Beaufort News

Catering services join forces

Steve Brown learned an important lesson from his mother early in his childhood -- you don't lay your head down to sleep until you've blessed someone's life that day.

It's a message that has guided the lifelong Beaufortonian's steps ever since, through 36 years in the food-service industry and 20 years as owner of local institution, Steve Brown Catering.

"We had a mission every day to do something for somebody," said Brown, 59, who recently merged his business with Smokey Chef Catering after planning to retire in the next few months.

"If we hear there's a problem -- someone'shomeless, somebody lost their home in a fire, a death in the family or some tragic circumstance -- and we can help, we'll be there," Brown said. "The end result is taking care of people."

But nothing so moved Brown as the day in September when more than 700 Beaufort residents came to Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park to attend a fundraiser for his business, intent on taking care of the man who himself seemed to be a one-person charity.

The recession had kept some of Brown's best customers from throwing the parties that prominently featured his famous crab cakes, shrimp with grits, cookies and other dishes.

Despite the downturn, Brown wanted to keep the doors to his business open and refused to lay off any employees or cut their hours.

"I wanted to save my staff, save my head chef with his three little girls and save my customer base," Brown said. "Steve Brown could go down, but he wasn't taking anyone else with him."

Beaufort residents wanted to return that kindness.

"That was one of the most remarkable moments of my life," Brown said of the fundraiser, tearing up slightly at the memory. "Besides marrying my beautiful wife, Jean, and having my four children -- that was No. 3."

Chris Mixson, founder and CEO of Smokey Chef, was one of the local business owners who helped organize the benefit. He originally expected a crowd of 350.

"The community just poured out for Steve," said Mixson, 40. "It was a testimony. There wasn't another person in town (who) would have garnered that response."

Now, Mixson is in charge of the combined catering business, which will operate under the Smokey Chef name and offer popular menu items from both places.

The merger idea floated in the air when Mixson met Brown three years ago.

That was around the same time Mixson started Smokey Chef, working out of the kitchen at The Palm and Moon Bagel Co. in downtown Beaufort. The plan to join forces became certain about six months ago as the recession continued to batter Brown's business. Details have been ironed out over the past 30 days, Mixson said.

In April, the merged business will move from the Steve Brown Catering location on Ribaut Road to the Lighthouse Center on Lady's Island, Mixson said.

Steve Brown's Neighborhood Market and Pantry, also on Ribaut Road, closed about a week ago and will not reopen.

All of the servers and kitchen staff from Brown's catering operation now work at Smokey Chef, as does event planner Rory Fosberry.

The fork in the Smokey Chef logo soon will change to the blue spoon that was a Steve Brown trademark.

"Steve is beloved around here, and I wondered how people would take it," Mixson said of the merger. "People have been overwhelmingly supportive. Steve has really made time for people, and that's a legacy that I really want to continue."

Brown said he trusted Mixson to take over the business because they share a love of food, a love for humanity and a vow to serve mankind -- one spoonful at a time.

"The thing I'll remember the most, the thing I loved the most, was serving this community," said Brown, who is slowly pulling away from the day-to-day operations of the catering business but staying active in his charitable efforts.

"What does (Scripture) say?" he asked, removing the multi-colored, plastic-framed glasses from his face with a smile. "Love thy neighbor as thyself."