Success in the Food Industry

Passion-Driven Business with Sarah Simmons

The food industry has always been one of extreme interest to me.

I've always admired the impressive combination of both the skill in the kitchen and diverse business acumen, that's necessary to create a successful food-based business.

It takes a very particular type of person, who can build up the functional skills and domain knowledge within their food niche, and then fashion that into a profitable business.

However, I've learned time and time again through my conversations with successful entrepreneurs, that when the right combination of business savvy meets an insatiable passion within a specific industry, success is all but inevitable.

Today, I had the pleasure of chatting with Sarah Simmons, who fits this description to the T.

Sarah has been named one of, "America's Greatest New Cooks" by Food & Wine Magazine. She's also the founder and chef of the renowned CITY GRIT, a creative NYC-based dining experience that has hosted over 200 up-and-coming guest chefs from around the world. Her newest venture, Birds & Bubbles, is her first full-service restaurant, offering among other seasonal dishes, an amazing selection of fried chicken and champagne.

Up until just a few years ago, Sarah was a corporate consultant and had very little experience in the food business. However, what she lacked in direct experience, she made up for with passion, persistence, and an impressive dedication to accomplishing her goals.

In today's interview, Sarah's sharing with us about her experience in building a business founded on passion, and how she managed to break into a very competitive industry with little experience.

Ryan: Tell me about how you made the transition from corporate job to launching your own successful line of food-related businesses.

Sarah: "In 2010, FOOD & WINE magazine held a contest looking for the nation’s best home cook and I was lucky enough to be the winner of that contest.

This recognition came at a time when I was taking some time off from my consulting practice to do research for a book I was writing about retail."

"Since I had already saved enough money to survive for six months, I decided to put the book on hold and spend that time exploring the possibility of making a career move."

"For six months, I just cooked. I staged at restaurants in NYC and around the country. My go-to line was, “I don’t have much restaurant experience, but I will be your hardest, free-est worker.” And I was. I would do anything.. pick herbs for hours, clean lowboys, scrub floors. Anything."

"I took what I learned/observed about process through staging at restaurants and used it alongside what I knew about business strategy, marketing, and data to build the foundation for my company when opening CITY GRIT."

Ryan: How did you first identify the unique opportunity in the marketplace that City Grit is doing such a great job of filling? How did you know it'd be successful?

Sarah: "When I was traveling around, visiting other kitchens across the country, at least one cook or chef would always say to me 'I would love to cook in NY some time.' After hearing this, I started to brainstorm on how I could make that happen – which was really the catalyst for how CITY GRIT came to be."

"I didn’t know CITY GRIT would become successful, but I saw a demand and strong desire for it in the marketplace."

Note from Ryan: This is a point I really want to drive home. So many entrepreneurs don't get started on their business ideas with the intention of solving a need or meeting a clear demand in the marketplace. Sarah achieved success, in part through her approach of identifying a need - and filling it, rather than instead simply pursuing a business idea that she thought would be successful.

Ryan: Both CITY GRIT and Birds & Bubbles seem to have been nearly instant success stories to the outside observer. What were the first steps you took with both of these concepts that helped you launch them both so quickly & effectively?

Sarah: "So many people make comments to me about being an 'instant success' or 'being lucky' and it makes me laugh because building the CITY GRIT brand and opening Birds & Bubbles are the hardest things I have ever done in my life."

"In the two years after I opened CITY GRIT, I had nine days off total – that’s working 721 out of 730 days – which isn’t healthy but was totally necessary. And I never paid myself because I invested any profit we made into growing the business. So, I think making the commitment to tirelessly working without compensation is sometimes what it takes to realize success quickly."

Ryan: What has been your biggest failure as a business owner, and what has that experience taught you?

Sarah: "Going from leading a team of MBAs in a corporate setting, to managing twenty-somethings was a definite culture shock for me. It took me a while to learn how to manage and lead the new generation in a restaurant environment and I made some mistakes along the way."

"The most valuable lesson I learned is to be a fair boss - to reward those who are performing and to make changes when others aren’t. You can’t teach, lead, or manage everyone, so most of the time it is best for the business, team, and the employee to cut ties sooner rather than later."

Ryan: What's the most important piece of advice you would give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

Sarah: "If you want to make the leap, make the leap."

"While it's really enticing to take small jobs or work part-time to build a business while you have your current job, you really need to be all in with 100% of your focus, time, and energy dedicated to launching your idea."

If you have dreams of launching a successful business, be sure you get started on the right note. Check out these essential steps to starting a business the right way.