What’s Cooking? Turning a passion into a thriving business

By Susan Montgomery

What’s cooking? Ask Mary Lindsey Smith around lunch time on weekdays.

Or run by her catering business and restaurant on West Park Avenue in Greenwood and look over the What’s Cooking? menu on a blackboard behind the cash register.

Smith, who started What’s Cooking? with a small business loan in 2006, has tripled her sales in the past 10 years. When she opened at her current location 10 years ago, sales rose 50 percent over the previous year.

Financial success pleases her but what really makes her smile is cooking food people love.

She’s been happy in the kitchen since she was a girl growing up in Greenwood and during her college years at the University of Mississippi, she continued to cook. “I always liked cooking for people,” she explained. “Even through college, I always knew I wanted to do this.”

Smith served internships with Viking Range in Greenwood, working at Giardina’s and the Viking Cooking School. She started making casseroles for friends who were having dinner parties or other special occasions.

In 2005, she graduated and returned to her home town.

She told her parents, Parker and Judy Johnson of Greenwood, that she wanted to make cooking her business. “My momma and daddy kind of thought that was nuts,” she says. “But I said we were going to try it.” So they backed her, and here mother still works for What’s Cooking in the restaurant and as a bookkeeper.

She started small with casseroles, such as poppyseed chicken, and spreads, such as pimiento cheese and chicken salad. Soon, she was cooking fulltime. She had two small locations on West Park Avenue and then bought, expanded and remodeled a building across the street near Greenwood Market Place.

The name, What’s Cooking?, was her aunt’s idea. Everyone liked it, and it’s so appealing that it makes a snappy sign across the roof of the restaurant. It’s not hard to locate the eatery.

What’s Cooking can seat around 80 people, and its booths and tables fill comfortably most weekdays. The restaurant is open for catering orders and lunch on weekdays only. That leaves Smith time for her husband, Scott, and three daughters. Julia is 21/2, Parker is 7, and stepdaughtger Addison is 19.

Smith is 34. She heads a staff of eight, including chef Linda Swims, who has worked at What’s Cooking almost since it was started. “She is a wonderful cook,” Smith says. The staff prepares a hundred, sometimes a couple hundred, meals a day. These include takeouts via a drive-through window, and they also make vats of casseroles and salads plus cakes and other desserts.

Smith knows how much to buy and prepare almost intuitively, and that’s how she cooks “I don’t use recipes,” she explained. But she does know exactly what she is trying to do, and understands what has brought her success. It’s more than hard work.

She named three factors. “Consistency. Quality. And making customers happy.” So that’s what’s cooking at her place every day.