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People In The News - Myra Naseem & Elegant Eating

By Stacey Altherr

Myra Naseem  - Elegant Eating - 739 Smithtown Bypass, Smithtown

If you ask Myra Naseem how she juggled teaching, being a single mother of two teenage girls, and starting a second career, she will tell you that she is more herself when juggling many balls in the air and looking for something new and different.

“I’m the sort of person that has to change,” she said. “I wake up in the morning and take a picture from one room and put in a different room.” 

That ability to change – actually inspired to make constant changes – is what makes Elegant Eating such a success. Starting while she was still a home economics teacher and raising two teenage girls, she would cook for family and friends, often catering dinner parties and other small gatherings. 

She made a cake and some other dishes for her eldest daughter’s bat mitzvah, and the caterer at the time liked what he saw. He hired her to work for him, which gave her an early insight into the catering world. She was soon supervising.

“For me, supervising the staff on the floor was like a classroom,” said Naseem, 76. “It came naturally to me.”

By the time of her youngest daughter’s bat mitzvah, she catered the whole event, with help from current and former home economic students and friends.

During this time, she met Neil Schumer, who also worked for the same caterer and was graduating from college with a business degree. She and he became partners, opening their first storefront in an old deli in Stony Brook in 1986. From there, Elegant Eating expanded its catering business, eventually moving to their present spot on Smithtown Bypass. Although she never went to culinary school, her home economics background and ability to keep those balls in the air led to success. Schumer is strictly the business side, which Naseem said has always helped her concentrate more on the food side.

Elegant Eating currently has a staff of at least 14 people, with 12 of those in the kitchen. A separate wait staff goes out to work the parties.

With more than 30 years, Naseem has seen the business through good times and lean times. The key to success? That ability to constantly change with the times, and the dietary needs and wants of the clientele. For instance, no one wants bread anymore, she said. Crudités are out.

“I think people are much more willing to try new foods,” she said. “Especially vegetables.”

She has always tries to introduce a new idea or food item in her catering. She tells a story of bringing artisan bread years ago to a catered event, only to be told the bread was stale. She explained that it wasn’t stale, but a different texture.

More stories: The time she introduced Jicama at an event, she was told someone put raw potato on the table, or the time she was told the red lettuce was bad, because people were only eating iceberg or romaine.

“I would put out guacamole, and no one would touch it.”

She sees her role as educating the customer to the different variations of a dish they already have in mind. If they want Chicken Francese, she will ask them to think about rosemary chicken.

Not only has the food evolved over the years, but the business model itself. There are many less dinner parties and more corporate catering.

Elegant Eating also does a lot of memorial services. Since people who have moved out of town remember her so well, they will call their old friend to cater the event.

And, of course, weddings. Those have also changed over the 30 something years, said Naseem, from catering halls to weddings in barns out east or on private lawns. Elegant Eating can cater to large crowds with specialized dishes. 

“We cook on a different level, with unique presentation.”

There is a lot to owning a business, she said, since the burden is always on the owner. If the walk-in refrigerator goes down and you lose the food, you have to pay for it. 

“It isn’t as easy as it seems, and it isn’t for everyone.”

Naseem has seen it changed for small mom-and-pop style business. It’s hard to compete with the vast shopping sprees available on the internet. But it is possible to succeed in a small business.

Her advice to new entrepreneurs? If you have a dream, be sure to set a goal and write it down.

“If you set yourself up for success, you will do it. You have to feel really strong and really positive.”


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