Once upon a time, setting the family table was a very exacting exercise with cutlery, dishes and napkins arranged just so. Today that preciseness is basically a relic except at county fairs around the state.

And it was in just such a setting that Marian “Fifi” Locke began a hobby that is slowly blossoming into a business.

“I was at my cousin’s house, and she had all these dishes (in preparation for entering the Ventura County Fair tablesetting competition). I said I want to play with the dishes, and she told me do a center piece for me,” remembers Locke, with the humor that is evident from your first conversation with her. “The theme was winter wonderland, and she took it to the fair, and we won second place.”

The Gary, Indiana, native was hooked. The next year she gathered up her supplies to create a setting for the theme African Safari and won fifth place.

“I was so disappointed,” recalled the effervescent Los Angeles resident. “My cousin said go to the public library and get book and study them.”

Locke, who is known as Ms. Fifi, did just that, and what she discovered was just how technically precise a show table must be.

“Judges take out their rulers and measure,” remarked Locke.

She jumped into the fray once again, this time working on the theme of Mardi Gras, and lost first place to her cousin by just one point.

Locke continued setting show tables and winning awards in the Santa Barbara, Ventura, Orange and Los Angeles County fairs, and then one day a friend asked her to submit a proposal to do a workshop teaching girls at public libraries etiquette and tablesetting.

“That was in 1999 at Angeles Mesa library, ” remembered Ms. Fifi. “I discovered they were (willing to pay) me to teach children. I’ve done over 50 presentations at public libraries. Then I got a call from some Christian schools who wanted me to teach tablesetting. And when I was teaching the girls, some of the parents said ‘what about my boys?’”

So Ms. Fifi began teaching boys as well. Then another business opportunity landed in her lap.

“Pat Tobin called me and said I have an event, and I want you to do the flowers. I said, I don’t do flowers,” recalled Locke, who had some experience working with fresh flowers while creating her show tablesettings and with some events for the Greater Los Angeles African American Chamber of Commerce. Tobin, owner of the public relations and marketing firm Tobin and Associates, convinced Ms. Fifi, that doing the flowers for the event would be no big deal. “I had worked as a make-up artist for many years, and I knew color blending. I had also worked with orchids and roses a little.”

That first attempt was a success, and led to the launch of another division of her business floral and tablescaping.

Today Ms. Fifi creates center pieces and other settings for formal events, luncheons and special occasions including the NAACP Image Awards nominee luncheon, and she continues to teach
tablesetting and to create award-winning tablescapes at area fairs.

Now, there is another opportunity on the table that Locke is seriously considering.

“I’ve been approached to write a book–a picture book or coffee table book of my tablesettings. I love to work with youth,,” said Locke. The creative entrepreneur also wishes to introduce the work of Charlotte Hawkins Brown to this generation. Hawkins Brown as the first African American woman to write a book on etiquette geared toward African Americans.

If she agrees to the book, Ms. Fifi wants to make sure it is accessible to the young people she enjoys teaching, and like her tablesettings themselves, thinking outside of the box will most definitely be a page she’ll take out of Hawkins Brown’s book.