No cowboys are galloping around, but the 130-acre Rio Cibolo Ranch, just 25 minutes northeast of downtown, is a bucolic site where longhorns roam and huge pecans tower over the landscape that the owners describe as “a little bit of Texas and a whole lot of fun.” Granted, that’s a promotional slogan, but it fits in this case. On this particular Friday in March, the ranch looks like a peaceful oasis of honest-to-goodness Texas country, with only the chugging of a lawn mower disturbing the silence. Activity is limited to the industrial-size kitchen in the rustic main building where chef-in-training Rita Hoffmann is busy making 600 quesadillas for tomorrow’s parties — a spinach and artichoke kind and mushroom and cheese. “We have two weddings tomorrow, and neither group realizes that there will be another event going on the same day,” explains Marjie Christopher, who with her family owns and runs the ranch as an entertainment and party center. “One group that has 250 guests will be here at the Corral” — she indicates the large open-sided pavilion in front of the building —”and the other with 90 guests will have the reception at the Lazy Lily River House. We provide everything — catering, set-up, floral arrangements and entertainment. You can just drive up and enjoy it.”

Weather permitting, the ceremonies themselves are held in one of the pretty “wedding gardens” overlooking Cibolo Creek, which runs through the property. Weddings account for a good portion of the ranch’s business these days, says Christopher, though at the start it was the other way around — corporate events were bigger. Between the grounds and the various dining facilities, Rio Cibolo can accommodate groups ranging from 25 to 5,000, whether for a company picnic, corporate team building, family reunions or school and youth groups. But dining and ceremonies are only part of the fun. Depending on the customers’ wishes, guests can indulge in a variety of activities, from hay- and boat rides and horseshoe tossing to fishing, softball, horseback riding and even rodeo shows. The only thing not recommended is swimming in the creek, for there are some unpleasant inhabitants down there in the bluish water, creatures like water moccasins and rattlesnakes.

Many Rio Cibolo customers come from groups attending conventions in San Antonio, such as a bunch of J.C. Penney executives who recently spent a day there. What they are after most of the time is the “Texas Ranch Experience,” complete with gunfighters, Texas tales, armadillo races, live bands and, of course, a rodeo. Local and other Texas companies and nonprofits, on the other hand, are more likely to hold their annual picnics and fund-raising galas at the ranch. This month, for instance, St. Jude’s Ranch for Children from New Braunfels — a nonprofit that rescues abused kids — will use Rio Cibolo to throw a party for its donors while the Bexar County Medical Society Alliance has scheduled a family picnic. Other local businesses that have used the ranch’s services include H-E-B, KCI, Pape-Dawson Engineers, Bartlett Cocke Construction and the Broadway Bank. At present, there are no lodging accommodations except for the fixed up little ranch house that was there before the Christophers took over. Brides and grooms sometime opt for staying there overnight. For the mistress of the estate, spending her days outdoors and operating an attractive entertainment business is simply the best job in the world. An avid cook, gardener and herbalist, she had mostly practiced her skills in her own home until that day 22 years ago when her lawyer husband, Henry, walked into the house and announced, “I am going to show you a bit of paradise. We are buying a ranch.”

“What are you going to do, raise cattle?” asked his surprised wife. “No, we will entertain people from all over,” said Henry.

They purchased the land with several partners, and Marjie’s new life as a businesswoman began. “I was terribly excited,” she says. “It was like a dream come true. Right away I started thinking what I could plant here and what I could plant there. There were so many possibilities. Digging in the dirt and watching things grow was my greatest love other than cooking.” It took several years to get the business established, develop the gardens and build the various facilities. Marjie’s love of plants and especially edible herbs and flowers is in evidence throughout the premises. Anything can serve as a picturesque planter. She is growing an herb garden in an old boat, for instance, while a few yards away stands a rusty truck positively bursting with green and colorful life. The sight is so picturesque that guests love to be photographed with it. A mint patch is casually tucked alongside the Lazy Lily River House, and there are flower bushes and blooming arches in all the wedding gardens. About seven years ago, the Christophers — who by this time included adult son Craig — bought out the other investors. Craig is now the company president in charge of sales and marketing, while Marjie serves as the VP of operations and the catering director. In the latter capacity, she develops the menus and recipes and oversees food preparation.

FUNNY THINGS HAPPEN

Dealing with demanding customers is, of course, part and parcel of her routine. Brides and grooms always have distinct ideas about what they want and expect everything to go as planned. “I tell them, if you have had 90 percent of your wishes fulfilled, you have had the perfect wedding,” says Marjie. “No one can expect 100 percent. Unpredictable things happen.” Indeed. In one case, the young couple wanted their dog to participate in the ceremony, so they attached their wedding rings to his collar. Marjie warned them against entrusting gold and diamonds to a canine, but they insisted that the animal was docile and well behaved. All was well until the bejeweled dog sitting inside a wagon suddenly found himself surrounded by a throng of strangers in the form of wedding guests. He freaked out, jumped out and ran away. What ensued was a mad chase after the dog, staff and groom running together. Eventually, the groom caught him, and the ceremony finally proceeded with the young man holding the dog tightly in his arms while saying his vows. In another instance, the groom and his men, including his father, sprang a surprise on the bridal party. While getting dressed on the ranch, the bunch discovered the Rio Cibolo’s costumes, which are used by employees on certain occasions. Already inebriated, the men decided to forgo their tuxedos forguayaberas, sombreros and serapes. When they showed up wearing this unexpected attire, the bride burst into tears while the guests burst out laughing.

Then there was the couple who came all the way from Hawaii to get married here but insisted on a Hawaiian theme and the pair of hunters who wanted a camouflage theme. Even the wedding gown and the cake had to be green and brown. And the list goes on. “People come up with weird things. Every wedding is different. It’s anything but boring,” notes Marjie. Inspired by all she’s seen, she plans to put together a little wedding book with a clever title: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Wedding. Not that the corporate events are any less demanding. The numbers of guests go up, the quantities of food go up, and everything has to run according to a timeline like clockwork, explains Marjie. Sometimes 300 people must be served in 30 minutes; other times 1,000 line up at the buffet tables. Not a job for amateurs, that’s for sure. “We have boot camp for our employees to train them how to handle these situations,” she notes. Nevertheless, either she or Craig is always on hand to keep an eye on everything.

“Sometimes I have so much on my mind that I can’t sleep,” admits Marjie. “Most nights I sleep only four or five hours, I am so excited. There are so many details to attend to, but it’s rewarding to see people’s faces light up and to know that you have fulfilled their wishes.” It’s also a pleasure to work with her son, who ditched a law career to join the family business. Husband Henry, however, is still practicing law but helps with bookkeeping and finances whenever he can. The Christophers also have two adult daughters and a total of nine grandkids. Though Craig has the title of president, he says he and Mom are really “cobosses.” Even as a senior in high school, he realized that this kind of business “was right up my mother’s alley.” She was always involved in planning parties both at home and in her community work. He, however, left for college and law school only to find years later that the practice of law wasn’t really his cup of tea. In the summer of 2002 he presented his parents with a proposal outlining what he would do for their business if they would take him on. Evidently, they were impressed.

“Marjie and I work great together,” says Craig, avoiding the familial reference to Mom or mother. He laughs when asked if Mom prevails when a disagreement crops up, and one senses that the two of them are equal partners, each minding his/her area of expertise. Still he gives his mother credit for all her hard work through the years: “Had it not been for her efforts, talents and ideas, we would not be here today. She is really the heart of it.”

A BUSINESS BUILT ON LOVE

One of her ideas was to start A Little Bit of Texas Cooking School to bring in more weekday business to the ranch. Having accompanied her husband to national meetings and conferences, she knew firsthand that the spouses look for things to do while their husbands or wives attend meeting sessions. Offering them a pleasant outing in the country combined with some culinary education seemed like a winning idea. “I daresay that we have the only creek-side cooking school in Texas,” says Marjie with a chuckle. Most of the recipes are drawn from her cookbook, also called A Little Bit of Texas, which, naturally, includes a lot of grilling, herbs and Tex-Mex specialties. In the process, she instructs the participants on how to use their gardens to grow all sorts of wonderful plants they can use both in their food and to decorate their tables. “I also tell them to learn to enjoy nature. Cooking outside on the grill lets you hear the birds, see the butterflies. Get out of the house!” Calling herself an “herbaholic,” Marjie also shares her botanical knowledge with a variety of local groups, from garden clubs to school districts. She is a member of the American Herb Society and the Audubon Society and a docent and sometimes teacher at the San Antonio Botanical Garden. As part of the Bexar County Master Gardeners program, she designed the classroom gardens at Stone Oak Elementary School. “I go to nurseries the way some women go to Macy’s. I just have to have that new variety of basil they’ve got,” she jokes. Her favorite herb, however, is neither basil nor rosemary but lavender, which grows abundantly on the ranch and gets incorporated in a bunch of recipes, including pecan-lavender cookies.

From her perspective as a homemaker-turned-businesswoman, what advice would she give to other women who may dream of starting a business? “Find something you will love doing,” she says. “I love what I am doing. An artist friend of mine started a stained glass business; another loved making pies and now has a successful company; yet another makes jewelry. Start small and grow step by step. And don’t promise what you can’t deliver. It’s certainly hard work to get the business going. If you don’t give it your best effort, you will not succeed.” Given the current economic downturn, growing a business may be a special challenge these days. An obvious next step for Rio Cibolo would be to provide overnight accommodations, and the Christophers have certainly considered it. It could make them more competitive in the fairly crowded special-events industry. But Marjie is not too worried about the recession. People are still going to get married, she figures, and conventions will still be coming to San Antonio, though they might cut out some frills. As we tour the ranch, she tells me that Rio Cibolo itself had to cut a few things, like the 10 longhorns it sold recently. Kept essentially as pets that visitors like to feed, the remaining cattle move about in their enclave with an air of insouciance. Marjie has given them all names, and as the animals approach the fence to check us out, she pretends to apologize to them for not having brought any food. They flip their tails and move away, unconcerned.

One is tempted to linger in this relaxing place. Even the lawn mower has shut up now, leaving only the sounds of the breeze, which is suddenly gaining momentum.

On my way out, Marjie, ever the gracious hostess, hands me some promotional materials plus a little goody bag of Rio Cibolo treats. In the car, I pull out a cinnamon sugar pecan, pop it in my mouth and go “Wow!” By the time I reach my office, they are all gone.

MARJIE CHRISTOPHER’S RECIPES

CINNAMON SUGAR PECANS

1/4 cup butter

1 cup light brown sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 cups pecan halves

Melt butter in heavy skillet. Add pecan halves and roast them; then add sugar and cinnamon. Remove from heat and stir together. Place on wax paper to cool. Store in airtight container.

HERBED ROLLS

Mix 1 cup olive oil with 1 tablespoon each of minced basil, oregano, thyme, parsley and sage. Add 2 cloves finely chopped garlic. Set aside. Place 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese in a bowl. Separate one package of Hungry Jack Flaky Biscuit dough from 8 pieces to 24. Roll each first in oil-herb mixture, then in Parmesan cheese; then roll them up and place in pizza pan. Bake until golden brown. Serve with cream cheese or your favorite cheese or dip. Great hot or cold!

TARRAGON CHICKEN PHYLLO CUPS

2 packages frozen phyllo (filo) cups

2 cups boned cooked chicken breast, chopped

6 stalks celery, finely minced

1 bunch green onions, finely chopped

1 teaspoon dried tarragon

1 teaspoon garlic pepper

1/2 cup Kraft mayo with olive oil

1 tablespoon McCormick Italian Herbs

(or 1/2 teaspoon each of basil, oregano, thyme and rosemary)

Defrost phyllo cups. Mix the remaining ingredients together and fill each cup with 1 teaspoon of chicken mixture. Place on serving tray and sprinkle with paprika.

Author: Jasmina Wellinghoff

Photographer: Liz Garza Williams