GLASTONBURY — After Nancy Hayden shooed the guests out of the kitchen, the party really started to cook.
"You broke up with me two weeks back. You will say anything to get me back. Anything," the chauffeur said to his ex-girlfriend.
His mother, wearing a French maid outfit, flirtatiously touched a cop with her Swiffer duster. "Put that away," he scolded. "You're not going to get anywhere with that tickler with me."
Hostess Pam Crouch, teetering on sky-high heels and complaining about how sweaty her neck was under her hot-pink boa, was grinning at how much her 13 guests were getting into their roles at her murder mystery party last weekend.
"This is the first time I've done this type of party," she said, though she's a prodigious hostess, both personally and as a member of the Republican Town Committee.
Crouch has hired Hayden, owner of Ginger and Pickles catering, five times in the past two years, and when Hayden asked her to try a murder mystery dinner party, at $40 a head, she readily agreed. About 40 percent of Ginger and Pickles' business is from repeat customers.
Ironically, Crouch's guests were having so much fun throwing themselves into their roles, they were barely noticing the server bringing around bacon-wrapped water chestnuts, cheese biscuits with sun-dried tomato relish, and toasts with warm gorgonzola-mushroom topping.
Hayden backed into the catering business, cooking for friends' parties for free for several years before establishing Ginger and Pickles in 1999. For three years after she incorporated, she did catering on weekends while working full time at the state Department of Transportation. As word of mouth built, Ginger and Pickles generated enough business that she could quit her job.
During that time, she also spent a year and a half pushing the town of Glastonbury to grant permits for her to build a commercial kitchen in her basement. She said town officials were skeptical, and one asked, "What if there were foul odors?"
She said her neighbor responded, "You mean like chocolate chip cookies?"
For two years, she owned a bistro on Hebron Avenue, also called Ginger & Pickles, but her husband, exhausted from putting in 40 hours alongside her on the weekends, asked her to sell. The six-burner range she moved there from her basement commercial kitchen stayed, and she only has a four-burner range in the commercial kitchen now.
She later took a break from catering as she worked as a district café trainer for Barnes and Noble. "My husband was getting a little burnt out on helping me, and rightly so," she said.
Even though Hayden regularly hires servers/assistant cooks to help at her events, her husband, Keith, often ends up working, too. At Crouch's party, he was chopping onions, heating the pesto sauce, cooking the fresh green beans, grabbing an hors d'oeuvre here and there where he could.
And, at home, Keith makes dinner most nights. "The only time I cook is to try something new," Hayden said.
Before the recession, a little more than half of her annual revenue came from corporate catering jobs.
"At least once a week, there was something corporate," she said.
She did company picnics for 500 people, Christmas parties for 150. "Blow out menus," she said. "You could have hors d'oeuvres at $30 a person."
When the recession hit, sales dropped by half. The corporate work nearly evaporated, and "people just weren't entertaining," she said.
In recent years, Hayden has concentrated on growing her non-corporate clientele. She and Keith came up with the idea of catering murder mystery parties, slightly adjusting the scripts and characters available from commercial murder mystery kits. She's sold five so far and said she thinks they're catching on.
She also is hosting cooking lessons in her home, for as few as two people and as many as 24 (they will split their time wine tasting and cooking). She said cooking shows have influenced people to think they can just toss ingredients in a pan or bowl. Hayden sees herself as a baker first, and she always follows a recipe — she's a big believer in measuring.
She said when people say of a favorite dish, "It came out good this time," that's a sign they should be following a written recipe.
She's also concentrating on baking cookies — eight flavors — which she sells at a local coffee shop and will be selling at a Glastonbury farmer's market this summer. Her catering's company has two cookie-themed slogans: "Without cookies there would be chaos." "Life's short. Eat cookies."
Business is still 10 percent to 15 percent below the peak in 2007. Hayden said she'd love to get to $100,000 in sales this year.
She said some weeks she has no business, and that's fine. "I don't have overhead," she said. Work clusters between Thursday and Sunday, and she said she has trouble saying no.
"The breaking limit was I did five jobs in one day. I thought my husband was going to kill me," she said. "I think everything is possible."
Ginger and Pickles is available at 860-918-0458 or http://gpbakingandcatering.com/