If you've ever worked in a restaurant, you know it's some of the hardest work - physically, mentally and emotionally - that you can do. And if you don't love it, you would be wise to start researching other career paths. Andrea not only loves working in restaurants, she is breaking the mold - and creating a whole new mold - for how to work your way to the top and run a restaurant that can be influential in your own community and beyond.
When did you know that you wanted to work in food?
My personal "come to food" moment, as I like to think of it, came in about 2001-2002. All through college I had worked in bars and restaurants, front and back of house, but it had always been a side job. Once I graduated, I had gotten one of my first 'real jobs' as an adult. I was working as a recruiter and I was traveling 20 out of the 30 days of the month. After a particularly long travel cycle, I was sitting in a hotel room in Montana and realized that I was spending way more of my time looking up where to eat and drink on my trips than I was on planning for my actual work. I had been traveling for 9 months and the highlights of every single one of those months had more to do with the food and places I got to visit than with the job that I was doing. It occurred to me that if I was going to spend most of my waking moments obsessing over food, I should try and get paid for doing so! I quit a month later and took my first actual job in a restaurant, as a dishwasher and cook. It was perfect - I spent all day watching really talented cooks working and learning everything I possibly could.
Currently I own my own places - which was a big, big leap off the deep end for me. Over the past 10 years I worked as a dishwasher, a cook, a pastry cook, a waiter, a bartender, a personal chef, a catering chef, and an event planner - I tried it all and gained whatever knowledge I could from all my posts. I was also really, really lucky to work with some talented and amazing people along the way who were encouraging and really passionate about food. When I got married in 2006 I found myself in New Jersey and wasn't sure what I wanted to do. Commuting into New York City to work seemed too much, so I talked my husband into taking the big leap with me. My goal was to get a couple of dozen people in the door and run a small bistro - me in the kitchen, my husband in the dining room (as his 2nd gig at night). We've managed to lure a few more people in the doors over the past 7 years and have grown the business way more than I could have dreamed in the start. Today we run Local Roots, which is a group of like-minded businesses all focused in our community in Cranford, NJ - it includes 2 restaurants (A Toute Heure and 100 Steps Supper Club + Raw Bar), an urban farm (Jack's Run Garden), a CSA style market box, and a small retail business where we sell awesome granola and a few other products. It is really, really rewarding to get up and go to work for yourself - tough but rewarding.
Owning your own business means you have to be prepared to be cook, dishwasher, plumber, host, manager, HR person, accountant?and on and on. Luckily I had twice as many jobs as any sane person should have throughout my 20's so I am used to wearing many hats. Being flexible, being hardworking, and being willing to do anything that you might ask someone else to do - those are important aspects of being a business owner.
What was the greatest obstacle you had to overcome in pursuing your Good Food Job dream?
It is really hard to be a boss - that has been one of the biggest obstacles that I have had to learn to adapt to to make this business work. Cooking, dealing with customers, dealing with farmers, working our farm?I could do all of that every day. Hiring/firing employees, dealing with employee issues, trying to make sure everyone is happy / challenged / paid?that is much tougher stuff. It sticks in your head and makes you lose sleep - and it is a constant challenge if you actually care about the people who are making their living working for you. At the end of the day, it is a lot of responsibility to know that each employee is counting on you to keep the business successful for their livelihood - and to keep each of them challenged, creative, and contributing is every bit as important. That's what makes me lose sleep at night.
What can you identify as the greatest opportunities in food right now?
The food industry is one of the most remarkable fields, in my opinion, because at the end of the day it is all about who is committed to delicious food (as long as the business is focused on the right stuff). Gender, race, age - makes absolutely no difference as long as they care about what they are doing and are willing to work hard. My business is hospitality - creating delicious food, creating ambiance for enjoying it, delivering service + care to our customers - each of these actions can be performed by any person as long as they are committed to what it is we are doing. To me that is a great equalizer - it doesn't require specific schooling, or specific demographics, or any particulars beyond a passion for the work, a willingness to work hard (really hard), and a commitment to the way we do things (local, seasonal, sustainable, delicious). The opportunity that that presents currently in what is a pretty tough job market is that the industry offers people from pretty diverse backgrounds challenging, interesting work - as long as they love food!
If you could be compensated for your work with something other than money, what would it be?