How 10 acres of barren farmland grew into a home—and a business.
Tami Cecil was a young professional when she and her husband, Mark, spent time wandering the country roads around Central Ohio. They missed the wide-open spaces where they had grown up in rural northwestern Ohio. Eventually, they found nearly 10 acres of barren land near Johnston and purchased it on a land contract with the farmer who owned it.
Cecil's childhood was spent gardening, cooking or hanging out by the family's pond. The youngest of six children, she left her hometown of Fremont in the late 1970s for Ohio State University, where she earned degrees in chemical engineering and business. “My dad wanted me to be an engineer; I didn't want to be one,” she explains. Thus, she sold insurance and then became a stockbroker. Her career thrived for 15 years.
The journey to transform the barren land into Woodhaven Farm, where Cecil lives with her husband and runs a significant corporate retreat business, took years. “There was no grandiose plan,” she says. “I followed the yellow brick road kind of thing.”
In the beginning, life in rural Licking County seemed so simple. The couple hired help to dig a pond and then Mark—who works in the building industry—constructed a small barn that included tiny living quarters, which they used as a retreat from their suburban home.
Cecil recalls a distinct turning point in her career that opened the gateway to this life that she now loves. She was in New Orleans for an investment conference. After she and a few friends had partied late in the night, they decided to skip out of the conference at the Superdome the next day because Cecil was determined to find some spicy food. The small group stumbled into a tiny restaurant where Cecil ate jambalaya and walked away with the chef's recipe. She spent the rest of that week buying local cookbooks, going to the chefs' restaurants and asking for their recipes, never again returning to the conference.
“The food bug had bitten,” she says, remembering one chef who told her: “This is a good omen for you.” She returned to Columbus, quit her job and opened a diner in Johnstown where all food was prepared fresh each morning.
Eventually, Cecil started teaching cooking classes at that small barn on their nearby property. For $20, groups of women would sit around, drink wine and watch her cook, she recalls, laughing. Cecil also attended cooking classes herself, often going to those offered by the Culinary Institute of America in California, just north of Napa.
Back at the barn, the kitchen floor was built to slope—all part of the cook's engineering design. She planned it as a canning kitchen with the idea that she would eventually start a business called “Cecil's Secret Salsa.” The salsa was such a secret, she jokes, that no one ever knew about it.
The sloping floor was designed so that Cecil could simply “hose down” the canning kitchen. Today, the sloping floor remains, a memento of plans that went unfulfilled when life took another unexpected turn.
Late one evening at the little restaurant in Johnstown, in what Cecil calls an “after-hours party,” one of her regular customers made an offer for the diner, jotting a number on a napkin that was more money than she could imagine. She was 35 years old and the sale enabled her to take off three months while she enjoyed the farm life.
During that time she went to hear Cameron Mitchell speak at the Columbus Museum of Art. A short conversation with the renowned chef-turned-restaurant-mogul evolved into a position as a cook in a place he'd started at Crosswoods in Worthington. Soon after, she helped open Molly Woo's at Polaris and worked in a few of Mitchell's other restaurants.
Cecil and her husband enjoyed the rural retreat so much they decided to make a go of living in the small quarters, where the only bedroom was barely big enough for their queen bed and nightstands. There, they remained for eight years, selling their suburban place along the way. She tended to an elaborate vegetable garden and together they planted about 20 trees a year. (That once-barren farmland now features more than 350 trees.)
Eventually, the couple moved, but not far. They built a 3,500-square-foot farmhouse across the driveway and converted their former space into Woodhaven Farm: their former bedroom became a pantry; their former living room was enlarged to become a huge kitchen; and what was once a patio was redesigned into a reception area for those who gather for food events.
Much later, a large dining room was added, complete with a cozy fireplace and plenty of shelving for cookbooks. About five years ago, her husband built a rather elaborate cedar-lined greenhouse, featuring a strapping fireplace. “He's my go-to guy when it comes to building,” she says.
From her contacts made at the Culinary Institute in California, Cecil learned early that cooking classes were valued by corporations as team-building activities. That's when Cecil's little cooking school grew up. From the kitchen where she works today, she has overseen team-building exercises and corporate retreats for most of Columbus' biggest brands: Nationwide, OhioHealth, Cardinal Health, Wendy's, L Brands and more.
In the kitchen at Woodhaven Farm, Cecil's original Viking cooktop is still in good working order, even though she has added better ovens, another commercial grade cooktop, more refrigerators, freezers and all the cooking utensils one can imagine.
With all of this equipment handy, occasionally she does special events. “My doctor had a surprise wedding here last summer,” she says. She sometimes accommodates graduation parties, rehearsal dinners, baby showers and such.
“My mission now is to pick and choose events more carefully,” she says. “Half of my business is repeat business.”
Through it all, Cecil and her husband have encountered their own life-changing events, too. Three years ago, Mark was diagnosed with cancer. “It was June,” Cecil recalls, and her scheduled events were busy. She bounced back and forth from corporate events at the farm to Ohio State University's Comprehensive Cancer Center—The James to be with her husband. Thankfully, she had a few helpers upon whom she could rely. “My perspective on life has changed immensely,” she says, following her husband's illness. Mark has since recovered.
Today, she's even more grateful for the life she leads and the farm she loves. She encourages visitors to slow down, to literally smell the flowers outside, walk through her garden and hang out on the dock by the pond. “The pace of life has become so out of control,” she says. “I encourage [visitors] to come through the gate and relax; enjoy the farm.”
And she is generous with advice for those who visit her homestead. She doesn't mince words when she informs those who are younger to take small steps toward their dreams, emphasizing the need for strong business skills as they pursue their passions.
Mornings at Woodhaven Farm start early, when Cecil awakens at 4 a.m. with her yellow lab staring at her, ready for a walk. Together, she and her husband have an early morning business meeting in their private home's three-season room. After he leaves for work, she plunges into the business of the day, attending to emails and contracts for upcoming events.
“We'll work until we fall,” she says. Later, laughing, she adds: “They'll carry me out of here with a spatula in my hand.”
This spring, fresh lumber was piled up on a patio as Cecil and her husband planned a pergola for the site, another enhancement to their country space. “I feel so lucky that I've been able to love and live where my heart is,” she says.