As the longtime owner of a Colorado Springs catering and events business, Michelle Talarico helps others celebrate memorable moments.

Last week, she was the one who marked a special occasion.

Talarico, co-owner of The Picnic Basket Catering Collective, was named the recipient of the 2021 Athena Award, which honors businesswomen for professional excellence, community service and mentorship of other women.

The award was presented April 1 during a virtual gathering hosted by the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce & EDC. The annual event, which typically takes place at an in-person luncheon attended by hundreds, was postponed last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Talarico and Kathy Dreiling, her wife and business partner, launched their catering careers in 1989 when they each invested $300 to buy an existing company.

Over three-plus decades, they’ve grown The Picnic Basket Catering Collective into a multimillion-dollar umbrella organization with three divisions — Picnic Basket Catering, Cravings 5-Star Catering and Buffalo Gals Grilling.

They serve a variety of food types for gatherings that run the gamut in size and scope — a family’s intimate Easter dinner, weddings with 200 people, boardroom lunches, corporate events and ultra high-end sit-down dinners for thousands, to name a few.

Catering such events is more than just providing a quality lunch or dinner, Talarico said.

“Through others’ celebrations over the years, I have come to realize how vital and important celebrating those days and special times are in my own life,” she said in a video before the Athena Award was announced. “I get to be a part of people’s most absolute special, special days.

“We love this community. We’ve been in the community for 31 years. Our bread and butter, literally, no pun intended, is small corporate business.”

Her advocacy has led her to serve on the boards of several area groups, including the Colorado Springs Leadership Institute, the Greenberg Center for Learning & Tolerance, the Pikes Peak Hospice Foundation, Colorado Springs Conservatory, the Children’s Literacy Center, and Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado.

As a businesswoman and community advocate, Talarico said, the Athena Award symbolizes the contributions of strong women and men, who she credits with providing her with guidance and mentorship throughout her life.

“When we first started our business 30 years ago, they really brought me along and mentored me without me even knowing I was being mentored,” said the 56-year-old Talarico, who grew up in suburban Denver and attended Colorado College.

She learned to care about more than just herself and instead looked at how she fit into the community, she said.

“I fell in love with giving back,” Talarico said. “I’m so lucky that I happen to be in an industry where I get to serve people for a living.”

But to no one’s surprise, making a living in the past year was rough for Talarico and Dreiling. Like the rest of the hospitality industry, they suffered huge losses as customers canceled events or postponed them to 2021.

They sought to reinvent themselves and felt a sense of urgency to keep their 30 to 40 full-time employees working. They sold curbside meals, assembled special packages for scaled-down weddings and worked with partners to pass along donations in the form of meals to first responders.

“We went from making $50,000, $60,000 on a busy Friday in a normal wedding season to being thrilled if we made $1,000 on a curbside,” Talarico said. “But it meant just as much to the staff.”

Athena nominees are selected by their peers and judged on a points system by a panel of past recipients.

In addition to Talarico, 2021 Athena nominees were: Deborah Baum, Rocky Mountain Health Health Care Services; Niki Cicak, Day Lily Salon & Spa; Vicki Dimond, community leader; Jackie Gonzalez, ABC Bank; Sarah Johnson, Colorado Springs city clerk; Uyen Le, Beauty Bar; Katrina Lusk, Onward to Opportunity; Brittany Macdonald, Coaching for Good; Heather McBroom, Precision Insurance Services; Victoria Selfridge, formerly Ent Credit Union; Kristen Faith Sharpe, The Nonprofit Makeover; and Lola Woloch, Southern Colorado Women’s Chamber.

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