Why pivot-ability matters when you’re starting a food business

For food entrepreneurs like Gail Simmons, having a DIY-mindset is key, in and out of the kitchen

About eight years ago, Wen-Jay Ying was playing in bands in New York City’s underground music scene. It was a backstage conversation at a Flaming Lips show with lead singer Wayne Coyne that altered her life’s direction; Coyne counseled that sometimes the biggest impact one can have is by supporting the local community.

That advice resonated. After reading an article about how the decline of supermarkets in New York City has forced many people to rely on bodega foods, Ying pivoted to work with food nonprofits, community-supported agriculture (CSA), and farm stands before launching her own business, Local Roots NYC, an alternative CSA model catering to lower-income New Yorkers.    

Elana Karp’s heartstrings similarly led her into a food career. As an elementary school teacher, Karp became interested in the impact food had on her students’ energy and mood. She started teaching them about healthy eating and where their food comes from. That passion spurred her on to culinary school, and her current role as culinary co-founder and head chef at meal-kit service Plated, where she now teaches people how to cook and lead healthier lives.

Even Top Chef’s Gail Simmons, who joined Ying and Karp at WeWork Now in New York for a recent panel discussion on food entrepreneurship, found her path by taste, parlaying her love of food into a career. Writing about food brought her to culinary school to study on a deeper level. After many years at Food & Wine, she struck out on her own; a freeform life as a cookbook author, television personality, and full-fledged personal brand followed.

If the paths of these women food entrepreneurs don’t sound one-size-fits-all, that’s because they aren’t. So how can aspiring entrepreneurs interested in emulating their success find their way?

(From left) Wen-Jay Ying, Elana Karp, Gail Simmons, and moderator Daniela Galarza discussing launching a career in food. Photographs by Liz Devine

Plan ahead, but not too far ahead. Simmons advises versatility and making smaller, more attainable goals. When she made the jump from full-time employee at Food & Wine to working for herself, she had no designs to become a TV personality. But when the Top Chef opportunity came along, she embraced it. If you look too far ahead, she said, something else will inevitably come along and redirect your well-made plans anyway.

Karp emphasized the importance of predicting problems—something you can’t do too far in advance—for near-future needs. When it comes to scaling, she says it’s essential to anticipate needs and fill them before they’re urgent. As an entrepreneur, she’s had to learn foresight. “If I want to get from A to B, I need someone to take this off my plate so I can focus on getting there,” she says.

You don’t have to be just one thing, and you probably shouldn’t. While Simmons is best known for Top Chef, filming each season only takes up about six weeks of the year; she keeps many other plates spinning so that if one falls, she doesn’t find herself without work.

“You can plan all you want,” she says, “but we won’t know what the next piece of new technology or the next platform or the next thing is. If you are an entrepreneur and have a little bit of pivot-ability, that makes you nimble and able to pivot wherever the world takes you. And that’s what I love about what I do, because I don’t have to just be one thing.”

(From left) Karp, Simmons, Ying, and Galarza posing together after their panel conversation.

Ying is also a wearer of many hats. Her daily tasks often include managing Local Roots’ social media, running operations, and taste-testing, as well as tackling emails and support requests. “We are a really small team,” she says, “so we all eventually do everything.”

Ying attributes her pivot-ability to her beginnings in the underground-music scene, but it’s a skill every successful entrepreneur should have. When you’re just starting out, you might not have the funding to hire an office manager, social-media manager, and bookkeeper, as well as a CEO; you may have to be all those things.

Learn how to metabolize harsh feedback. It’s challenging not to take negative feedback personally, but it’s something Karp often experiences at Plated. She finds it easy to focus on one negative comment about a recipe, despite ratings showing that thousands of other people tried and liked the same dish.

“In terms of recipe feedback that I get all the time, I hear one person say, ‘This was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever eaten,’ but when I look at the ratings and I see the thousands of other people that tried it and liked it, it proves that even though that’s the one comment I remember, it’s not actually the truth,” she says.

Her advice: “Anchor yourself in data.” Feelings can be blinding, but when it comes to business, you typically have hard numbers and facts to rely on, like Karp does whenever she’s confronted with a recipe-hater. One squash-casserole detractor does not cancel out thousands of five-star reviewers.

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