Heather Dolland: New York’s Finest Food Crawler

Heather DollandJob security isn’t everything, even in New York City, one of the world’s most competitive job markets. And sometimes you have to risk it all to figure that out. Just ask Heather Dolland who turned down a promotion from her environmental consulting firm, where she’d been for more than a decade, to start her own online company.

“There’s never a right time to leave. Usually we just need a little push out of the nest. No matter where this goes, I can say I gave it a 110%. My biggest regret would have been not trying,” Dolland says emphatically.

After 20 years in the US, Dolland’s Grenadian accent may have mellowed but it’s still music to the ears. She moved Stateside in 1995 to study architecture only to find while doing her thesis that her dream turned into a nightmare. So she switched gears and launched into environmental science, getting a Masters from the NY Institute of Technology.

She began her career with the NYC Department of Environmental Protection before moving to an environmental consultancy where she was a Business Development Manager for 11 years.

Halfway through her time at the firm, Dolland took on a side gig. “I bought a house in Long Island by myself, but I had no idea how expensive it would be. Three months into the purchase, a friend from Grenada who promoted wines and spirits asked me if I could help her with promotions in Long Island so I became a brand ambassador on nights and weekends, mostly as a means to supplement my income.”

“I really wanted to go for it, but I was so nervous to leave my job. It never seemed to be the perfect time. Then my manager offered me a promotion but made it very clear I would have to drop ‘my distraction’ and focus 150% on my work. I guess it was what I needed to hear because I said ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’ and I knew then I was turning down the money to do something I really loved. Hopefully the money will follow.”

Dolland was so good at brand evangelism, hosting events, spirit tastings and launches, she took on several brands in the Bacardi family. It wasn’t an issue with her employer because she was doing the promotions outside of working time and there was no conflict of interest. But increasingly she realized which work she was more passionate about.

“Even though I was making progress and moving up in the company, I knew I had topped out. I could Heather Dolland with her booksee what the rest of my life was going to look like. I liked what I did, but the idea of living this life for the rest of my life was frankly a little depressing. I was by no means reaching my potential,” she explains.

When the work day ended, Dolland looked forward to the evenings which were spent promoting her clients products. “No matter how long the day had been, I always had energy. I loved it. I had this gut sense that this is what I was meant to do.”

The inspiration for her shift came during a visit to South Beach, Florida, with her mother who lamented they didn’t have enough time to try all the great restaurants. “I remember saying to her, ‘Who says we have to eat the entire meal at one place? Why can’t we enjoy each course as we like?’ So we did just that and had a food tour of the restaurants.”

As a huge foodie herself, it occurred to Dolland that she could market a more formal experience to others. And so, while still working as an environmental consultant, she launched a website – All the Tastes of New York – offering a food crawl concept. Clients enjoy each course at  a different restaurant within a few blocks of each other in various neighborhoods like Hell’s Kitchen and the East Village. Dolland arranges everything directly with the restaurants.

“I feel like my brain is a portfolio of restaurants. I have eaten through the Zagat – from Afghanistan to Zaire so I know my stuff! I do a lot of bachelorette parties and themed events like dining at places where there are celebrity chefs or eating a specific cuisine such as Italian. I tailor the experience to what the clients want and everything is built in.”

Heather Dolland Book SigningInitially, the business was just an outlet, something that gave her joy but, as the demands on her time grew, Dolland knew she had to choose.

“I really wanted to go for it, but I was so nervous to leave my job. It never seemed to be the perfect time. Then my manager offered me a promotion but made it very clear I would have to drop ‘my distraction’ and focus 150% on my work. I guess it was what I needed to hear because I said ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’ and I knew then I was turning down the money to do something I really loved. Hopefully the money will follow,” she laughs.

Starting a small business is scary for anyone, but Dolland had now lost the salary that was funding All the Tastes of New York. Because she had seen the day coming, she had extended lines of credit for her business while still employed. But without the comfort of her paycheck to fall back on, she lived lean and got serious about money management.

A year and a half after she left her secure job as an environmental consultant, Dolland is seeing the Discovering the New York Craft Spirits Boom Book Coverpayoff of all her hard work. Match.com was an early client and, as the culinary experience she has created lends itself to movement and communication, she has many corporate clients doing team-building events. She has plans to replicate the concept in other cities like Las Vegas and South Beach and has written a book, Discovering the New York Craft Spirits Boom, promoting small distillers in the New York area as a way to spread word about her business but also to integrate locally produced beer, wine and spirits into her food crawls.

“If I think about the journey I’ve been on since I left my job, I know now that you can’t have one toe in. It’s all or nothing. You only really see all the aspects that you need to manage when you are fully in it. It’s not really possible to run a business effectively when you’re doing it on a part-time basis. I still feel like I’m still figuring it out but having so much fun doing it.”

Tips from Heather Dolland
  • When you start a business in a new space, be open to evolving. Don’t stray so far afield that you lose sight of who you are you. Try to build on your competencies.
  • The irony of having a small budget is that it keeps you very cautious. If I had a ton of money, I would have burned through it.
  • While it’s not sustainable in the long run, having another job enabled me to evolve slowly and cover big ticket items early on. My business wouldn’t have survived if I didn’t have that salary because I wouldn’t have been able to afford all the mistakes I made early on.

Watch this video to learn more about All the Tastes of New York.

 

Dawn Richardson: From High School Teacher to Spirits Distiller

Dawn RichardsonDawn Richardson had an unusual upbringing, but in a way one that made her the ideal candidate to take the leaps of faith required of an entrepreneur. “I was a gypsy kid and went to 20 different schools before I graduated from high school.”

Richardson’s mother was a 70’s hippie, roaming the West with her family living out of a school bus. She was the first female construction worker in the state of Utah, earning money where she could season-by-season and taking classes in small college towns along the way. “You might say she marched to the beat of her own drum,” says Dawn.

But to her daughter, it was normal, everyday life, and there were parts on the road Dawn loved. When it was time to go to college, Dawn headed to a small liberal arts school in Durango, Colorado, where she could explore lots of classes and go skiing. She got a degree in political science thinking that she might eventually head to Washington, DC and work in politics.

“My parents (Dawn’s mother married when Dawn was 13) had always pushed me to teach but I would protest, ‘I don’t want to go into that underpaid, female-dominated, and underappreciated profession,” she remembers. But ironically her desire to travel helped push her in that direction. The family travel bug got her, and she headed to Japan to see the world while earning money teaching English. She taught in Japan for two years, and then returned home and got a masters in education and a teacher’s license and, after brief forays teaching skiing, and then working for a cell phone company, headed back to the classroom.

 “Because of my unconventional upbringing, I always had an openness to it. I would think, what’s the worst that can happen? You lose your business and have to get another job? That’s not so bad.”

For the next 14 years, she taught social studies to high school students. Dawn loved teaching but felt it was time to move on. She felt additional pressure outside the classroom from parents and administrators and then a mysterious illness sidelined her and gave her time to think. “I got a virus that caused my spinal cord to swell and it really scared me. I thought it could be the stress of teaching or just being around all those germs. We still don’t know what it was. Suddenly I was faced with my own mortality and I realized, I’m not happy and I need to change that.”

Dawn and her husband, a software developer, had always talked about opening their own business some day. “Because of my unconventional upbringing, I always had an openness to it. I would think, what’s the worst that can happen? You lose your business and have to get another job? That’s not so bad.”

Together they investigated several options including a beer garden, but were deterred by the enormous start up costs of upwards of a million dollars. But when Rising Sun Distillerythey really started looking at the business, they realized the largest profit is made in alcohol. Then a story on the evening news about local distilleries caught their attention. Looking at the viability of that kind of business, it seemed to make sense.

They started slowly. Her husband continued working and Dawn got her real estate license so they could bring some money in as they were starting up.

They consulted with another distillery in Colorado where they live, and read lots and lots about the business. Then they began experimenting by making wine and beer. When they felt comfortable, they went all in. Cashing in 401Ks, and selling a rental property they owned, the Richardson’s were able to cover the start up costs of property and equipment. Additional business and home equity lines of credit covered them through a few months of operating.

Rising Sun Distillery LogoThey launched Rising Sun Distillery with a line of gin and vodka. Their niche? Local, organic, non-GMO products. And just five months into the business, they are also recipe testing some peach vodka and a pear brandy to expand their product offering soon. While any entrepreneur knows that making the product is just the beginning, the Richardson’s count themselves lucky to be launching in Colorado.

“First of all, alcohol is a highly desirable product. But also, we live in a state where we can go door-to-door and sell our product because liquor stores are all privately owned.”

While her husband and her mother take the lead on outside sales, Dawn develops the recipes and manages the in-house tasting room where they feature their liquors in a range of artisanal cocktails.

In the short four months since they’ve opened, Rising Sun can now be found in 25 different bars and liquors stores in Colorado. Slowly but surely, they are growing the business.

“It’s a bit scary for sure. We’re not paying our bills with profits yet but we’re seeing signs that sooner rather than later, that will happen. But there’s so much to learn in this industry and I feel like we’re just babies starting out. But it’s really fun.”

Richardson’s one regret?  Her freewheeling childhood gave her a comfort with risk taking, but it didn’t give her any mentors in business. I’d love to talk to other women who are doing this because it can be hard and that would be a nice support.”

Tips from Dawn Richardson
  • Assess your comfort level with risk, if you are not a risk taker and are not comfortable with the worst case scenario, then opening a business might not be the best choice.
  • Working for yourself is a 24 hour job.  The satisfaction of working for yourself far outweighs working for someone else, but it is very hard to leave work at home and have a work life balance.
  • There is so much more to opening a business than I first thought, and a lot of the tasks are not in my skill set.  It is important to know when to outsource and when to hire help or when to join with others.

Making the Ordinary Extraordinary

Eliza LucasEliza Lucas is Owner and Operator of Top Dog, an all-American, hot dog and fried clam shop based in Rockport, Massachusetts. She shared with Career 2.0 the story of how this small business got its start.

Very few people would think of opening a hot dog stand as a “get-rich-quick” scheme. And indeed it isn’t. But looking back, it was the best decision my husband, Scott, and I ever made.

It was 2001 and we were living in the metro Boston area. Scott, who had just been laid off at his tech startup, was working as a disc jockey on Boston radio and I was video producer, but we both knew we wanted to do something else. We had always hoped to move to the North Shore (coast of Massachusetts) because it seemed like the ideal place to raise a family, and I wanted to offer my children something like what I had when I spent my summers there as a child.

We settled on Rockport, MA  – an idyllic place with a great school system. My grandmother had owned a shop there while I was growing up and Scott and I had often kicked around the idea of doing something similar. But opening a shop on Bearskin Neck was a dream that, frankly, we never thought would come true.

Top DogThen we had a major stroke of luck … the Portside Chowder House restaurant, at the time a Rockport staple, changed locations and their old spot on Bearskin Neck became available. If we had known back then just how hard it would be to get our little hot dog shop off the ground, we likely never would have taken such a gigantic gamble. The building needed to be totally gutted, we weren’t married yet we were taking this huge life-step together. We had no plan and no money.

Minor details – we dove in!

What we did have was a belief – one that has served us well ever since. We were sure we didn’t need to come up with some sort of spectacular breakthrough product in order to have a successful business. We believed in the idea of glorifying something basic. That is to say, you can take something simple and if you do it really well, customers will appreciate it and they will come back for more. Bearskin Neck didn’t have a hot dog stand at the time, there was a building available, and Top Dog was born thanks to a loan from the local small-business-friendly bank, Rockport National Bank (now part of Institution for Savings).

Everyone has heard that tired old phrase “if I’d known then what I know now,” but I’m being completely serious when I say that the only reason we did this was because we were young and naive. Top Dog has grown every year that we’ve been in business. However I think every new business owner underestimates just how long it will take before you start seeing actual results. We couldn’t afford any additional help, so either Scott or I had to work the restaurant at all times.

Looking back, that may have actually been the secret to our success. Because we did everything ourselves, we kept total quality control over our product. We Scott Lucasknow now that a hot dog stand on Bearskin Neck was a pretty good idea. But it would never have worked out if our food had been mediocre. We don’t just sell hot dogs – we sell really good hot dogs! With effort, and no other options, we somehow succeeded in making the ordinary extraordinary.

However, the second Top Dog actually started to grow, we faced a new challenge. We are a seasonal business and, once we could actually afford help, we had a hard time finding it. As soon as we got staff trained it was time to close shop for the winter. It was a vicious cycle that really frustrated us early on.

It was then that we found even more reasons to be thankful that we’re based in Rockport. People have a real attachment to this town, and they quickly grew to love Top Dog. We were shocked by how much everyone genuinely wanted us to succeed. A lot of people in the Rockport business community had laughed at the idea of a hot dog stand, but they also were always willing to lend us anything we were running out of and were legitimately interested in our success. I vividly recall talking to Kenny Porter of Roy Moore Lobster Co. in our first year in business and, when I mentioned that we would be competitors, he simply said he didn’t look at it that way and was more concerned with having as many high quality establishments in town as possible (though he later told me he thought we’d be gone in a year!).

We struggled at first, but we were eventually able to build a part-time employee network, comprised of people who even today are always willing to drop everything and help us when we need them. We still have a cook who comes in at any time. And one of our girls has been coming back every summer for ten years (this will be her last, as she’s graduating from college).

Top Dog TeamAs we’ve established ourselves, we’ve been able to slowly branch out, and now we constantly tweak our offerings to suit our changing customer base. We began selling clams in 2008 – we couldn’t afford to be one dimensional, plus we had to add a more expensive price point because, if every sale were a hot dog, we’d have had to up the foot traffic through the restaurant to a level that wasn’t feasible. We do well off the tourist market, but we also do our best to cater to the locals (99 cent hot dog night is still something we do mostly for the local crowd, as it’s very much an “in the know” event).

I don’t know if there ever was, or ever will be, an “aha” moment where we’ll suddenly decide we made it. But we were named Best Fried Clams on the Northshore by Northshore Magazine in 2014 (and again in 2015!), which put our clams on the map. But more importantly every week of the summer someone stands up and says “that was the best ___ I’ve ever had.” That’s really what keeps us going. If it weren’t for accolades like that, we’d have both quit a long time ago.

After nearly 15 years in business, Top Dog is still growing. We’ve brought it to a point now where Scott runs the restaurant and I run the business. We’re even Top Dog Fried Clamsconsidering opening a second location. But we would only do it if we could run it ourselves, because the quality of our food is really what’s made us successful. Even now that we’ve grown, we make our own tartar sauce and source the highest quality local clams and lobsters.

We started out with the idea of glorifying something basic, and that remains the foundation of Top Dog today.

Camas Davis: On a Quest to Change the Way We Think About Meat

Camas Davis
Courtesy of Shawn Linehan

Ever wonder about the provenance of your pork chops or how that juicy steak got from Farmer Fred’s field to your plate on a Friday night? Are you conflicted? Having guilty thoughts? Well don’t worry, you’re not alone. Camas Davis understands. She’s been there and now she wants to help others get intimate with meat as she once did. Seriously though, it’s not as kinky as it sounds. Davis is on a mission.

“Ninety-nine percent of the animals raised for food are factory farmed. An increasing number of people want to eat that other one percent but don’t know how to access it and are afraid of the processes by which it ends up on their tables. We teach people about factory-farmed meat and then we teach them how to source and utilize meat that isn’t factory farmed. By making the whole process transparent, putting knives in people’s hands and showing them what it takes to get good meat, we’re bringing more choice to the table, we’re creating a more informed consumer base, one that wants to eat good meat, and, often, less of it.” (more…)

Chanel Turner: Giving the Vodka Industry a Shot in the Arm

Chanal Turner
Courtesy of The Washington Post

To say that Chanel Turner broke the mold in the vodka world would be an understatement. She pretty much smashed it to pieces.

The spirits industry is fairly staid, with few new formulas being created. Most vodka companies get passed down through families for generations. But Turner developed her own formula, started her own company from nothing. She’s a woman in a field where there are very few. She’s African-American; also highly unusual in this business. She was only 25 years old when she started the company. And, oh yeah, she sells her vodka in a lightning-bolt shaped purple bottle.

Turner works as an IT specialist at the Pentagon. She attended Bowie State on a full basketball scholarship, majoring in business administration. After briefly working in the private sector doing web design, Turner began her job at the Pentagon, where she still works today.

The idea for starting a vodka company came to her while sitting around with friends, drinking vodka-based mixed drinks. When they ran out of chaser, no one wanted to go to the store to get more. And there was no way they were going to drink it straight. “When people drink vodka, they want to mask the taste, the harshness, the burn,” she says. “I thought how great it would be if there was a vodka that you could actually enjoy on its own. We all laughed about that, how someone really needed to make that vodka.” By the next morning, most people would have forgotten all about the idea. But not Turner. (more…)

With Love and Quiches: A Housewife’s Journey to the Boardroom

quiche2I started my bakery business, Love and Quiches Gourmet, in my home kitchen in 1973, purely by accident, from just one quiche. I was a clueless suburban housewife with no preparation whatsoever for business ownership. My only qualification was my passion for everything and anything connected to food. I was a very good cook, famous for it in my neighborhood, and my friends traded invitations to my dinner parties.

So when my original partner (a carpool friend and another great cook) suggested we do something, I was game. We had my house licensed as a Food Processing Plant (can’t be done anymore, but this was 42 years ago) and were ready for business. We had no plan, we simply started. (more…)

Meghan Dowd: From Hollywood Screenwriter to Kombucha Microbrewer

4.Shaktea - familypic2With a 2-year and 2-month old, it’s amazing that yoga- and spin-studio owner Meghan Dowd has time for anything, never mind christening an upgraded kombucha microbrewery and launching a new line of probiotic sodas. But I guess that’s the benefit of being part of a family-owned business. Grandma can write press releases and cold call distributors while she babysits. And your brother can brainstorm marketing strategy with you while you plan the month’s instructor schedule. Meanwhile, Dad can sample the latest brews at the kitchen table while you all sit down for a Sunday meal together.

“Working with family is great but you have to negotiate and trust as you work together. It’s sometimes difficult because you know each other so well but as long as you are aware of work issues versus personal stuff, it’s fine. For me it’s obviously been great. As a new mother, there have been a lot of allowances and my business partners – my family – have allowed me to do what I can. I am so thankful this business is happening now, that this stage of my career is happening with my family.” (more…)