I refresh my email again for maybe the fifteenth time. Like who is doing work things at 10pm on a Saturday night. Who is going to write to me about “The cutest space” that they found for me to host more pop-ups or perhaps another cooking class that I must absolutely teach because I am fabulous like that. I’ve refreshed my email inbox assiduously in the past 16 months that I am sure I haven’t missed this particular email.
I moved home in September 2016. I moved home for several reasons but one of which was a bit of guilt. My mother is getting older and I thought as the oldest I really should be closer. I had tons of friends back in Columbus that I had gone to college with and I looked forward to connecting with them and becoming a part of their lives. I moved home because I had always wanted to test out my dream of owning my own food business and what better place to test it out than a place where I would always have a mat and a pillow if all of it came crashing down. I also moved home because I reasoned that my mother deserved a second chance at life. She had retired a couple years before her time because she had grown weary of Hospice nursing. I figured if I started the food business, I could give her a second income and finally a self-sufficiency she only dreamed about. I also wanted to be closer to my niece and cousin and I figured what better time to do this? She was 5 and fast becoming her own person, one I’d love to get to know. Finally, I came to Columbus partly for all the reasons mentioned above but a bigger reason was because I had only saved up enough money to live in a Midwest city for a year and some. That money would not last where I really wanted to go: back to the Bay Area. So with all my ajapadzi stuffed into my Matrix and a rented Dodge Caravan, flanked by two of my SUNY colleagues, I moved home.
I was walking out of an almost-marriage with a friend of mine, from whom I had grown distant, a fact which neither one of us wanted to tackle. I made a move thinking it was for both of us but she never felt that way and I had to come to terms with that a few months later.
I wanted a better life, with more access to ethnic food, POC, writers, and BLGT folks. I wanted African food at the snap of my fingers. Upstate NY had been quite the challenge but when I decided to make this move, nothing seemed impossible. Like I was finally choosing life and choosing me instead of trying to live a life as a working psuedo-wife in a town that wrote hate letters to its brown and queer folks.
I moved right smack in the beginning of a brand new semester because my generous spirit did not want to leave them hanging for Orientation. This meant there were emotional bonds with students who had come to rely on me that had to be severed. I left a rhythm I knew well for an idea, a concept. Depression and Mania thrive on no structure. I knew that, but I was hopeful.
I had a limited amount of funds and I needed to be focused and structured enough to pull it off in a year. Because at the end of the year I’d need to be self-sufficient or…
That was about 700,800 minutes ago. Rent is my favorite musical of all time and this particular song: “525600 minutes…how do you measure a year?” rings true for me tonight more than ever as I write my fourth essay of the year. I’ve written several variations of #4thessay but somehow this one feels right to outdoor.
How do I measure 700, 800 minutes?
I moved into my own apartment right away thanks to an old friend and started settling in. I missed my students but I chatted with them via text regularly. I missed a couple colleagues but we had FB. My separation from my partner freed me up in ways I hadn’t imagined. Once we got past the pretense that she was going to join me in Columbus, I felt liberated to move on and define my life for myself, not as a couple, not as a subset of hers. This did wonders for my spirit which I think had been hidden under a bushel for a year. I had The most diverse choice of ethnic food available to me and I began to seek out my mafe and thieubou dien and suppa khanja and fufu with a passion. I couldn’t eat out too often if I was to survive the year but whenever someone wanted to take me out, guess what we were getting: my ethnic food; I was in heaven; they were getting an education is the way I looked at it. They would thank me later when they bragged about it ;).
I threw myself into trying to learn all there was to learn about running a business. I went to all the Meetups for Startups and worked with the SBA to connect to the smaller and local branches, COMBA and SBDC. I learned quickly that although I’d tutored Math in college, I didn’t have the wherewithal to handle the money. The website my designer created for me, which is so beautiful I feel like a child doodling when I edit, was a steep learning curve for me. I have always been a go-getter. Doesn’t always mean I get what I want but I try hard and work for it. I managed to snag a pop-up through a fellow chef ,and in a typical manic fashion fell in love with him. Neither of us was in a place to fully claim the other so that made for some terrible heartache. My pop-up tasting passed with flying colors and we were given a once a weekly spot on Wednesdays at a local gourmet market. We started in earnest. The first two months were hell on me, but more so for my 68 year old mother. We cooked somewhere else and carted all the food to the pop-up to serve. We spent most Tuesday nights gathering last minute items and loading the car. Somehow we made it through to the point where we had it down to a science and had finally succeeded in creating recipes for all the main entrees we served. Recipes, friends! If you know me, you know I don’t cook with recipes! This was by no means an easy feat.
By Spring we had settled into our role there pretty comfortably. People had taken to us; the food was good. A few other catering jobs had gotten us recognized. We had been interviewed a couple times and word was getting out. I was starting to look around for other pop-up situations that were more regular. We were missing potential customers because of our limited hours. That’s when the disappointments came. We got into a bar that was brand new and although we loved it, our spot was on Monday nights and it was so slow that some nights we’d sell 8 meals in 5 hours. I made the executive decision to step away from that. Then a too good to be true one came. Sure come cook and serve with us! This place already run a walk-up lunch joint out of the space so I figured we’d have a ready clientele if we marketed well. When I approached the owner he seemed enthusiastic until I asked for a contract and to have some other things put into writing. That was the last I heard of him. Two more white men after this seemed eager to help but then wanted hefty deposits and could only grant us a limited amount of hours. Then came the biggest disappointment of all. A church! Growing up brown in America, it’s not that I didn’t know there was discrimination. I just didn’t expect it to come from a church that called itself an international church. Even had another ethnic group worshiping inside its walls. I didn’t think we would be a problem. Just another shade of brown. But the church council members got back to us third-hand that they were worried about the kind of people we would bring to the property. We had a marketing plan in place and I even hired my first employee with this plan in place. This got me into a summer depression as I hadn’t before experienced. When I emerged I went into action trying to schedule pop-ups and teaching classes. One of the main ones I was counting on did not hold her end of the bargain so we failed to sell the necessary amount of tickets to allow the event to happen.
One may be thinking: did anything positive happen these past 700, 800 minutes? Yes! We got written about a ton! Our social media numbers grew. I hired a bright and talented young person who buys into my vision and needs very little direction and above all, makes everything run seamlessly. I got an amazing website built though it cost a pretty penny. People discovered us and were always quick to tell us how. We’ve made some regular customers who have been invited home and who have been there each step of the way to brainstorm, introduce us to others who could potentially help us, buy more food than they could possibly consume in a week and show up the next Wednesday to do the same. One lady says she’s making sure to keep me in business with what little she can do. I appreciate her. I’ve had two of my oldest friends show up to serve at the bigger events I’ve held where I couldn’t afford to hire servers. One has been a constant cheerleader and has opened her home to me for meals and pep talks. We catered two major big ticket events and they went off without a hitch. I met some other female entrepreneurs and we have bartered services from cinnamon rolls, loc tightening, to hair product to blogging, business card design, to COGS analysis to photography. Through it all, my mother and sister have been there chipping in a few dollars here and there and providing labor. I met and taught for a group called Better Plate Columbus, a non-profit working to promote understanding across cultures through food. My two classes were sold out and great fun. I also taught a class at the Franklin Park Conservatory on making our famous Groundnut soup. So as you can see there were some positives however the disappointments far outweigh these and have left me quite jaded. We have not succeeding in growing the business beyond it’s scope and that is key to success.
Fast forward to this past Friday when I finally gave in and accepted a job. I will be returning to the workforce that I left 17 months ago. I just got the company policy on dress code and it made me cringe. Let’s just say, I don’t think I will be tying my hair. Maybe I was delusional to think that I could make a full time go of this business when most business owners I know still keep their day job. Once I recover from my dejection I am sure I will be looking at this job as my “day job” and continue to press on to make my vision a more self-sustainable and permanent reality. In the meantime I can’t help but feel like I have failed at making a go of this thing called entrepreneurship, and very little people say to console me makes a difference at this time. And that’s ok.