Caterer has healthy outlook on living

When most people might have surrendered, Cindy Crawford dug in her heels and fought back.


To look at her, you'd never guess the obstacles she has faced. Ms. Crawford, a co-owner of Cindy's Catering and Cafe on Washington Road in Martinez, has battled a rare form of adrenal cancer, metastatic pheochromocytoma, since 1989.

She has endured eight operations, 65 radiation treatments and six rounds of chemotherapy -- and was given only five years to live. Instead of letting her illness shape her life, though, she has emerged from her trials and pain as a stronger person.

"I had my last set of radiation treatments last fall. It's not something that I let rule my life," Ms. Crawford said. "I like to think of it like this: Say you have a yardstick. You have cancer, so cancer gets three inches of your yardstick. Then you have to refuse to let it have another inch of your life."

Through an illness that strictly dictated her diet, Ms. Crawford discovered her passion for food.

Unable to work full time, she began catering for friends and neighbors to occupy her time. That was more than 10 years ago.

Her husband, Rick Crawford, co-owner of the catering business with her, said his wife is "strong-willed and very focused." He lets her run the show.

Mr. Crawford is a senior vice president at Security Federal Bank. On weekends, he does his duty at the catering business, hauling food and equipment to wedding receptions, banquets and other special events.

"I'm a banker. She's a caterer. She knows more about the industry than I do," Mr. Crawford said. "It's a combined effort ... She's really done a great job building the business. I think the reason she's been so successful is that she loves what she's doing."

It's a family affair at Cindy's Catering and Cafe. Their daughter, Kelley Strickland, works at the catering business and manages the cafe. Her younger brother, Ricky Crawford, joins the family for catering events on weekends. Ms. Strickland plans to take over someday, she said.

Mr. Crawford said his wife's trials have made the family stronger. He said that his wife never complains and that her sense of humor "makes you feel good to be around her."

"She's been the strength for me for a lot of things since we've been married," Mr. Crawford said. "I'll never complain that I don't feel good, because she doesn't feel good every day, but it doesn't cause her to not get through her day."

Phil Gagnon, the owner of Interstate Marketing Services, has worked with Ms. Crawford for three years to develop a marketing plan and strategy for her business. He said Ms. Crawford has "innate business intelligence" and realizes there's no substitute for effort.

"She's not too impressed with her business gifts that she forgets that hard work brings it all together. She works hard," Mr. Gagnon said. "She's got more drive than most people. She contributes more than just her good taste in food to everyday life and the people she deals with."

Climbing trees

Ms. Crawford said she had seven parents during her upbringing in Bath in the 1960s. In addition to her parents, William and Aralee Johnson, who are now deceased, she had five older brothers and sisters. She was the youngest child by nine years.

Her mother and father worked long hours and relied on her siblings to carefully guard their baby sister.

"My parents were both very industrious people, which is probably where I get it from," Ms. Crawford said.

Her mother was a nurse, and her father was a heavy-equipment operator. He would wake up at 4 a.m., clean the house and wash two boats and three vehicles before sunrise. Then, he would "try to figure out why you were sleeping the day away at 6 a.m.," she said.

Survival was her parents' primary concern, Ms. Crawford said. They struggled to pay bills, put food on the table and provide clothes for their children, but things always got done.

Weekends were for outdoor activities. Their father taught them how to fish, camp, water-ski and swim. He was happiest when fishing and "would have rather fished than breathed," she said.

Ms. Crawford remembers waterskiing on a piece of plywood when she was 2 years old.

"I was very athletic growing up, probably a huge tomboy. I was always mad if the boys could climb a tree quicker than I could," she said.

The family lived close to an area where kaolin was mined, and the Johnson kids went cliff diving in the water-filled holes that were left when the clay was excavated.

When their parents found out about their secret outings to the dangerous water holes, the children were in trouble.

"You can't find the bottom because they're so deep," she said. "We'd have to find a way to climb out of them and would come back dry and covered with chalk."

She learned at an early age that being a girl "was not an excuse." Just like her brothers, she was expected to put tackle on her fishing line, bait her own hook and clean her fish.

Though she was a tomboy, she was never the type to get dirty.

"Whatever I did, I had to do it perfectly clean, and I'm still that way. I'm a bit of a germaphobe," Ms. Crawford said. "My sisters would always bathe and dress me three or four times a day. They thought I was a doll."

Because her mother worked in the medical field, Ms. Crawford developed a curiosity about medicine.

"Everybody calls me Dr. Cindy. If they need to know something (cures, ailments, diagnoses), they call me," she said.

She had her first encounter with potentially serious illness at age 12, when she had a benign tumor. Before she later developed the rare adrenal cancer, her sister was diagnosed with the illness.

Faith of steel

After completing high school, Cindy Johnson found a job at the Medical College of Georgia while taking college classes. She then worked at a law firm as a real estate paralegal until 1993. After that, she worked as a freelance paralegal until 1998.

She never earned a college degree, but she enjoys dabbling in different subjects. Her love for learning started during her childhood. At 14, she taught herself to program computers in BASIC.

"I like to study things, which is why I enjoyed being a paralegal so much," she said. "Everything you did involved some sort of research."

She has completed classes in computer programming, medical terminology, business, political science, paralegal services and culinary arts.

She met Rick Crawford in 1979 through a blind date set up by her brother Tommy. The couple married in 1981 and had two children, Kelley and Ricky.

Her life progressed normally until Ms. Crawford received a bombshell in May 1989, when she was diagnosed with metastatic pheochromocytoma and told she had five years to live.

Her children were ages 3 and 7 at the time.

"I remember, when I was diagnosed, praying that I would live five years -- long enough for my children to remember me," Ms. Crawford said. "When that prayer was answered, I started praying to live long enough to see them graduate from high school, then college and then long enough to see my grandchildren graduate.

''I know you don't bargain with God, but I figured asking can't hurt."

Ms. Crawford found that her diet was affecting her health.

"When I would eat certain things, it would cause me to have an accelerated heart rate, headache or hypertension," Ms. Crawford said.

Ms. Crawford spent the next 10 years researching foods and ingredients and their biochemical reactions in the body. She began eliminating the foods that activated her symptoms.

"I started cutting preservatives and aged foods out of my diet," she said.

She also can't eat red meat, cheese, wine, chocolate and foods with monosodium glutamate or preservatives. Most of her meals consist of fish, fruits and vegetables. People often underestimate the effect that food has on their bodies, she said.

"Doctors attribute a large part of my survival to attitude and faith," Ms. Crawford said. "I attribute it to all of the above, plus being an informed patient.

''I always tell my doctors they have hundreds of patients. I only have one."

Because her cancer was so rare, Ms. Crawford didn't know anyone who had the same type. She joined a cancer survivor forum on the Internet and another online group designed for her specific illness.

Jim McCulloch, a member of a cancer survivors group in Portland, Ore., remembers when Ms. Crawford logged onto the bulletin board site that he had started in the early 1990s.

"One day, this particularly upbeat young lady signed on, and in an instant one had to love her," Mr. McCulloch said. "There were times I had wondered how one could fight as long and hard as our Cindy Crawford did.

"Knowing the extent of her illness and how it would curb even the strongest person, I'm in awe at what she has accomplished with her life since we met. I'm extremely proud to call her a good friend."

Ms. Crawford's passion for food began out of necessity. She required healthful foods her body could tolerate, and she usually had to prepare them for herself.

A neighbor's wife had Crohn's disease and he asked Ms. Crawford to cook for her occasionally. Another woman hired her to prepare meals for her sick husband.

Ms. Crawford realized that she enjoyed cooking, and she told her husband she wanted to start catering to keep herself busy. He supported her interests.

They rode around their neighborhood taping fliers to mailboxes. A neighbor hired her to cater a birthday party. Soon, her clientele began to grow.

When she was getting started, the catering staff was her family, including her sisters, nieces and nephews.

In order to cater larger events, she moved into a small kitchen at Warren and Washington roads with Kathy Boyles, who specialized in cakes.

"It was tiny, and we had a ball," Ms. Crawford said.

She shared the kitchen for about two years until she outgrew the space. She moved to her current location on Washington Road in 2000.

Growing up

Cindy's Catering and Cafe caters 100 to 300 lunches for corporations daily. Each weekend, she caters weddings, social events and banquets.

"We've basically doubled sales every year that we've been in business," she said.

She recalls a Christmas party that she catered a few years ago.

"The cost of that one party was more than I made the first year that I catered. It's amazing how it's grown," the businesswoman said.

Her husband attributes her success to her wise decision to "not let the business outgrow her."

"She's been smart enough to grow this business slowly and gradually. She hasn't had to go out and borrow a lot of money to run the business," Mr. Crawford said.

Profits are reinvested in the business, keeping debt low. His wife doesn't make quick decisions, but evaluates the pros and cons of each business issue, Mr. Crawford said.

When Ms. Crawford moved her business to Washington Road, her daughter came to work for her. Ms. Strickland volunteered to help temporarily while she was between jobs. She fell in love with the creativity of catering, though, and decided to stick around.

Ms. Crawford said her daughter has often "run the company in my absence."

Today, Ms. Crawford has four full-time employees, a part-time employee and a pool of 50 people for events.

Longtime friend Lisa Sherrouse remembers the day Ms. Crawford mentioned she wanted to open a catering business. Ms. Sherrouse playfully said that she had never known her friend "to be real domestic." She warned her that it was going to be all work and no gratitude.

Years later, Ms. Sherrouse is proud that her friend operates a flourishing business.

She recently persuaded Ms. Crawford to invest in a chocolate fountain, overcoming Ms. Crawford's initial shock at the price. The fountain has paid for itself and has become a hit at parties.

The hours can be long, but Ms. Crawford loves what she does. The staff works six days a week, and often starts early Saturday morning and doesn't stop until 2 or 3 a.m. Sunday.

The business owner's motto is to treat each client the same, regardless whether 50 people or 1,000 people attend the event.

"It has to have equal importance to us because it's equally important to our client," Ms. Crawford said.

Chris Blume, a longtime friend and a part-time administrative employee, said her friend is a fair boss and makes the work environment fun. She said Ms. Crawford's catering business is thriving because she is always coming up with new ideas.

"I'm in awe of what she has accomplished," Ms. Blume said.

Debbie Spangler credits Ms. Crawford with the success of her own business, Edible Artistry. When Ms. Spangler was getting started, Ms. Crawford allowed her to rent space in her kitchen.

Ms. Spangler, who specializes in wedding cakes, couldn't afford her own retail space, so she worked at Ms. Crawford's restaurant in 2004 and '05.

"Because of that, my business was very fortunate to get the start that it needed," Ms. Spangler said. "It was key to the success of my business."

Ms. Spangler has adopted Ms. Crawford's philosophy and has opened her retail store on Baston Road to several business owners trying to get started. They will join her at the space early this month.

"It's been a wonderful foundation for how I do my business," Ms. Spangler said.

Comfort food

The menu at Cindy's Catering and Cafe goes from hors d'oeuvres to elaborate, full-course meals.

"We work with a client to design a menu that suits them specifically for that event," Ms. Crawford said.

She considers the client's budget, number of guests and location. There are 100 variables that go into the planning, she said.

Masters Week is an especially busy time for her. She caters 25 houses with eight to 50 guests each April, serving seven-course, gourmet meals.

Ms. Crawford applies rules from her own diet to her catered foods. She doesn't use preservatives or prepared foods.

"If a recipe calls for chicken stock, then we make chicken stock. We don't buy canned stock; it has too much sodium, and a lot of them have MSG. I'm a big label reader," she said.

Many clients who are ill or undergoing treatment for cancer have learned about her.

"We'll sit down and figure out things they can eat," she said. "I'm not a dietitian or nutritionist; I just help them with what they can tolerate."

She opened the cafe portion of her business about a year and a half ago because there was a demand for lunch cuisine. She serves made-from-scratch soups, salads and sandwiches.

She had to close the cafe for almost six months because of her illness, but then reopened in May. During that time, she remodeled the cafe and decorated the walls with a colorful mural.

Among the designs are two women chatting over a meal, and a chef with a wheelbarrow of fresh vegetables.

"We wanted it to be more whimsical and fun. We took the opportunity to redo the things that we didn't like," Ms. Crawford said.

The cozy restaurant has small, round tables with green-and-white checkered tablecloths and small potted flowers. The chairs are heart-shape.

Ms. Crawford enjoys the cafe because it allows her to spend time with customers.

Tommy Mercer, a Columbia County Commission member and a loyal customer, said he started eating at the cafe a year ago. He and his wife, Brenda, visit the restaurant several times a week.

"Her food is great. She's got a chicken and rice dish that I absolutely love," Mr. Mercer said. "She's got a meatloaf that melts in your mouth."

Reach LaTina Emerson at (706) 823-3227 or


TITLE: Co-owner and vice president, Cindy's Catering and Cafe

BORN: Sept. 26, 1959, in Aiken County

FAMILY: Husband, Rick; and children Kelley Strickland and Ricky Crawford

CIVIC/EXTRACURRICULAR ACTIVITIES: Richmond and Columbia County chambers of commerce, Augusta Technical College advisory board for Culinary Arts program, Columbia County Convention and Visitors Bureau hospitality committee, Cater Source International (has written articles for Cater Source Magazine), Golden Harvest Food Bank, American Cancer Society, March of Dimes

HOBBIES: Reading, crossword puzzles, swimming and shopping


TITLE: Co-owner and president of Cindy's Catering and Cafe, Security Federal Bank senior vice president

BORN: Nov. 13, 1952

EDUCATION: Attended Middle Georgia College and Augusta College

FAMILY: Wife, Cindy; children Lisa Land, Kelley Strickland, Ricky Crawford

CIVIC/EXTRACURRICULAR: Chairman of Columbia County Soil and Water Conservation Board, vice chairman of Columbia County Recreation Advisory Board, member of Columbia County Chamber of Commerce Business Development Committee, past president of the Augusta Jaycees and recently on the Entrepreneurial Friendly Committee for the State of Georgia for Columbia County

HOBBIES: Gardening or landscaping, hunting, swimming



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