Marshfield, WI (OnFocus) After ten years of baking, cooking, and catering, Ruth Elderbrook and husband, Gary, are officially retiring her “A Slice of Heaven” catering business on December 31.
Since 2009, Ruth has operated her business first out of the UW kitchen and then from her Marshfield home, but her love for making delicious food has been a lifelong passion and a family tradition. Having grown up in a large farm family, Ruth describes her mother as a wonderful baker and cook.
“When I was little, I enjoyed watching her make bread, cut-out cookies, pies and everything else she made!” she said. “She would give my twin-sister and me a piece of bread dough to mold into a wonderful masterpiece and we couldn’t wait until it finished raising and then baking so we could eat it!”
Ruth would also roll out small pieces of pie crust that her mother would cut off when she would make her pies and she would sprinkle cinnamon and sugar on the pieces and called them “pie sticks.”
“Christmas-time was the best time of year, as I especially loved helping her with the cut-out cookies and special cookies that were made only at Christmas,” said Ruth. “Even when I came home from college, I looked forward to frosting the cut-outs.”
For Ruth, baking is therapeutic.
“Creating that special food item for someone’s birthday, anniversary, or whatever occasion is rewarding, as my customers have been so appreciative as it made their special occasion extra special,” she said. “I also believe that putting that extra love into what you are creating helps it turn out better!”
Famous locally (and beyond) for her cheesecakes, Ruth was working as Library Director at UW-Marshfield/Wood County when she was first asked to cater an event.
“They needed lunch for the 13 UW-Colleges Assistant Deans for Financial Services who were going to be meeting on our campus,” said Ruth. “I told her that I could make a nice lunch, as I was used to providing food for my volunteers when I was the ‘Food for Thought’ event chairperson and for many events on Campus.”
After learning that she would need a catering license, Ruth completed the necessary steps and became certified. Next, she needed a name for her side business.
“I decided that I would send out a request to my friends on campus to help me name my business. The recipient, whose name I would choose, would receive a cheesecake,” she said. “Mat Bartkowiak, my friend and colleague, was the lucky recipient!”
The name “A Slice of Heaven” is a tribute to Melissa, Ruth and Gary’s eldest child and the daughter that inspired her business.
“Melissa loved special desserts, especially cheesecake and wonderful decadent chocolate desserts. When she was attending Massage Therapy School, she was really developing an appreciation for healthy eating and started to really enjoy cooking and loved to try new recipes,” said Ruth. “She knew how much I loved making desserts and would often say, ‘Mom, why don’t you open a bakery?’ My response was always, ‘I have a full-time job, how could I manage that?’ The timing wasn’t right.”
Sadly and tragically, Melissa was killed October 1, 2003 in Milwaukee.
“She was my inspiration to start my business and fittingly being named ‘A Slice of Heaven’,” said Ruth. “With every cheesecake I bake or every new recipe I create, I think of Melissa and dedicate what I love doing to her.”
Though she’d previously dreamed of one day starting a business, Ruth didn’t seriously think it would come to fruition — but, as demand for her cooking grew, so did the possibility of taking her business full-time.
“After two years, Gary and I decided that if we were going to be serious about our business (as it would be something to do after retiring from our full-time jobs), we needed to build a licensed kitchen addition onto our house,” said Ruth.
The licensed kitchen addition allowed Ruth to expand both her business and her skills.
“I enjoyed creating new food options for people,” she said. “When someone would contact me and ask if I made a certain kind of cheesecake, pie, cookie or bar, etc. if it wasn’t on my menu, I would find a new recipe and create it so they could enjoy their favorite request.”
With the mission to make everyone happy with food, Ruth is also sensitive to those with dietary needs.
“We enjoy making people happy, and oftentimes, people with food allergies or dietary issues are not considered and given options to enjoy at a particular event,” she explained. “Whenever we catered an event, we always enjoyed offering our customer gluten-free, vegetarian, sugar-free or vegan options, so every person attending the meeting or party could enjoy the event as much as everyone else.”
Ruth uses recipes from many different cookbooks, with many recipes coming from her mother and church-affiliated cookbooks, which she says have the best recipes – tried and true! Two of her favorite cookbooks are “Joy of Cooking” and “Better Home and Gardens,” both from when she was married 42 years ago.
Ruth also believes that not only is it important for the food to taste amazing, but the presentation of the food has to be appealing.
“What I also really enjoyed was the presentation at our events that we catered. It was never enough to just make good food, but I believed that how the appetizers, main entrees and desserts were presented was equally important,” she said. “I have a plethora of glassware, special stands, Longaberger pottery and baskets, etc. that we always used to make each event special.”
As her business grew, Ruth caught the attention of Marshfield Community Television and was interviewed for a program called “Business Profile.” That interview led to a cooking show, “Cooking with Ruth,” which now boasts more than 140 episodes on YouTube.
“That was a great experience, as we brought in many aspects of our personal lives into our show,” said Ruth. “I loved that aspect of our business!”
Since starting her business, Ruth said she has been fortunate to have had only a handful of “failures,” something she credits to thoroughly reading the recipe and not giving up! Despite the many years of enjoyment, Ruth and Gary decided it was time to retire to enjoy time with their growing family and to travel.
“Since late September and October, I began to realize that I didn’t have the joy in my catering business as in the previous 10 years,” said Ruth. “We have been blessed to babysit our beautiful granddaughter, Eleanor, every other week, and she lives in Madison. Many times we have catering jobs the day we leave for babysitting and right after we return home. This can be a bit stressful at times.”
“I knew that the day would come when we were going to retire, but I wasn’t sure when it would happen or how I would feel,” she added. “I wanted to retire knowing that I did the best job that I could in catering to others’ needs and leave my business while still enjoying it. October 31 was the day that I decided it was time to retire. With the help of Gary and our children, we decided that December 31 would be the last day of the business.”
Though officially entering retirement, Ruth and Gary have plenty of plans for their newfound “free time.”
“Eleanor is a huge priority…so continuing to travel to Madison to babysit and enjoy her and her parents (Megan and Pawel) will keep us busy. Our son, Matthew and Alana live in Wausau and our youngest son, Michael and Jason live in Duluth, MN, so family events will keep us busy, as well,” said Ruth. “We enjoy traveling, we have so much of the world and our own country yet to explore. We are involved in the community, but we will have more time to become more involved in community volunteer opportunities, if we choose to do so.”
Ruth also still dreams of publishing a cookbook, which would include recipes from her cooking show and other recipes that she enjoys making. Though looking forward to retirement, there are aspects of the business that Ruth will miss.
“Over the past ten years, we have had so many great experiences with catering and meeting so many people and even developing friendships along the way. I will miss the opportunity to make people happy, as they plan their special event, and to make it a success for them,” she said. “Gary plans to take down the ‘Slice of Heaven’ shingle that hangs outside our licensed kitchen and replace it with a sign reading ‘GONE TO THE BEACH!'”