For 40 years, this Raleigh catering company has offered comfort food for showers, funerals, and other life events.
by Katherine Snow Smith | Photography by Joshua Steadman
It was an unusually cold, damp day for an early spring wedding in Raleigh in the late 1980s. The legs of the tables were sinking into the yard. The ganache had frozen on the strawberries. The bride and her mother were quite worried it would rain. Little did they know that a legend was about to be introduced in their yard.
“The mother of the bride asked us if we could make a ham roll. She said she wanted it to be a little sweet and we took it from there,” says Kathie Walton, one of the caterers.
She and her business partner, Caroline Stone, came up with a yeast roll filled with shaved ham, butter and a little brown sugar. The ham rolls were the hit of the reception — and soon became the most popular delicacy made by Ladyfingers, their catering company. If you’ve been to a baby shower, tailgate party or funeral in Raleigh, there’s a good chance these ham rolls have left a little butter on your fingers.
Art with a Side of Chicken Salad
Ladyfingers’ roots trace back to the opening of the North Carolina Museum of Art’s East Building in 1983. Stone was on a committee and helped bring potluck lunches for various meetings, since there was no place to prepare food at the museum at the time. Her meals were so popular — and the group planning was so unwieldy — that it soon became easier for her to just bring all the components of a light lunch. When the new facility opened and busloads of patrons came from across the state and beyond, the museum asked if she could cater its lunches.
Stone called Walton, a friend and former home economics teacher, to see if she wanted to help out. “We both enjoyed making food and read all the food magazines and collected recipes. It was fun and we wanted to make a little more money,” Stone recalls. “We would make 50 lunches at a time, put them in peach baskets and deliver them to the museum.”
At the time, the museum had nothing but a sink on the wall in the basement, so the two made everything in their kitchens. Their standard menu was tarragon chicken salad, black bean salad or a pasta salad, fresh fruit and a brownie or cookie. Simple, yet still elegant and distinctive, packed in a peach basket for a fun Southern touch.
After a couple years with the museum, word spread and the women were asked to cater bridal showers, birthday dinners and other gatherings. Stone’s first husband, Bernie Reeves, the late publisher of The Spectator, a now-defunct Triangle weekly, came up with the name Ladyfingers, because the food was made by… ladies’ fingers. “One thing led to another and it just got busier and busier. We were so excited we didn’t know what to do,” Walton says.
Within a couple years, the women leased a former pizza parlor on E. Whitaker Mill Road to upgrade to a commercial kitchen that could be inspected by the health department. There, they could create food for catered events and sell a few to-go items. By this time, they were both divorced and decided the most they could afford to invest in the business was $5,000 each. “We thought we’d risk losing the money. We were both single moms. We didn’t buy anything we didn’t have to,” Walton says. “We used all of our own things for parties, like our own silver platters and serving plates.”
The women paid $75 for a used refrigerator to add to the existing stove and sink on the wall in this little space, where they worked long days and nights. “We wouldn’t turn down anything, even on Sundays. We always felt like one of us needed to be at every event,” Stone recalls. “From the outside, it looks like a glamorous business. But you wear every hat. We took out the trash, we washed the dishes, we broke down the tables.”
As they grew, they enlisted people of all ages and backgrounds to work in the storefront, the kitchen and at parties. “It feels like almost everybody in the city of Raleigh has worked here,” says Stone. “All of our children have worked here, coming in after school making ham rolls, chopping broccoli, delivering box lunches.” Her son, B. Reeves, remembers fondly the days of working at Ladyfingers with his brother Dan and Walton’s daughters, Kate and Alice: “We grew up there like two brothers and two sisters. We would assemble the box lunches, make the ham biscuits.” The kids would accompany their moms on deliveries and on site, sometimes with disastrous results. “My mom had a wood-paneled Oldsmobile station wagon and a shrimp casserole spilled in it on the way to a party,” says Reeves. “That car smelled so bad we called it the Barf Mobile until she finally got rid of it.”
Stone left the business in 1994 after getting remarried and traveling more with her husband. Walton continued operating Ladyfingers on her own for a few years until she sold it to a longtime employee, Tudi Jackson, in 2013.
“I’d already worked in hospitality in hotels and restaurants and ran a catering company in Charleston before this,” Jackson says. “When Kathie was ready to retire, it seemed a natural evolution to take over.” Jackson had started with Ladyfingers in the 1990s as a part-time server for events, and by 2002 had been elevated to catering manager, event coordinator and office manager. She was invested in the business and in Raleigh. “All my ancestors are from Raleigh, so a lot of people either knew me or knew my mom or grandparents,” says Jackson. “We wanted to continue the tradition and the legacy Ladyfingers had built.”
Jackson bought the business with her husband, David, and his father, Dan. At the time, the men expected to be supportive but silent partners. Then David, a civil engineer, was asked by his employer to oversee a huge project in Virginia that would have him traveling back and forth to Raleigh for several years. “We decided that was not the lifestyle we wanted. We had just gotten married the previous year,” David says. Soon, he was a Ladyfingers employee.
David worked on getting the wholesale business going, as he recognized a growing demand for their food outside of Raleigh. “I’d witnessed people driving from Greensboro, Charlotte and the beach during the holidays to buy ham rolls and casseroles,” he says. “I started calling stores we thought would be a good fit to carry our top sellers.” As the wholesale business grew, his twin brother Daniel came on as sales and operations manager. And as of 2018, their father is the pie maker. “Dan started out making a key lime pie because we didn’t have one,” Tudi says. “Now he’s making all our pies. Probably 100 a week.”
Ladyfingers ham rolls and other signature dishes are now sold at 165 individual retail stores from Delaware to Mississippi. And a 4,500-square-foot Ladyfingers Market and Eatery recently opened at Glenwood Place, the new 40-acre retail, residential and office community. Here, the counter service menu offers an array of sandwiches (all named for various roads and neighborhoods in Raleigh) as well several as salads and desserts. Tables have seating for about 45 diners with more room at the full-service bar and on the patio.
Glass freezer doors line one long wall, where customers can choose from about 25 frozen entrees including tomato-and-cheddar pie, chicken enchiladas, chicken-and-rice casserole and tomato bisque soup. The shop also stocks staples such as soft drinks, beer and wine, as well as distinctive gifts and prepackaged gourmet foods.
“About half the stuff we produce ourselves and the other half is mostly made in North Carolina. We look for products you can’t get anywhere else in Raleigh,” Tudi says. The Jacksons want Ladyfingers’ first restaurant space to be more than just a place to eat and pick up meals to take home.
“We want this to be a meeting space for not only this neighborhood but the Raleigh community,” says Tudi. “We have brunch on Saturdays and Sundays. We’ve had live music. Trivia on Tuesday night. Book clubs, Bible studies and work groups are meeting here.” And just like Watson and Stone, the Jackson family has nephews and cousins, from high-school age and up, working at the Glenwood Place market, in addition to the original Whitaker Mill Road to-go shop and a production facility on Departure Drive.
Tudi and David are pleased that the company’s success creates jobs (which they didn’t cut even in the worst of the pandemic), and that they’ve expanded Ladyfingers’ to-go sales well beyond Raleigh and North Carolina. But their main goal is staying true to the Ladyfingers tradition: providing delicious food and taking the worry of entertaining off the minds of people who are gathering for any reason, small or big. “At a funeral, I want people to be able to focus on their family and not worry if there are still deviled eggs on the table,” says Tudi.
This article originally appeared in the July 2022 issue of WALTER Magazine.