Community Cook

Donnie Sander of Celestine smiled at Mary Heeke of Celestine while catching up with her and her husband, Leonard, at their home after he brought them chicken and dumplings Oct. 3. A caterer by profession, sometimes Donnie makes extra food and delivers it to the older residents of the community. He started Sander Catering in 1998, and today it caters receptions and other events nearly every week. Some Saturdays he has more than a dozen commitments.

Story by Candy Neal
Photos by Ariana van den Akker

It is 3 o’clock on a Saturday morning in September. It is quiet. It is still.

Donnie Sander is wide awake.

Dressed in jeans, a shirt and his trademark black apron he walks across the gravel lot from his Celestine home to his business, Sander Catering. He puts 140 chickens, each cut in half, into the smokers in the back of the building. In 90 minutes, he will return to remove those and lay another round of chickens in the smokers.

It’s clockwork. And this early in the morning, the clock is set in Donnie’s mind. To prepare all of the food that he needs to and get it to today’s 18 separate venues on time, Donnie, 64, plans precise schedules.

He makes sure different workers are scheduled to come in at different times of the day to prepare and deliver the food. He keeps a master list of everything that needs to be cooked and where it needs to go and at what time. He sets multiple alarms to make sure that meats are flipped on the grills, pots are taken off of the stoves, pans are removed from the ovens and chicken is taken out of the fryers before anything is overcooked.

A 1967 graduate of Dubois High School, Donnie has had a diverse career. He worked for a concrete company for about eight years before starting a butcher shop, Sander Processing, on Jasper-Dubois Road with his brother Jim in 1976. They bought an old packing plant on Mill Street in 1980 and made it Sander Processing. They sold it in 1986.

Donnie switched off the fryers in a trailer after several hours of frying chicken and fish meals for the Dubois Ruritan Club to sell during the Septemberfest in Dubois on Aug. 30.

Donnie then went to work for Executive Furniture, then Holiday Foods, then back to Executive. He stayed when the company was purchased by Styline.

All this time, he grilled meat for community events in his native Celestine.

“I don’t know how I really learned how to cook,” he says. “I just kind of picked it up. I liked doing it. And people would ask me to help cook here and there.”

His reputation got to be known to the Styline executives, who asked Donnie to cook food for company events. “I had to get more and bigger grills. I finally decided that I should do this as a company.”

That is how Sander Catering was born, in 1998. “We did most of it out of our garage,” Donnie says.
“But then more and more orders came in, until I couldn’t do my regular job and this anymore.”

He left Styline in 2005 to devote his time fully to the catering company.

Donnie has done this work for so long that he can tell customers how many plates of food they’ll need, instead of it being the other way around.

“You know what the weather is going to be like. You know what you’ve sold at similar things around the same time. You know what you sold (there) last year. I remember stuff like that,” he says. “So when people tell me what they’re doing and when, I can give them a good number on how many plates they’ll need.”

Just like he has a method for determining quantities of food needed, he has a method for determining how to fill the multitude of orders he gets for what are always busy Saturdays and Sundays. As that Saturday in September progresses, part-time staffers file in through the morning, filling up Sander’s building by early afternoon. Each person who walks in knows his or her assigned task.

Donnie moves around them, checking on the different smokers that hold chicken and pork and the ovens that contain potatoes, baked beans and macaroni and cheese.

Donnie and employee Sharon Reckelhoff of Celestine, middle, helped German American employees Erica Rummel of Huntingburg, left, Clint Gogel of Jasper and Tina Fromme of Jasper make take-and-bake pizzas Aug. 20 for the bank to sell as a fundraiser for the March of Dimes. The group made 149 pizzas that night.

“When you walk in, it looks like chaos,” says Bob “Red” Spellmeyer, Donnie’s neighbor who has been working for him part time since the business started. “But really, it’s organized chaos. Everybody knows what they are supposed to be doing.”

After one of the many timers goes off, Donnie takes Bob and Randy Schroering to the smokers with him to check on the chicken. Donnie swings the door up and open and peeks in. “Oh, yeah, they’re done,” he says. “They’re perfect.”

Bob, donning gloves, picks up the chicken to fill serving trays that Randy moves to a rolling cart and takes up front.

“My arthritis makes it hard for me to carry stuff like that anymore,” Donnie says. “So any jobs we have to do that involve carrying a lot of heavy stuff or going up and down stairs, I have one of the others make that delivery.”

For the nine weddings, eight lunches and dinners and one benefit he is preparing for on this particular day, he and workers will fry 500 chickens, bake 13 gallons of dressing, boil 24 gallons of red potatoes and cook 864 pounds of green beans. And that doesn’t count the pans of macaroni and cheese, cheesy potatoes, mashed potatoes, pork chops, baked beans, prime rib, corn, coleslaw and salad that also will be made.

He still works hard, and still lifts some things, wincing at times when grabbing too many industrial-size cans of vegetables or picking up a heavy tray that needs to be taken out of the oven immediately.

“See, timing is everything,” he says. “You can’t let things stay in the oven or on the stove too long and overcook. But you can’t take them out too soon, either, or else they won’t taste right. People expect a certain taste when they get our food. We have to make sure it tastes the same every time.”

As for his own preferred meal, it’s not anything that Donnie typically has on his menu.

Donnie pushed a cart of food and drinks to a door at the Arnold F. Habig Community Center in Jasper for a catered pork chop meal Aug. 27. Most of the time Donnie’s employees deliver the meals, but he still likes to do it when he can. During the past few years, his arthritis has made it more difficult for him to lift and carry pans.

“Every year for my birthday, I used to have pork brains and pickled pigs feet,” he says. “I like the things we make, but I don’t do fried foods too much anymore.”

All the orders for a given day are combined in a way to determine how much of one item is needed.
So when the crews come in, they know how much coleslaw or green beans or corn is needed to fill all of the day’s orders. As trays are filled, they go into different insulated containers marked for specific customers. The order sheets are taped to a wall in the order the food needs to be delivered. As items fill a specific customer’s container, they are crossed off the sheet.

Twenty-three part-time workers arrive in shifts to prepare the food and then change into their serving uniforms to deliver. Donnie keeps track of when orders are totally filled. Based on the planning, orders tend to be completed no more than an hour before delivery.

“You don’t want to make it too early,” Donnie says. “You want to make sure the food is as fresh as possible.”

On weekdays, the staff is much smaller. Many of the events Sander caters through the week are overnight lunches for third-shift workers — some meals are delivered at 2 a.m., breakfasts at various factories, club and business luncheon meetings and organizations’ evening banquets and holiday parties.

Precise timing is the reason Donnie is able to help with community fundraisers in the midst of the numerous customers he takes care of weekly. Just like he instinctively knows that the chicken in his fryer must be taken out in 17 minutes, he knows that the groups he does benefit work for are crucial to the community.

“I never really thought about why I do it,” he says. “Why wouldn’t I do it? When you have good people who need help, you just help. And if I can help, I will. Simple as that.”

 Donnie laughed after telling a story at the end of a long Saturday of catering Sept. 28. Saturdays are the busiest day of the week, and after the vans come back to the company headquarters on State Road 164 west of Celestine and are unloaded, Donnie and his employees sit in the kitchen and eat, drink and relax. Donnie said he views his employees as family. “I like taking care of people,” he said. “It’s what I do.”

Donnie estimates that he provides meals at cost for about 30 benefits each year, though in the past two months, he’s done 10. And they aren’t small numbers; on that September Saturday, he sent out 400 barbecue dinners for a benefit for a young man battling a brain tumor.

He provides the meals for the Northeast Dubois sports teams’ postseason banquets. He cooks the fish for Holy Family School’s Lenten fish fries. The meals sold at the Dubois Ruritan’s Septemberfest and in more than one booth at the Strassenfest in Jasper are from Sander.

Each week after his Saturday rush is finished, Donnie packages meals for struggling families identified by the Saving Grace Youth Group of St. Celestine and St. Raphael Catholic churches. He does this on Saturday night or Sunday morning and church members pick up and deliver the meals on Sunday. Come next week, he will bake 700 pounds of turkey and 32 pans of dressing for the annual community Thanksgiving meal served at the St. Joseph Parish Center in Jasper.

Donnie is known to whip up soup on a whim and deliver it to the elderly in the community. One of his last batches was bean soup, “because I know they love that,” he says. “It’s fun to go around and do that because I get to sit down and talk about old times. People like the conversations. Some people are widowed or can’t get out, and they don’t have people to talk to.”

After a tornado hit a section of Celestine in February 2011, droves of volunteers helped with the cleanup and repair of several homes. Donnie provided meals for those volunteers throughout the cleanup.

Donnie snuck a mushroom to his granddaughter Ava Sander, 2, as he set up the stations to make pizzas for a fundraiser Aug. 20.  Donnie’s daughter, Jenna, and her daughter, Ava, live with Donnie and his wife, Linda. Ava is a constant presence in the kitchen.

He helped start and continues to sit on the committee that organizes the community’s annual street fest and is planning for Celestine’s 175th anniversary in 2018.

Donnie purposely stays busy. “I don’t want to slow down too much,” he says. “When you do, it gives you time to think about things too much.”

Donnie and his wife of 41 years, Linda, adopted two children as newborns: Jenna, who is now 22 and has a daughter of her own, and Ryan, who died in 1995 at age 14 in a motorcycle accident.

“It happened right up there,” Donnie says, pointing to a road hear his home. “They say accidents tend to happen within a mile from home.”

The loss affects Donnie greatly.

“We did a lot together,” he says of his son, his eyes watering. “We played basketball, and he was good at it. He’d just had a growth spurt that year, so he was getting tall. And Ryan loved Christmas lights.
We used to put up elaborate displays on the roof and in the trees. It was beautiful.”

The two were planning to build a grill to help with the increasing catering orders when Ryan died. “I didn’t want to build that. I told them to just throw the metal away. I didn’t want anything to do with it.”

A few years later, after the company started, Donnie came across the metal again. And he did build the grill. “It was a great grill,” he says. “I sold it a few years ago because we outgrew it.”

Although he loves talking about his son, he tries not to do it very much. “I don’t want to burden other people with that,” he says. “But sometimes, when I find a person who wants to listen, I’ll tell them all about my son. It feels good to be able to talk about him.”

Now, the light of his life is his granddaughter, 2-year-old Ava. He sees her every day, often at the catering shop when she walks over with Jenna or Linda from the house they all share.

“Yeah, she’s got me,” Donnie says while Ava sits on his lap. “Having her and Jenna here keeps me happy. This little girl keeps us all on our toes.”

Ava swipes through his iPhone to find pictures and open apps while he thumbs through a catalog of playground equipment. He is helping Girl Scout Lauren Betz earn her final Scout badge by installing playground equipment in Celestine Park. He agreed to be an adviser and in that capacity has found equipment, helped Lauren get donations to the cover the equipment’s $4,000 cost and called in friends and neighbors to help with installation.

“She’s my neighbor and she needed help,” he says, giving a simple explanation for his assistance. “I am proud to be from Celestine and I’ll do whatever I can to support Celestine.”

Donnie says he’s trying to step away from the catering business some, letting the staff handle more of the operations.

“It’s still exciting work. But it’s not as exciting as it used to be. When we used to do it, we’d take a big fryer or grill out at 5 a.m. and cook it all (on the site),” he says. “It’s much easier this way, but it’s not as exciting.”

He doesn’t plan to pull away completely. And he doesn’t plan to stop helping his neighbors all across the county.

“I have to stay busy,” he says. “I would go crazy if I just stayed at home.”

Contact Candy Neal at

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