By Steve Novotney
He’s been here. Bob Bailey was born in Wheeling, and he was educated in Wheeling. Except for a couple of employment opportunities, Bailey has worked right here in the Upper Ohio Valley as a cashier, jewelry sales representative, bartender, and county club manager.
He even acted in a few different Ron Howard-directed films that debuted during the 1980s, including, “Willow” and “Gung Ho.”
But when the time arrived for that entrepreneurial spirit to take control, he opened his catering company. And he chose to do it in Wheeling.
Bailey is the owner and operator of As You Like It Catering, a 21-year-old business that was once housed on the bottom level of the former Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy. For the past seven years, his food factory has been located on 18th Street in East Wheeling, and he employees 18 local folks, most of whom are employed on a part-time basis as staff for catering anything from receptions, corporate functions, banquets, family dinners, and even school lunches.
“The one thing about our business is that we work seven days a week and 365 days per year,” explained Bailey, a 1982 graduate of Wheeling Park High School and a 1986 grad of Wheeling Jesuit University. “It has been that way since the first day because we do all of the holidays, too. This past Thanksgiving we did 12 turkeys, so we were driving all over the place so people would could have a great dinner with their families.
“And it is work. We don’t just drop off the food and leave,” said “We’re there for the dinner and everything, and that’s fine. We enjoy it very much. It’s part of the job, and we love doing the job.”
Bailey’s business has increased steadily during those two decades, and that has led him to fill his shop with everything imaginable from dishware, pots, pans, casserole dishes, cutting boards, serving trays, decorations, cutlery, candlestick holders, serving equipment, a walk-in cooler and freezer, chaffing dishes, cooking utensils, flatware, mixers, ovens, and a bursting-at-the-seams schedule book.
“This year has been incredibly busy so far, and last year was incredibly busy,” he said. “I would say we did 900 to 1,000 jobs per year during the last few. And that is on top of what we do for a lot of local schools.
“We feed the folks at Sikora Montessori, Corpus Christie, St. Mary’s in St. Clairsville, West Virginia Northern, and we’ve done the schools for years,” Bailey continued. “We do the school lunches every day, and we got into that area because of our success with feeding the ladies and the sisters of Mount de Chantal for so long. Word of mouth spread the word that our product is pretty darn good, and I never say no unless we’re just crazy-busy on the day that someone is requesting.”
When meeting with clients, potentially new ones or return customers, Bailey is happy to break it all down to the penny, but one thing he refuses to do is point to his preference, and that’s because he owns no favorites.
“The company’s name really says it all,” Bailey admitted. “It’s all about what the client wants. I am going to prepare the best possible food for the client each and every time. I never try to talk anybody into something because it’s all about what they want, not what I like to prepare.
“Now, if I am cooking for myself, it’s all organic, and it’s a lot of vegetables. I don’t eat anything pre-packaged, and I don’t eat sweets. I don’t eat sugar unless it’s in a marinara sauce or something. I don’t even bring it into my house. If it’s not there, I won’t eat it,” he said. “I would have snap peas, tenderloin of beef and some red skin potatoes. I eat beef, chicken and fish, and I eat as healthy as I can because that’s best for the body.”
Along with serving the Wheeling community – literally – Bailey also started his own charity event that combines fashion, local participants and sponsors, and local non-profit organizations. Once known as, “Fashion Rocks” and benefitting Oglebay Institute for several years, this May’s function is called “Rockin’ the Runway,” and the beneficiary will be the Wheeling YWCA.
“I love doing that kind of work in this community, and I partnered with Oglebay Institute for eight years with ‘Fashion Rocks,’” Bailey explained. “This year, the event will have a new name and a new benefactor because I’ve decided to partner this year with the YWCA.
“In the beginning I started it because of the Fashion Week in New York. I knew we couldn’t sustain something like that here in Wheeling for an entire week, but I thought it would be a very cool thing if we could have it one evening,” he said. “We started it at the Stifel Arts Center, and just 88 people showed up, but then the next year the place was packed, and I moved to the Stone Center lobby near Market Plaza.
“But then the location was too small, so the best decision I made was to move it to the Wheeling Park Ice Rink, and that’s proven to the best the possible place for it,” he said. “We raise thousands of dollars for the charity, and it’s growing and growing. I’m really looking forward to it again this year.”
Through the years Bailey has been offered many chances to depart the Friendly City, but he has chosen to remain and instead watch friend after friend leave for opportunities elsewhere. His reasons for remaining are various, but the most important is his family. Today, Bob’s mother Sandy still lives in the same house in Elm Grove in which he was raised, and his sister, Missy, also lives in Wheeling with her husband, Bill Piko, and their daughter, Samantha.
But Bailey took to Facebook recently and expressed frustration. While he readily acknowledges that retaining the city’s youth is vital to population and economic growth, he voiced his appreciation for those who have chosen to stay and fight and endure a decreasing population.
“This is an awesome place to live if you make the most of what we have. And we have a lot if you really think about it,” Bailey continued. “I do love that people are coming here or that they are coming back, and that doesn’t make me jealous or angry about that in the least. I love that there are more things going on now than there have been for a lot of years.
“But lately it’s been like there’s some miraculous things going on, and I know there are a lot of people who have been here who have sustained everything we do have at this point,” he continued. “There are a lot of people who have started businesses from nothing – literally nothing – and they have made it something, and they have stayed here all along. I believe those people deserve a lot of credit, too; that’s all. I posted what I posted on Facebook because I don’t think those people should be forgotten.”
Bailey can recall that former downtown Wheeling that far too many people dwell on too often these days, but his personal sorrow dissipated long ago.
“I believe most people have realized by now that Wheeling is never going to be the Wheeling it was a lot of years ago. That time has passed, and it’s really no one’s fault locally,” Bailey said. “I can remember when I would go to the downtown, and my mother and I would be dressed to the nines, and we would go to Stones, and Horne’s, and Good’s, and Murphy’s, and King’s, and Posin’s and every store we could.
“But it’s never going to be that way again. We just have to adjust to that, and I think a lot of people have, but not all. We can’t mourn for downtown Wheeling forever,” he said. “And I think that time has finally come to an end because of the people who have been here all along. It’s their hard work that has drawn people to move here or to come home, and that new energy that has come into play with this youth movement has been a wonderful thing to watch.”
What a new Wheeling may look like if and when realized is anyone guess, he said, but Bailey is certain the transformation is long from complete. New pieces have been added with the chunks in place for decades like the city parks and waterfront events.
“I think we are very blessed to have Oglebay Park, and we do have a great cultural feel with all of the heritage-themed festivals. I think they all do a great job,” he said. “I think our arts community, which has been in Wheeling for a long time because of the foresight of those who were here before us, is growing and thriving.
“I believe more people need to realize what we do have instead of taking those things for granted. People in other cities would die to have our parks, our symphony, and our arts community,” he said. “At times I am too busy to take advantage of it, and that’s because of how much there is. It’s really quite something for the size of this community.”
Bailey then returned to that brain-teasing puzzle and to the fact that large portions of it have stayed scattered waiting for yet-unscheduled placement, and the only solution he could offer is to persist with what he has done day after day, year after year.
“Nothing stays the same. Nothing. Everything always changes, and that’s not a bad thing,” he said. “Everything comes to an end. Everything. And I like what’s been going on, and I know there are a lot of people working long hours to keep that momentum going. In my opinion, the one piece we are still missing is that one big corporation in the downtown. We now have the space in the downtown area for something to be constructed, and I think it’s very important for our future that something happens there soon that impacts this city in a big way.
“If we get the big employer in the downtown, it will impact the housing market, the local economy, and it will lead to more development. If that were to happen, then we would see some big changes in the downtown,” Bailey continued. “There have been some new developments with new restaurants, and that’s been great, and I think the Centre Market area is fantastic. We’ve moved forward to the point to where we can now identify what we need next and not be considered crazy for thinking about it. What we cannot do is predict when and who will make it happen.”
photos by Steve Novotney