TOLNA, N.D. — From catering to candy-making to captaining a food truck, Esther Donohue enjoys cooking up food business.
This time of year the owner of Sweet Prairie Chocolates & Catering in Tolna — population 166, about 80 miles west of Grand Forks — is busy dipping her signature chocolate-covered caramels and cherries. Donohue sells the candies she makes in a commercial kitchen in the former home economics room in Tolna High School and at craft shows around the region.
Donohue enjoys cooking — in any form.
"I like the creativity. You have endless possibilities,” she said. “You can make a recipe and turn it into whatever you want. It’s a blank canvas.”
Donohue began cooking, baking and making candy as a child helping her mom, Crysti Bjorlie, make meals for their farm family of nine.
“Mom’s German, so we cooked a lot of ethnic foods: fleischkuekle, bandchinda — a pumpkin hand pie — and dumplings,” Donohue said. After Donohue graduated from high school and earned a degree from Le Cordon Bleu in St. Paul., she interned at Baise’s Restaurant at the former Ramada Plaza Suites in Fargo.
After she finished the internship, she returned to Tolna and married Daniel Donohue, and then worked as a chef at The View Restaurant in the Spirit Lake Casino. After the arrival of her daughter Lily Rae and son Aidan, Donohue left her job at the casino and started a catering business called Modern Cuisine, which allowed her to have a more flexible schedule.
About four years ago, Donohue decided to reduce the catering work and, instead, make and sell homemade candy.
“Mom has always made these fantastic caramels.” Donohue said. “ I had this idea: ‘I’m going to dip my mom’s caramels in chocolate.’”
Donohue’s mother has been making caramels for more than 50 years.
“I started making when I was so small I had to stand on a chair to stir the caramel,” Bjorlie said. “It takes an hour and a half per batch.”
Bjorlie continued the caramel making when she had a family of her own.
“Every year for Christmas I've done my caramels, so it was a perfect thing to start dipping,” Bjorlie said.
Donohue wanted to dip her mother's caramels in high-quality chocolate, so she learned the art of tempering. Melting and cooling the chocolate makes it smooth and glossy.
’’The first year was pretty much trial and error,” Donohue said. Now, she makes candy from October to January and sells it at craft shows across North Dakota.
Besides the candy-making business, Donohue teaches culinary arts at Warwick (N.D.) High School.
“I teach them everything from loading the dishwasher to decorating a cake,” Donohue said.
With the full workload, she doesn't regret reducing her catering hours.
“It’s labor intensive and hard work,” she said.
But she still likes to cook, so she is going to continue doing it by operating a food truck. Donahue bought an old bread truck that her brothers and husband will convert into a food truck during the winter..
She plans to use her kitchen’s commercial equipment —which includes an upright freezer, griddle and stainless steel tables — to make food and travel around the state in her truck during the summer. Donohue plans to prepare and sell home-cooked comfort food, made with ingredients produced in North Dakota. She'll do it all in the truck, she said.
“I want to concentrate on North Dakota products,” Donohue said, noting that prime rib sandwiches and french fries made with North Dakota potatoes are a couple of ideas.
Donohue is looking forward to her new business adventure.
“I think the food truck will be my happy spot,” she said.