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Caught Between a High-End Hobby and Low-Pay Vocation

Caught between a high-end hobby and low-pay vocation

If small is beautiful, I'm drop-dead gorgeous. Or at least my company is.

My tiny Ellelle Kitchen turns out hundreds of jars of small batch preserves every year, in flavors like golden raspberry-peach, blackberry-Meyer lemon and fig-vanilla bean. I work with great ingredients--fruits and herbs straight from the backyard or from gifted growers selling at local farmers markets that provide a year-round bounty in Southern California. My jars are on the shelves of Los Angeles shops and cafes that draw some of the food-savviest customers around.

But is this one-woman, shoestring operation any way to run a business? You decide.

Ellelle makes money--not a lot, but enough to make jam-making more than just an expensive hobby. (I can honestly say that revenues have doubled each year I've been in business, not that you'd need extra fingers to count all the thousands.)

Still, it was clear from the start that artisanal jam-making would never make me rich--not with the quality of ingredients I use, the slow pace of small batch production, and the labor-intensive packaging, including hand-written labels and individually crafted tie-tags on each raffia-trimmed jar.

Since those elements were non-negotiable--hey, if you want mass-produced, try Smucker's--I knew that my business, at least at the start, would have to pay me in other ways.
And it has. It turns out that starting a micro-business provides a hands-on education--far cheaper than a night school MBA--on how to chart a course from daydream to dream job. If you're like me, moving from the corporate world (in my case, big city journalism) into something more personal and self-directed, there's nothing like a little learning by doing to shake out the misconceptions.

Such as the notion that starting a business is an all-or-nothing proposition. I did not bet the ranch (or my 401k) on setting up a full-fledged cafe or bakery in which to showcase my new line of preserves. By going slowly and focusing on doing one thing well, I've been able to pay for supplies and equipment as I go, develop an online and wholesale customer base, find some generous mentors and learn which parts of the job I love--and which I need to hire others to perform. That charming storefront will come later.

I've also learned that getting established--even in the highly competitive world of gourmet food retailing--does not have to take years if you can build on what you already know. I started off as an experienced home cook with an appreciation of good fruit and a sense of how to use locally grown produce to create stylish flavor combinations. But I needed some professional polish to give my fledgling company credibility. A seminar with Northern California jam queen June Taylor, a pastry course at the Cordon Bleu in Paris, and a baking apprenticeship in the kitchen of the Little Flower Candy Co., a terrific local bakery/cafe, gave me confidence that I was doing things professionally--and that I had what it took to run with the big chefs.

The other big discovery was that, no matter how small you start, a good product doesn't stay beneath the radar long in a blog-happy culture like ours. So be ready for it--or beware. An unexpected mention on a popular website led not only to a boost in business (thanks, Daily Candy!) but also to an inquiry from a prominent East Coast food magazine that went nowhere because Ellelle's e-commerce site wasn't fully ready for action. (You better believe it is now.)

I feel admiration--and just the tiniest twinge of envy--these days when I see others charge into the fray with storefronts and staffs, great decor, clever concepts. I feel sad--and just a little relieved--when I see too many of them go out of business just as quickly as they opened. For me, it's been a good season to get started, to learn, and to think small. For now. 

 

Lennie LaGuire, a former senior editor for the Los Angeles Times, is the L.L. behind Ellelle Kitchen, which she started in 2008.

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This article was originally published in the September 2010 print edition of Entrepreneur's StartUps with the headline: Work in Progress.

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