Table Talk: For gourmet takeout, call ahead
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- She's back.
Connie Bergstedt, most recently renowned for the chicken salad and pepperoni rolls she served from a kitchen tucked inside a former South Hills elementary school, opened Connie's Gourmet Kitchen on Oakwood Road in March.
She left the school facility, which contained a dental equipment business when she was there, in 2007, and concentrated on catering. Now takeout customers can purchase Bergstedt's fresh lunches of sandwiches and salads and a rotating dinner menu at her new location.
The petite restaurant's bright interior seats only 12 diners. Most of her customers carry their orders out, after calling ahead to be sure they're available.
In addition to the popular chicken salad plate, her lunch menu includes Asian grilled chicken, Mediterranean spinach and feta, Greek, chef's and fruit salads each for $6. Customers love her roasted pear salad with gorgonzola, fruit and greens. She sells lots of Reuben sandwiches, but BLT, club, ham, tuna salad and chicken salad sandwiches, most for $5, also sell well.
She offers one hot meal lunch special daily.
A daily rotating dinner menu features a choice of two entrees and side dishes priced between $8 and $10. Last week's entrees were generous portions of grilled pork tenderloin or pecan chicken on Tuesday, beef or chicken satay on Wednesday, lasagna or chicken Florentine on Thursday and salmon coulibiac or shrimp Alfredo on Friday. Connie's is closed Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays.
"The salmon coulibiac is really special. The salmon is baked in pastry with spinach, mushrooms, shrimp and cheese in a heavy cream sauce," Bergstedt said.
Her food, especially the pepperoni rolls, sells so well that she often runs out. She bakes four to five dozen pepperoni rolls daily, which she sells for $1.50 each. "One man comes in a lot and says he'll take them all." Other customers hear him, and ask if they can have one or two before he buys them all.
Savvy customers call ahead to place lunch or dinner orders, a practice she encourages because she hates to disappoint customers.
Her bakery case usually contains freshly baked muffins, which she's been baking since she opened her first restaurant in the YMCA on Hillcrest Drive. "I started when a tennis friend suggested I open a place. Later, I worked at the former Players Club and operated a place in Boulevard Tower," she said.
The challenges of running two establishments proved exhausting.
"I had good help at the Y, but I was still up at 2 in the morning cooking," she said. She left the Players Club in 1996 and Boulevard Tower in 1997 to spend several years in community service in her native Philippines.
She makes her multicultural dishes based not so much on recipes she's gathered, but rather by observing the cultures in which they're created.
"I get to know the people and the culture. I cook based on why they do things a certain way. Learning that way has really helped me on my cooking journey," she said.
After her return from the Philippines, Bergstedt settled into a busy catering routine that focused on her church and its members. She fed everyone from small groups that performed at Bible Center Church to receptions for 600. The performers often praised her cooking while onstage.
"One group said they were going to make me part of the band and take me with them," she said.
Unruffled and efficient, Bergstedt makes the most of challenging situations such as the time she donated her services for a missionary who told her to expect 150 wedding guests. More than 300 showed up.
"We just stretched it. I set up stations and spread out the food. They had tastes," she said.
When needed, she makes table decorations and bakes wedding cakes. "I just do whatever they need," she said.
She's been baking seasonal favorites such as King Cakes for Mardi Gras and gingerbread houses at Christmas for in-the-know clients, but now she can market them in the bakery case of her new restaurant. Bergstedt had her eye on the location for years, but the landlord resisted placing a restaurant in the retail space that previously contained a variety of businesses including crafts, primitives and bead and jewelry shops.
"Last Thanksgiving, I was visiting my son in Lexington [Ky.] when the landlord called and asked if I was still interested. His wife had told him that she thought it would be a good place for me," she said.
After adding water lines and plumbing, updating the electrical system and building a kitchen, Bergstedt furnished her small dining area with colorful tables she found at ReStore and chairs culled from Second Seating.
Customers shouldn't count on finding a seat during busy lunch and dinner hours, Bergstedt warns, but she happily packages orders to go.
Connie's Gourmet Kitchen, 882 Oakwood Road, is open from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. Call-ahead and takeout orders are highly encouraged. Call 304-881-3779 to hear the day's menu and place an order.
Reach Julie Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1230.