Charleston, West Virginia — Connie Bergstedt saw the world. Born in the Philippines in 1944, Bergstedt grew up in the multinational convent where she went to school.
“Our parents were the nuns and they gave us the idea that we can do anything,” Bergstedt said.
At age 14, she graduated and later moved to Japan to sing in the Hilton Hotels. There she met her first husband, a West Virginian who worked in the oil industry. They got married in 1972, and moved to Saudi Arabia.
Oil took them and their four children all over the world– from Algeria to London to Singapore– but in 1982, they settled in Charleston, WV.
A year later, they divorced. Bergstedt decided to stay in Charleston.
To make ends meet, she sold Mary Kay, Pampered Chef and worked in the kitchen of the local Marriott. But it wasn’t long before she set out on her own.
In 1987, Bergstedt founded Connie’s Gourmet Kitchen and has fed the people of Charleston ever since.
Bergstedt’s story is uniquely hers, but at the same time, as a Filipina-American she is part of the third-largest immigrant group in the U.S. and the largest in West Virginia.
Bergstedt is one of 1.8 million Filipino immigrants living in the U.S. and one of 2,000 living in West Virginia.
Being an immigrant in Charleston wasn’t always easy for Bergstedt.
“The first time I arrived here somebody yelled at me from across the street, ‘Go home where you come from!'” Bergstedt said, “That was a shock but anyway I just responded ‘I’m home.'”
And as she made Charleston home, word of her cooking spread throughout the surrounding valley.
Despite never advertising for her catering company, Bergstedt’s phone rings off the hook with requests for her food.
Today, her second husband Merrill and son Karl help her in the kitchen and on catering jobs.
“Merrill is my husband, he’s what we call our gopher. He buys stuff from the store or when something has to be carried and he has the muscles,” Bergstedt said. “Karl is my youngest son and he’s grill master.”
Merrill and Karl also help manage deliveries on days when Connie’s Gourmet Kitchen is catering multiple events.
“When you have three jobs a day for four to five days in a row, that would be very busy,” Bergstedt said. “One time I had a wedding and an anniversary party that I served. There were 120 people at each party. I worked 48 hours straight and then the following day I had another luncheon to do. So I was really really tired.”
Despite the long hours, Bergstedt loves her job. At the age of 71, she’s thought of retiring but just hasn’t had time to walk away yet.
“Right now I am so busy and I really enjoy what I do,” she said. “Except for the aching joints.”
By | Hannah Doksanksy, Samantha Harrington and Josie Hollingsworth