When Lena Cheatum prepares food for Al’s and Lena’s Catering, she doesn’t use a recipe. She doesn’t measure ingredients or read a list of instructions. She just knows what a dish needs. It’s how her grandmother used to cook.
Cheatum once worked as a cook in sorority houses, and when she had time off in the summer, she would serve plates of food out of her own home.
She and her cousins would also help their grandmother in the kitchen as kids. Fixing chicken dinners with peach cobbler, Cheatum learned how to cook without a guide, but she never dreamed she would start her own business.
"Everybody is so amazed by how I do things," Cheatum said. "They ask me, ‘How do you know what to do and how much to cook?’ I tell everybody I've worked in several different places, and … I've learned a lot. I've shown a lot of things to other people trying to help them with their business."
Al’s and Lena’s Catering has prepared for a number of community events. From Wednesday to Friday, the catering business offers a to-go plate service at their storefront on Range Line Street., where customers choose a main dish, a side, a choice of bread and a dessert.
Their specialty is soul food, and they cook a little bit of everything — turkey legs, lasagna, liver and onions, greens and cabbage, macaroni and cheese, baked beans. You name it; Cheatum probably makes it.
On days when Al’s and Lena’s is open for plate service, Cheatum wakes up at 5:45 a.m. and heads to the storefront to prepare the day’s selections.
She starts her job at 7 a.m. at Solstice Senior Living, where she puts in hours as a baker when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the catering business to temporarily close.
She gets off work at noon, just in time to open her kitchen to customers at 12:30 p.m. and serves until closing time at 8:30 p.m.
Just like her grandmother, Cheatum started out serving out of her home in 2013. She had worked in food service most of her life, but in 2008, she had a double knee replacement and knew it would be more difficult to find a job in the field. She started cooking for friends and family and eventually decided it was time to start charging.
"Before I got into business, I used to use my family as a guinea pig," Cheatum said, "to see how long it would take me to (cater) a reunion or an event for the holidays, pacing my time, seeing if I could get it out on time."
By 2014, Cheatum was getting so many orders that she decided it was time to expand and get a building for her business. In 2016, she added a hot dog cart to her list of services.
Al’s and Lena’s Hot Dogs used to park near downtown Columbia bars on weekend nights, but since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the cart has been serving events rather than parties.
In addition, Al’s and Lena’s also feeds Columbia’s kids. Most summers, they serve children from day cares, camps and programs around town on Mondays, a choice of meat, vegetables, bread, juice and snacks. During the school year, she provides meals for kids at United Community Cathedral.