The Epting family’s reputation extends far beyond the Southeast for catering epic events, serving up scrumptious food, and personalities that do not shy away from attention. But most—even Lee, Ashley, and Daniel—would agree that the real star of their operation is not in the spotlight but in the kitchen.
Janice Witcher’s official title may be Executive Chef, but staff more often revere her as “The Queen”—and for a cornucopia of reasons. For starters, “Mama J” serves as the “resident shrink” that all who work for Epting Events turn to with their frustrations and problems. Smart as a whip and steadfast in her faith, she bestows words of wisdom as effortlessly as she can rattle off all the ingredients of any of the company’s signature recipes. “From candid one-on-ones with staff to heavy heart-to-hearts with Lee, Janice has used the deep keel of her integrity to steer the course of our family—and our company—for decades,” says Ashley.
Despite her big heart, this chief cook is no pushover. On the contrary, Janice is a no-nonsense force to be reckoned with and one of the few people on the planet who, when necessary, can put Lee Epting in his place. “I lovingly call him the ‘Tasmanian Devil,’” she laughs. “We’ve been together so long that folks refer to us as an old married couple. And actually, I am the only ‘wife’ who’s stayed with him.” From Ashley’s perspective, his dad and Janice are “part odd couple, part siblings, and flavor partners in every single dish we serve.”
Four Decades and Counting
Amazingly, this duo has been in cahoots for a whopping 41 years. In July of 1979, the year Daniel was born, Janice was a 21-year-old new bride when she landed a part-time waitressing job at the Ramada Inn (now Holiday Inn Express) in Athens. “My aunt and god aunt were cooks in the kitchen there, and some six months earlier, Lee had been hired as Food and Beverage Manager,” having come over from The Station, Janice recalls. She quickly moved her way up to assistant supervisor for the day shift, where she handled banquet services as well as the restaurant. “Then Jenny Maddox retired, and I became the sole front-of-the-house person in charge of setting up banquets.”
Someone’s in the Kitchen
In what was quickly becoming a family affair, Janice’s brother-in-law, Johnny, soon came aboard as a cook. “When he became ill and had to take a 30-day medical leave, I decided to go into the kitchen and help cook,” she reports. “That way, we didn’t have to hire anyone else, and Johnny’s job would be waiting for him once he recovered.”
At the time, Janice was well-versed on the basics of cooking, but she’d never had the opportunity to get creative in the kitchen. “My grandmama was old school, and my granddaddy worked hard, so you weren’t going to go into the kitchen and play. There were too many folks to feed,” she says. “But I learned a little from her and a lot from my mother-in-law. My husband had four kids and I had two, so we had a Brady Bunch immediately. With all those mouths to feed, I had to get creative fast—or else.”
Initially, Janice’s primary kitchen duties at the Ramada Inn entailed overseeing the soup and salad bar, which featured two soups, all the fixings for salad, and one entrée. “On day one, I was making the soups, and Lee was supposed to come and help me,” she remembers. “Well, guess what—I’m still waiting!” But not to worry. Janice’s soups were such a hit that when Lee finally arrived to taste them, he remarked, “Damn, I make good soup!”
Moving on Up
Decades before the fleet of mobile kitchens, refrigerated trucks and sprinter vans, in the early years Lee did some catering on the side, working out of a couple of vans and a green mail truck they called the Cater Gator. But in 1996, when the Olympics came to town, he decided to venture out on his own. “That was a huge turning point for me,” says Janice. “I had to choose whether to stay at the Ramada Inn or go with Lee.” Ultimately, she decided she preferred the catering business over being a short-order cook, so she followed him to the former Winn-Dixie near Homewood Hills on Jefferson Road, before landing at Epting Events’ most recent home on North Chase Street, just outside the loop.
After some choice / key spots in the Comcast TV show BLACK TIE & BBQ, nowadays, Janice is famous for her humor and quips of advice as well as her chicken salad, sweet potato souffle, squash casserole, mac and cheese, and potato soup—among others. And over four decades, she has built a stellar reputation by cooking for hundreds of thousands of clients at more venues than anyone in the State of Georgia, and more than most in the country—from exclusive private dinners and weddings, to non-profit charity events, as well as at major events from the 1996 Olympics to sponsored parties like Wheels Up events during the Super Bowl and Masters Golf Tournament. “Daniel builds me a whole kitchen in Augusta bigger than what I had the first 20 years Lee was in business, and that’s just for one week.” says Janice. “That’s what it takes to feed a 2,500 person tailgate or do a 500 plus person restaurant style pop-up.” adds Daniel, “and the clients love introducing Janice and showing off the kitchen.”
But cooking is just one slice of Janice’s job. “She is literally my right hand,” insists Lee. “She’s a pro at ordering supplies, measuring price points, formulating recipes, calculating portions large and small, keeping up with market trends, and so much more.” Most recently, Janice has also played a major role in launching Epting Events’ newest brand, A Good Story Foods. “When the pandemic surfaced we took a huge hit,” she says. Most parties that could rescheduled to the Fall. In the meantime, “we’ve managed to survive—even thrive—by offering a heat-and-serve service featuring some of our company’s most popular culinary treats.”
Her Recipe for Success
A typical workday for Janice begins at 7:00 AM, when she’s often the only one in the building “I crave that mental time—a couple of hours before everyone else arrives,” she confesses. “You can get so much done when folks aren’t asking you questions, and the phone isn’t ringing. I’ve learned over the years that when I’m cooking, I need to feel comfortable. If I have to do something in a hurry, it’s probably going to be a hot mess.”
The offices at Epting Events are packed with recipes—some passed down from one generation of Eptings to the next; others from clients who ask if their mother’s or grandmother’s recipe can be replicated. “Absolutely,” says Janice, but adds that she isn’t a fan of recipes. “I’ll look at them and check out the ingredients, but then I’ll put them down and put my own spin on them.” In fact, she calls her approach to cooking the “80/20 rule.” “Basically, you take what you normally do well and tweak it just enough to make a change for the better,” she explains.
Oh, the Places She Goes
Off-duty, Janice typically cooks only on Sundays, making portions large enough to feed her mom for the week. Otherwise, she relishes eating out at her local restaurants like DePalma’s, The Last Resort, and Dominick’s in Watkinsville. “It’s nice to let someone else do the cooking every once in a while,” she admits.
And while colleagues claim that Janice never takes a vacation, she has somewhat of a passion for travel. New York, Las Vegas, D.C., Mexico, the Bahamas, and California are favorite destinations she’s explored. “When I ate at the original Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles in Los Angeles, I was in heaven,” she laughs.
And the Tales She Can Tell!
After 41 years of working alongside the Eptings, Janice is known to occasionally spill the beans—especially about the Epting boys. She recalls, for example, that as a little boy, Ashley was a bit of a demon. “At the Ramada Inn, he’d often say, ‘You don’t tell me what to do; this is my Daddy’s restaurant!’ And once when I popped him on the behind, he told me I was fired,” she laughs. She’s been at Epting ever since and never had to pop him again.
On the flip side, Daniel was more mild-mannered and humbler, she adds. “Although in high school, he used to ‘persuade’ me to make enough chicken tenders at lunchtime to, I swear, feed all of Clarke Central.”
But Janice’s favorite story by far involves Lee. “One Saturday a couple of years ago, he came into the kitchen in a tizzy and upset everyone,” she recalls. “I told him to leave, and he said, ‘Okay, I’m gone!’ Later, when Pervis, the dishwasher, and I were finishing up, we left the building and locked all the doors, as well as the outside gate, before heading home.” Unbeknownst to Janice, Lee was still inside, laying low, and once he exited, he didn’t have a key to get back in. “His car was out front, and he was stranded in the back,” she says. “He tried to call everyone he knew for help (except me, cause he knew better), but nobody would answer. Finally, Daniel got his message and headed over to rescue his Dad. And when he showed up, Lee was attempting to climb the fence to get to his car!”
She’s Gotten Punked!
Anyone who knows the Epting boys is well aware of their razor-sharp sense of humor. And when times get stressful, these two can always be counted on to find a way to lighten the mood. “One of my favorite pranks occurred around Halloween when we put rubber body parts Daniel bought at the Halloween store all through the cooler and freezers,” says Ashley. “You should have heard Janice scream when she saw a snake and zombie arm behind the boxes of produce!”
Adds Daniel, “I once found a Vanity Fair photo of two near-naked people lying together, with one feeding the other grapes. It was kind of a Greek or Roman-themed photo shoot. So, I replaced the models’ faces with those of Dad and Janice, made copies, and plastered these all over the kitchen and offices. ‘Daniel!!!,’ Janice hollered, laughing—knowing exactly who had come up with that stunt.”
Experiences that Last a Lifetime
On a more serious note, Janice boasts a unique ability to teach without preaching. “She leads us all with her moral compass,” explains Ashley, “and I’ll give you a perfect example of that. When I was 12, Janice, Johnny and some of the other staff, and my parents took me to march in Forsyth county. Few experiences have moved me or shaped my view of the world as much as walking with people that day who had been in my life for as long as I could remember, and seeing the National Guard lining the streets while KKK members yelled from the borders. I didn't know then, and in a way still don't know now, especially now, how people could fear, or hate, or be angry at others because of the color of their skin. The songs we sang that day in that multi-hour march, still resonate.”
Pride and Joy
Janice plans to retire at some point but isn’t sure when. And when she does, she looks forward to spending more time with her family: two grown sons, ten grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. “Many of them are attending college on scholarships or are managing successful careers,” she beams. “They are my pride and joy. I am truly blessed.”
When it comes to having Janice Witcher “in the house,” the Eptings feel the same. “Janice’s strength of character and her resource of perspective have shaped so many individuals that have come through the Epting doors over the past 41 years,” agree Lee, Ashley, and Daniel. “And we are beyond grateful for that.”