Second Careers in Food … that Failed

If you’re a working stiff who loves food, chances are the thought of quitting your job and cooking for a living has crossed your mind. “I could open a bakery or move to Vermont and become a cheesemaker,” you say. What career satisfaction could be greater than watching the joy on somebody’s face as he or she tastes a spoonful of your artisanal fromage blanc?

What Vivian Olkin really loved was ice cream. So when the 57-year-old career counselor noticed that her new hometown, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, didn’t have a really good ice cream parlor, it began to seem like destiny.

She opened the Inside Scoop, a funky little storefront shop serving flavors like Guinness stout and homemade oatmeal cookie. The high-butterfat ice cream won a cult following and Best Of awards from local papers.

But the business faced one challenge after another: a quadruple rise in the price of vanilla, a failed attempt at catering, a dearth of walk-in traffic. After six years in the red, kept afloat by Olkin’s husband, the Inside Scoop went kaput in 2004.

Olkin is certainly not unique. She suffers from what Anthony Bourdain terms “Owner’s Syndrome” in his book Kitchen Confidential. It’s the destructive urge on the part of someone who has been successful in a non-food-related field to sink his or her hard-earned cash into a bound-to-fail restaurant venture.

But in the eight years since the publication of Bourdain’s bestseller, the fantasy of second careers in food has only become more widespread. Thanks in large part to media attention like the Food Network’s Recipe for Success, which chronicles the giddy early days of ex-professionals’ new gigs, it seems half of the country’s bored middle managers, bankers, and computer programmers are jumping ship to become butchers, bakers, and sausage-makers. Too bad most of them will flounder.

Illustration by Carl DeTorres