Charlene’s Kitchen owner, Charlene Henry, dies at 61

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Charlene’s Kitchen owner, Charlene Henry, dies at 61
Charlene Henry adding her personal touch to a batch of cupcakes, a testament to her attention to detail. (Photo/Charlene's Kitchen)
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By Wafir Salih | wsalih@alextimes.com

Charlene Dantzler-Henry, a beloved caterer and longtime entrepreneur, died on Dec. 10, 2023. She was 61.

Henry was renowned in Alexandria for her catering business, Charlene’s Kitchen, which offered a full-scale catering service and carry out options. Many across Alexandria and Washington, D.C. enjoyed her gourmet-style cooking, including notable politicians such as former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

Kim Gallagher, a local small business owner and a creative director in advertising, has been friends with Henry for the past 25 years. When she first met Henry, Gallagher was just starting her freelance advertising business. Around the same time, Henry was looking to make a name for herself in the culinary industry.

“She was an artist, truly an artist. Whenever somebody categorizes her as a chef or a caterer, I’m like, ‘No, there is so much more to Charlene than that,'” Gallagher said. “She was an entrepreneur. She broke barriers and redefined what it was [like] to have a dinner party and event at your house.”

Jan Routh, an Alexandria resident, knew Henry for over 30 years.

“Charlene was fully alive and maxed every moment and experience. No one had any idea how she did what she did so consistently and how much she was able to produce out of that space,” Routh said in a text to the Times. “She didn’t waste a minute but always had time for those she loved. I was lucky enough to be on that list. She will be so missed. She was a force of nature, and so much fun.”

Charlene Henry in the early days of Charlene’s Kitchen in 2008. (Photo/Louise Krafft)

In an email to the Times, Karen Barnes, who’s known Henry since 1996, said she cherished her friendship with her.

“Charlene has been with us for most of life’s big moments, my son’s wedding, birthdays, [baby] showers and funerals. Charlene was family and there was nothing better than a big, warm Charlene hug,” Barnes said.

Dubbed the “Charlene Experience,” Henry and her team provided clients with a curated catering experience for parties and weddings throughout the city for over 41 years.

“It was a creative tour de force,” Gallagher said. “She would literally try to transport guests to a different atmosphere. Sometimes it was color schemes and props that she culled from vintage stores and had refurbished and reimagined antiques. She had this storehouse of props. It’s almost like you’d walk into a movie set and forget you were in someone’s backyard or in their dining room.”

Gallagher described what made the “Charlene Experience” special by recounting one of the last parties she attended that Henry set up.

“There was this iconic Christmas party that took place in [the] Belle Haven [neighborhood] here every year. The last one she did, she had a tent set up in their backyard,” Gallagher recalled. “It was a tent with rooms and chandeliers. It was like a winter wonderland/ski chalet. It had wooden floors laid down, and she had trees, armchairs, fur blankets, vintage bars set up and candy jar displays.”

Barnes said she admired Henry’s work ethic and culinary talent.

“Her food was always amazing, but her entire vision for the party from flowers to layout to linens and lighting was what made her events so remarkable,” Barnes said.

Henry was born in Fayette County, Pennsylvania, on Dec. 16, 1961. She grew up there and attended Uniontown Area High School. After graduating, she attended Atlanta School of Design where she received her bachelors in design, according to a March 16, 2008, article by the Alexandria Gazette-Packet.

Henry came to Washington, D.C. and eventually settled in Alexandria in the early 1980s after getting married.

“The quaint smallness of the community and its being outside of Washington, D.C. brought me here,” Henry said in a May 5, 2023, interview with Alexandria Living Magazine. “I also met my husband in Washington, D.C. and we got married in the courthouse of Alexandria and decided to settle here.”

Henry got a job working at a cafe in Georgetown where she learned the ins and outs of kitchen operations. In the same 2023 interview, Henry said she later joined Chanterelle Caterers, a women-owned catering business.

“During my time there, I did parties and worked in the kitchen. It inspired me that I could also start and run a business,” Henry said in her interview with Alexandria Living.

According to a March 10, 2021, article from The Zebra, Henry’s next step in her career was to join L’Academie de Cuisine, a culinary school in Maryland.

Soon after, Henry then started Catering by Charlene, the precursor to Charlene’s Kitchen. Working out of her home and occasionally renting spaces, Henry built up her clientele in the years ahead. In 2005, Henry opened a storefront on 104 N. West St. in Old Town.

“I have had a storefront only for the last 18 years and that was the biggest successful change,” Henry said in her interview with Alexandria Living. “My career started in my house and then I rented space all over the city as my business began to grow. The storefront changed everything.”

Charlene’s Kitchen made news right before Thanksgiving on Nov. 18, 2022, when a dump truck crashed into the establishment. 7News reported at the time that Henry and staff members were in the building when it happened, but that no one was hurt.

“The dump truck running into the store in November of 2022 was a memorable disaster. We had to shut down for five days between Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons,” Henry said in her interview with Alexandria Living.

Henry announced in the summer of 2023 that she was severely ill, which led to her business halting orders until further notice. Barnes and Gallagher came together to create a GoFundMe to help cover her staff’s wages. The fundraiser successfully raised more than $24,100.

“[Barnes] came to me and she goes, ‘Kim, we need to help Charlene out,'” Gallagher said. “The business is what keeps her family going [and] a lot of families going, because she has staff that she’s had for a long time.”

On Dec. 16, 2023, Jessica Dantzler-Henry announced her mother’s passing on the Charlene’s Kitchen Instagram page.

“Today, I regret to inform everyone, we say goodbye to the most incredible woman I’ve ever known – my beloved mother,” Jessica wrote. “Grateful for the love, food, wisdom, and countless memories she shared. Rest in peace, Mom. Your spirit will forever live in our hearts.”

The funeral service for Henry was held on Saturday at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

In a March 24, 2022, interview with the Alexandria Gazette-Packet, Henry offered some words of wisdom for those looking to start their own business.

“My advice to potential business owners is to do passionately what you like to do,” Henry said. “Don’t let anybody tell you what you can’t do or that you can’t succeed.”

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