Second Careers in Food … that Failed

Second Careers in Food … That Failed (cont.)

You’re Not as Cute as Warren Brown

“I think all humans enjoy making something that’s three-dimensional, that they can point to,” says Warren Brown, the unofficial leader of the Quit Your Job and Open a Bakery movement. Brown, 37, ditched his career as a government lawyer in 2000 to follow his passion for baking. Now he operates three wildly successful CakeLove bakeries in the D.C. area (with a fourth on the way) and hosts Sugar Rush, the Food Network’s drooly dessert-porn series.

People sometimes tell him he inspired them to abandon their jobs and open food-based businesses.

“It’s very touching,” he says. “And I warn them immediately that they may not like what they get.”

Statistics vary, but the three-year failure rate for small businesses has been reported at as high as 60 percent. Brown owes his success to good media exposure (the photogenic smile and cute dreadlocks probably didn’t hurt) and being ready for all the noncooking duties of running a business. People might be surprised to learn that three-quarters of his work at CakeLove is about staffing, paying bills, and marketing, he says.

Michael Idov
learned these
lessons the hard
way, when opening
a charming little
coffee shop on
Manhattan’s Lower
East Side nearly
cost him his
marriage and his
sanity.

Charlita Anderson, a Cleveland-area lawyer, took a small-business course and wrote a full business plan before opening Pepper Red’s Blues Café.

She still lost $40,000 of her own money after trying to bail out the restaurant she had hoped would share her love of the blues and her mother’s gumbo with the world.

“I thought it would be a great thing to do,” says Anderson, 46. She’d had visions of serving crawfish and red beans and rice, of spending evenings watching her favorite local musicians jam. She’d even had a fantasy about franchising one day.

But after spending most of her small-business loans on equipment and inventory—dishware, refrigerators, a security system, a stage, insurance—she didn’t have enough capital to keep the restaurant open long enough to build up steady business, even after pressing her mother, husband, son, and uncle into service. The neighborhood economy, which she’d hoped was on the rise, slumped further; people just didn’t seem to be going out to eat.

Besides understanding things like cost accounting and double-entry bookkeeping, says food marketing expert Stephen Hall, author of From Kitchen to Market: Selling Your Gourmet Food Specialty, you should consider whether you really have the personal characteristics necessary to help a business succeed: an entrepreneurial flair (you like to cook—do you like to write press releases to send to every paper in a 500-mile radius?), a high tolerance for rejection, and an unending willingness to bend to consumer tastes, even if that means changing the recipe for Auntie Eleanor’s caramels.

Flavored Coffee May Have Saved Them

Michael Idov learned these lessons the hard way, when opening a charming little coffee shop on Manhattan’s Lower East Side nearly cost him his marriage and his sanity.

Café Trotsky was born out of Idov’s love affair with the kaffeehäuser of Vienna, where the literati linger over small, elegant cups of medium roast, served on a silver platter with a cookie. New York had plenty of French- and Italian-style cafés; surely there would be a market for something different, he thought.

In his fantasy, owning a café would be like hosting a “perpetual dinner party.”

Idov, 31, a journalist, and his wife, Lily, a photographer, quickly realized that keeping Café Trotsky afloat meant being behind the counter themselves. Every day. All day. The two began to count each other’s hours, to squabble over who was working harder. The friends who had encouraged the plan with such enthusiasm weren’t there enough to keep the tables full.

High-minded food snobs to the end, the two refused to resort to crowd-pleasing business strategies like serving flavored coffee.

“We alienated as many people as we attracted,” Idov admits.

On the verge of divorce and not willing to dig into their personal savings (smart), the Idovs closed Café Trotsky in November 2005 after just six months of operation.

“People always say, ‘I want to be my own boss,’” Idov says. “And so did I. But After six months of owning, I would have loved to have a boss.”

Ironically, the demise of Café Trotsky ended up giving Michael Idov’s flailing writing career a kick-start. Idov published an essay called “Bitter Brew” in Slate, which attracted the attention of editors at New York Magazine, where he’s now a staff writer. He’s also finishing a novel loosely based on the experience, to be published in 2009.

File that under “It Won’t Happen to Me.”

If you grew up female in America, until the 1980s you were probably required to take a home-ec class that taught you how to cook so you’d have “something to fall back on.” But Idov, Anderson, and others can attest that when it comes to making food for a living, you’ll need something else to fall back on. In other words, don’t quit your day job.

Emily Matchar is a newspaper reporter and freelance magazine writer in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.