Chef and caterer Jennifer Cornell, also known as the Small Chef at Large, had been serving 80 to 120 dinners each Thursday and Friday night at VFW Post 3911 on North Roosevelt Boulevard -- until the road construction started.
"Now it's barely 50 -- and it ain't the food," Cornell said last week from the spacious catering kitchen in the back of the southernmost VFW post.
"In return for this huge catering kitchen, I provide the VFW post with great food at great prices," said Cornell, who has been catering in Key West for 12 years, and operating out of the VFW building for the past three.
She emphasized that the reasonably priced lunches and dinners are available to the public at the VFW post.
"If people aren't members of the post, they can still come in and the bartender will sponsor them as a guest," said Dennis Chandler, the canteen manager at the VFW.
Business is way off at Post 3911, but fortunately, Cornell said, her catering business has been largely unaffected, as the catered events take place all over the Keys.
"If it has to do with food, then we do it," she said. "I've catered events on boats, planes, trains, and I even did a party on the ferry."
Originally from Vermont, Cornell spent more than a decade cooking and catering in Costa Rica and throughout the Caribbean, and she brings the tropical island influences to many of her menus for weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, rehearsal dinners, retirement parties and holiday gatherings.
The kitchen was a beehive of activity last week as Cornell, Executive Chef Michael Fahey and the rest of the staff prepared for the legendary spread put out for the annual Sloppy Joe's employee Christmas party.
Cornell was brushing an egg wash over the puff pastry that surrounded a wheel of baked brie, while Fahey stirred steaming pots of holiday vegetables. Others were mixing batter for banana nut muffins, chopping vegetables and arranging a smoked salmon tray.
Halfway through the preparations, Cornell walked outside to her vegetable garden she keeps in pots at the back of the building.
"I'm from Vermont, and have always had a green thumb, so I grow my own vegetables and use them all in my cooking," she said, expertly examining her potted plants that were sprouting beans, peas, Napa cabbage, banana peppers, radishes, assorted herbs and a white eggplant.
"Eggplants are naturally white, that's how they got their name," Cornell explained. "The purple ones we're used to seeing are actually hybrids."
In addition to her catering duties, lunches and dinners for the VFW and full schedule of cooking classes, Cornell also recently took over the lease for the mobile hot dog stand in front of The Home Depot.
"As of Jan. 1, it's going to be Jen's Weiner Depot," she said. "That's why I'm also concerned by the boulevard construction."
The food truck that caters to workers and contractors throughout the day will offer, in addition to the requisite hot dogs, a changing menu that includes gumbo, picadillo and other quick, affordable, quality lunchtime entrees, she said.
Out front, in the VFW Post, Chandler emphasized that the bar and restaurant is open to people who sign the guestbook and become guests of the bartender. Lunch is served from noon to 3 p.m. and dinner is available from 5 to 9 p.m. Food is available all day Sunday from noon to 9 p.m.