Have you ever wondered what it’s like to own your own food business? Whether you see yourself working in a restaurant, serving up tasty street food from a food truck, or catering weddings as a side-hustle, all food businesses take an immense amount of time and dedication. Here’s some words of advice from three Vermont women making their culinary dreams a reality.
Meet Our Interviewees!
Chelle Hall is the owner of Buku VT, a pop-up company that prepares and sells bento boxes in the Stowe and Burlington areas. Her Japanese heritage and creativity inspired her to bring novel Japanese foods to Vermonters. Hall opened her business two months ago and plans to expand to more locations within the coming months.
Janina Kotulich is the owner of Red Poppy Cakery in Burlington, VT. She opened the bakery in April 2019 after moving to Vermont from Connecticut in 2017. She designs a myriad of custom cakes and cupcakes with traditional, gluten-free, and vegan options.
Cara Tobin is the owner of Honey Road, a tapas-style Mediterranean (and James Beard Award nominee) restaurant on the corner of Church St. and Main St. She is a mom of two and enjoys gardening and entertaining when she’s not cooking.
How does someone become interested in opening their own food business?
There are many pathways that someone who is interested in food and business can take! Chelle began her culinary journey at Providence’s Johnson & Wales University while working hands-on in kitchens. Since sixteen, she has worked in a broad range of notable Vermont kitchens including Trattoria Delia, Arts Riot, Shelburne Farms, Mule Bar, and Misery Loves Company. Chelle also expanded her cheese knowledge through work with the Champlain Valley Creamery and Dedalus.
For Janina, cake decorating was always a hobby, but was not vocationally an aspiration until she shadowed in a bakery and decided that was the career for her. Cara stumbled into the restaurant industry after starting working at a kitchen at seventeen to make ends meet. She found her niche among pans and spatulas and decided culinary school was the way to go.
What are the challenges of opening and running a food business?
Janina notes that running her own business is incredibly rewarding, but can also be financially and emotionally draining. Over the years, she’s worked several part-time jobs to keep her business afloat. She also manages both the baking and administrative sides of the business- meaning that she works seven days a week to make sure everything runs smoothly. It’s no small feat.
There is also an underlying anxiety among restaurant-owners because of the sheer unpredictability of the restaurant industry. On a personal note (and after working both back-of-house and front-of-house for a few years), there’s never any way to predict how sales will turn out. Cara shares a similar sentiment, especially in the realm of COVID-19. Honey Road has had to cut staff and switch to a take-out model in order to keep staff and patrons safe.
What are some tips and strategies to balance personal and professional life?
Working in the food sector can often mean long, tiring hours. But it is possible to allocate time to spend with friends, family, and even in school. Chelle is currently pursuing a degree in Business Administration with an Accounting/Entrepreneurship concentration and double-minors in Japanese and Food Systems- all while also managing her own business. The pop-up nature of Buku VT makes it possible for her to take time off during stressful academic periods, like midterms, but ultimately balancing her academics and professional life takes dedication. If you’re looking to start a business while also taking classes, she suggests using lists and calendars as organizational tools. She recommends including not only deadlines, but also peppering in activities that make someone happy and bring meaning. “I have to stay very organized in order to not miss deadlines, but if I do so, I can successfully (and rewardingly) do the things that bring me joy,” she remarks.
What kind of networking opportunities are out there for people running their own business?
Vermont has an intensive network of business opportunities, especially for female entrepreneurs. Janina joined Queen City Business Network International (BNI), a business referral group that allows members to network and refer one another. She’s also a member of many online groups like Vermont Womenpreneurs and E-Women: two groups that share relevant information about women-owned businesses. There are also national-level organizations like Women Chefs/Restauranteurs and the James Beard Foundation Women’s Leadership program aimed at helping female restaurant-owners network and build community.
What has been the most meaningful part of your journey?
Buku VT has allowed Chelle to connect with her cultural heritage and to bring her own flavors to Japanese cuisine. “My mother always told me that people show their love through food (cooking for loved ones or sharing a meal), and I whole-heartedly believe that,” she says. “I have always poured my heart into my cooking, but now my name is behind it too, and people truly can taste my love.”
Another beneficial part of starting your own food business is control over the marketing, production, and entirety of the business itself. One of Cara’s favorite parts of working in a restaurant is being able to give back to the community- either by donations or establishing a place where people can get together to experience good food. In her eyes “having a platform to have a voice and make actual change has been a surprising and meaningful outcome of owning a successful business.”
Although there is an immense time commitment to running a business, it is possible to work around vacation time, time with partners, and time for self-care. It’s all about prioritizing, scheduling, and really carving out what’s meaningful. Some food business professionals learn these lessons the hard way while others are able to master diligence early on.
What advice would you give to aspiring food business owners, cooks, and home chefs?
First, do your research. Whether it’s reading books written by chefs, taking business courses at a local college, or doing an internship with a notable restauranteur in the community, getting experience before you fully submerse yourself into professional cooking is always a good idea. Janina also suggests finding a balance between “soulful” cooking and practical business. “Food businesses that rely too heavily on a business sense lose the soulfulness of their food and foster indifferent staff,” she says. “Food businesses that rely too heavily on passion for food often struggle to grow, market themselves, and price accurately to thrive. The balance of these two worlds is key to making food you are proud to serve and having the financial health to make it last.”
Chelle recommends making connections and retaining relationships with others within the food industry. The community is tight-knit and wants to help one another succeed, so it’s not uncommon to see people renting out commercial spaces or giving marketing advice. Janina recommends asking as many questions as you can to get a better sense of what cooking is like professionally and how other people manage their time in the industry. Getting experience early-on will help you hone your craft and become a more successful food business owner in the future.
A note of gratitude to Chelle, Janina, and Cara for their insight!