Aspiring food entrepreneurs leave behind the 9-to-5

WASHINGTON After Myles Powell gave his two-week’s notice at his civil engineering job, uncertainty set in.

“I went back to my desk, stared at my computer and thought, ‘What did I just do?’”

The engineer, MBA and LEED-certified consultant had professional goals beyond blueprints and business meetings.

He wanted to make sauce.

“Growing up, I was that kid who would order french fries and people would look at me and say, ‘Hey, do you want some fries with that ketchup?’ Or, ‘Do you want some chicken with that barbecue sauce?’” said Powell, 26.

Bored with the same-old seasonings and marinades on grocery store shelves, Powell decided to take matters into his own hands and began experimenting in the kitchen.

“I thought, ‘There’s got to be room for something different.’”

His taste buds agreed with his concoctions, but it was a brief appearance on Food Network’s competition show “America’s Best Cook” that gave Powell the confidence he needed to take his newfound hobby to the next level.

“The duck didn’t come out that well, but I made a sauce for that dish and that’s what I got good feedback on,” Powell said. “If a celebrity chef says she likes my approach with this sauce, now I can actually make something out of it.”

Powell launched his sauce company, 8 Myles, in May 2015, while continuing to work as an engineer. In July 2016, condiments became his full-time job.

Powell’s career course is not unusual in D.C.’s community of creatives and entrepreneurs. Nearly every face behind one of the city’s hippest pop-ups or food production companies is a former “fill-in-the-blank.”

Alexander (Sandy) Wood worked for more than a dozen years as a D.C. attorney before finding his true calling in the spirits industry. In 2015, he opened One-Eight Distillery, where he serves as the co-founder and CEO.

“There is no shortage of lawyers in D.C. that are interested in doing other things,” Wood told WTOP in an earlier interview.

One Eight Distilling is in D.C.’s Ivy City neighborhood. (WTOP/Rachel Nania)

Brian Stanford and Chris Svetlik started their baking business, Republic Kolache, in 2015 when Stanford worked as an attorney at NASA and Svetlik ran a design and technology studio.

While Stanford, who still works full-time in the federal government, scaled back his involvement churning out the popular Texan treats, Svetlik went all in.

“The bakery was clearly winning out as the more urgent, exciting and satisfying part of my work life, so I set out to gracefully ramp down client work and have been a full-time kolache-maker ever since,” Svetlik said.

Reed Walker and Jordan Cotton met while working as contractors for NASA. The two found they shared a passion outside of morning commutes and project deadlines: distilling. After three years of home brewing, they quit their full-time jobs to focus on opening a D.C.-based rum distillery.

Of course, going from a reliable income with a 401K and health insurance to nothing was an adjustment. Walker said he didn’t rely heavily on a savings account, he just “lived frugally” for about a year and a half.

“When you’re doing something you love, you just do it,” he said.

Walker and Cotton took home their first paycheck in November 2016 when their Union Market distillery, Cotton & Reed, opened. Walker said the only regret he has about retiring his business-casual wardrobe is that he didn’t do it sooner.

Bar manager Lukas Smith and distiller Chas Jefferson with Cotton & Reed co-founders Reed Walker and Jordan Cotton. (Courtesy Cotton & Reed)
Bar manager Lukas Smith and distiller Chas Jefferson with Cotton & Reed co-founders Reed Walker and Jordan Cotton. (Courtesy Cotton & Reed)

There are less extreme ways to transition from profession to passion. Jenna Huntsberger, founder and CEO of Whisked! said opening her bakery was “a long evolution.”

Huntsberger, who formerly worked in nonprofit communications, started writing about baking and pastry on her food blog in 2008. Her big moment came in 2010, when a baker she admired was hiring someone in the kitchen for 10 to 15 hours a week.

Huntsberger jumped at the opportunity but not without cobbling together three other part-time jobs so she could continue to support herself. A year later, she launched Whisked! “as a side job” while continuing to work elsewhere.

“As Whisked! got bigger and bigger, I was able to gradually shed those part-time jobs over the period of about two years, until finally I was working for Whisked! full time,” she said, adding that the piecemeal process proved beneficial to her wallet.  

“Most food businesses are not going to make you enough money for you to be able to support yourself for the first, at least one to two years,” she said.

Powell, who makes his products at D.C.’s Mess Hall, understands taking a leap of faith is a scary thing, but he wishes more people would try it.

“A lot of folks work the 9-to-5 because it’s safe, and they have a dream of doing something else but they think it’s crazy or they think it’s not going to work. At least explore the idea, because you never know what lies on the other side,” Powell said.

His current goals include expanding his line of sauces from three (a raspberry barbecue sauce, a pineapple buffalo sauce and a mango magic barbecue-buffalo sauce) to eight and growing the market in which he sells.

He’s also jotting down his journey on the blog, The Sauce Story, where he offers words of wisdom for others looking to turn their passion projects into paychecks.

“It took a long time for me to realize that I can do this. Doing it on the side is one thing, but doing it full time is a whole different story. And I want to encourage other people to pursue what makes them happy,” he said.

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