SOUTH WHITLEY — An event planning company turned hyper-local restaurant has brought a new spark to South Whitley.

By: Belle Haven, a restaurant owned by Catie Crance, Nate Lowen and Naomi Lowen, opened in February and has welcomed guests from all over northeast Indiana — shocking the owners, who originally had no intentions of running a restaurant.

“We were looking at the space for catering. It’s turned into a monster — a good one — but sometimes it’s frightening,” Nate Lowen said.

The owners of By: Belle Haven were looking at the building that formerly housed The Brownstone, 105 S. State St. in South Whitley. They first toured the building in December, when building owner Tony Starkey said he would only sell the building to someone who would run a restaurant.

By January, the owners dove headfirst into the restaurant business.

“I had no idea what to expect,” Lowen said. “I hadn’t lived here (Whitley County) since college. But whenever I came home to visit, we’d usually go to Warsaw or Fort Wayne to eat out. There’s some great local restaurants, but not enough for the size of our county.”

After a series of soft openings, By: Belle Haven opened on Feb. 17, and the response has been more than the owners could imagine.

“We thought we’d have about 50 people on Saturdays — sometimes it’s 10 times that,” Lowen said. “It’s humbling.”

Though the building was already ready to be a restaurant, Lowen said there was a lot to learn in a short amount of time.

“We had the facility, the plates, the tables, but there’s a lot of things you don’t think about, like food quantities and prep lists,” Lowen said.

In addition the the restaurant, Belle Haven is continuing its event planning services, with more than 65 events planned between now and September, including weddings, bridal showers, corporate events, baby showers and rehearsal dinners.

On one weekday in April, Belle Haven had 220 customers in the restaurant, but served about 1,400 people in total through catering jobs. All meals are made in the kitchen in South Whitley — nearly all made from scratch from local food.

“The only thing we don’t make ourselves is mayonnaise — Hellman’s does it better,” Lowen said. “Everything else is fresh. Nothing comes to us pre-cut. It’s all whole.”

The cheese comes in logs that are sliced and shredded by hand. Lettuce comes from Fingerle Farms in Churubusco. Shrimp comes from a farm in Huntington. Local women make the desserts. Goat cheese comes from a farm 10 miles down the road from Belle Haven, and most of the meat and eggs come from local farms or butcher shops.

“Not using any preservatives makes things difficult, especially with refrigeration space,” Lowen said. “We also want to have competitive prices, and that’s tough when we’re making everything fresh.”

It’s not just about having fresh food that tastes better, but supporting local farmers, they say.

“All the money is staying here,” Crance said. “We want to support other smaller businesses, just as they support us.”

The same attitude of specialized, fresh foods is what makes the catering business so unique.

“If you want us to cater pulled pork, we find the exact meat we want — including what breed of hog we want. Then, our chef spends hours making the rub just right, and we make it in the smoker with several different kinds of wood chips. I’d have worked on the barbecue sauce for weeks — then we’ll give you pulled pork,” Lowen said. “It’s comfort foods with the volume turned way up.”

Crance said By: Belle Haven has a boutique style.

“Every garnish has a reason,” Crance said.

From catering at places like the Van Buren in downtown Columbia City, to bringing food right to people’s homes, By: Belle Haven is fully customizable.

After its success in the restaurant business, the Lowens and Crance are looking to open two more restaurants before the end of the year — locations not yet announced.

Additionally, they’re working with One Community to provide kitchen space to make meals for senior citizens in Whitley County, as well as creating a community garden for local youth. Produce from the garden can both be consumed by the children and sold in the Whitley County Farmers Market.