moments after its rustic wooden doors opened at 10:00 a.m.
Bauer began her tenure as a storeowner in the kitchen, throwing on her white double-breasted chef coat and chopping ingredients. With only four staff members, Bauer had trouble accommodating the mild mid-afternoon rush of hungry locals.
“It just felt busy because I was doing everything,” Bauer said. “We were as busy as we probably could have handled at that point.”
Bauer’s staff and the store’s clientele grew in conjunction. Now The Cooking Company employs about 18 to 20 people at each location, a mix of high schoolers, college students and adults.
Seeking another challenge, Bauer opened the Killingworth store in 2008. Both the Haddam and Killingworth spots sell over 250 kinds of soup, along with hearty stews, which are popular during the winter. Bauer has noticed the Killingworth location sells more salads – Arizona being the favorite– than its Haddam counterpart.
27-year-old Josh Hayden, who lives in Clinton and works at the nearby Chamard Vineyards, called The Cooking Company’s salad bar “fantastic.” On this day he ordered the Mesclun mix with four toppings: black beans, red pepper, red onion and red tomato.
The Cooking Company offers different prepared entrées and every item on the menu is available for take-out. It also provides a catering service that allows customers to order ahead of time and pickup right from the store. Those unique options are what set the company apart from other local eateries. “I don’t know too many places that do all that,” Bauer said.
Occasionally Bauer will travel for certain catering events, although she acknowledged delivering food is “out of her comfort zone” because of the amount of people it inevitably requires. Her track record includes making food for an annual sit-down dinner in East Haddam called The Holly Ball. Bauer also provided ready-to-serve dishes for a science fair at Wesleyan University in the past.
People enjoy visiting The Cooking Company for its cozy atmosphere and country feel in addition to its wide array of menu options. A restored fireplace gently warms the patrons who choose to dine in the restaurant’s elegant interior.
Bauer keeps a picture scrapbook commemorating the grueling labor of that first store restoration project sixteen years ago, an important reminder of the hard work that went into making a dream come true.
“You really feel like you have your heart and soul into it,” Bauer said.