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Karen Irvine
Culinary Communications
July 12, 2011

We never get tired of hearing the advice that sometimes you have to work for low or no pay in order to find your way into a dream (paid) job. It's not because we don't believe in the value of good labor and it's not because we advocate suffering. It's just that we have met so many people, both early and late in their careers, yearning to find their place in - or a foot in the door to - the world of food, and we know from experience that volunteers and unpaid interns usually blossom into something more. We didn't all have to sacrifice for our current job satisfaction, but Karen is the latest proof that if you really want something, you can go out and get it. Especially when you open your eyes to the inherent value in experience.

What attracted you to a good food job?

My good food job actually is a mixture of many jobs, events and life experiences. I began writing as a freelancer for the Asbury Park Press (New Jersey) while pursuing a degree in English at Rutgers University. My favorite stories were about local farmers, seasonal foods, chefs and cooking (which is also my favorite pastime). Because reporting paid so poorly, I started looking for other ways to use my writing skills for additional income. Development work for a non-profit organization required great communication skills and it was rewarding, both career-wise and personally. I eventually became a consultant for Semple-Bixel Associates, a non-profit consulting firm. While there, I learned the value of being an active listener and the skills needed to become a productive consultant. I continued - and still continue - to freelance as a writer. I have published articles in New Jersey Monthly, 40 74 Magazine (now In Jersey magazine) and Edible Jersey. Examples of my published articles can be found on my web site

Finally, I decided to start my own public relations and marketing consulting firm, Culinary Communications, which specializes in food-related businesses. My first client 10 years ago was Salt Creek Grille, a restaurant in Rumson, NJ. My second was Sickles Market in Little Silver, NJ. Both remain clients today. I also have provided PR and marketing advice for several top restaurants seeking increased media coverage, and created fundraising events for those clients wishing to support their communities and local charities. My job is a lot about building relationships with the community and the media. I recently helped gain media attention for my Vermont neighbors who have a maple sugaring business in the Brattleboro Reformer. And as result of my work, Hermitage Inn will be listed among Editors' Best Picks in April/May issue of Yankee Magazine.

How did you get your current good food job?

I was working as a VP/marketing for a non-profit and getting them a tremendous amount of media coverage. The owner of Salt Creek Grille, who was a board member, told me that if I ever left my position to come see him about doing public relations for the restaurant. Things didn't work out for me at the non-profit; I took a three-month winter writing sabbatical on Martha's Vineyard and contacted the owner of Salt Creek Grille. I started as his PR consultant in 2001.

How did your previous work or life experience prepare you for a good food job?

At first I didn't realize how valuable my life experiences would be to my business. But growing up on a small family farm in rural Vermont not only shaped my work ethic, it gave me a depth of food knowledge no school could teach. And though I learned to cook out of necessity, it resulted in a passion for all things food. Writing for newspapers also gave me behind-the-scenes knowledge about what editors want, when they need it and how to deliver it. My development work taught me valuable marketing skills. And, yes, I can still thread a worm on a fish hook and catch those elusive brook trout!

What advice do you have for others in search of a good food job?

It sounds corny, but it's true - follow your dreams. Sometimes you have to take a position for very little pay (such as my reporting jobs) in order to get closer to what you love to do. I got my first paid job as development director through volunteer work. Stay focused, but don't have blinders on; you'll need to see opportunity when it arrives.

If you could be compensated for your work with something other than money, what would it be?

Bartering is an amazing means of compensation. I have been paid in wine, dinners, food, plants and maple syrup. Travel opportunities would also be a great form of payment. And now that we live in Vermont and have a pasture, I think a calf or two might do. Helping people who own and operate their own businesses is a huge personal reward.

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