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Home > Business > “I Felt Like I Was Nothing”: Savvy Foods’ owner opens up about struggles with mental illness

As the founding president and chef at both Yellow Dog Barbecue and Savvy Foods, the hats Will Lacey wears are not limited to chef’s garb.  Working as his companies’ lead salesperson, bookkeeper, and director, on any given day Lacey typically finds himself working at his computer for hours, attending meetings, and commuting between Charleston and Columbia to visit different accounts.  And when the work day is finished, his mind does not turn away from Savvy Foods; instead, he often spends his evening testing products or doing marketing research.  “Juggling all this at once can get a little crazy,” acknowledged Lacey with an exhausted but satisfied smile.  He adds wryly:  “Notebooks run my life.”

Although his companies are both still very young, utilizing notebooks to organize  Lacey’s mind is no new activity.  Several years ago, Lacey worked in Columbia’s hospitality service industry as a bartender and cook, but he also, much more quietly, suffered from depression and anxiety.  According to Lacey, many of the products he now sells via Savvy were developed during that time of his life.  “When I couldn’t sleep at night and was feeling bad, battling anxiety and depression, I would write all these ideas and recipes down in notebooks.  It was my escape,” he acknowledged.

“Nothing Would Work Out”: Coping with Depression and Anxiety in Early Adulthood

Indeed, Lacey is a successful entrepreneur with a warm, inviting presence, but deep down, he has battled mental illness for years.  In fact, he attributes the creation of his companies as means of coping.  During his early twenties, Lacey said he “distinctly remember(s) just feeling like nothing would work out.”  He battled insomnia, anxiety, depression, and unhealthy eating habits.  He felt hopeless and anxious frequently, often coping by spending an entire day in bed.  He felt so lost and fearful that he doubted anyone would be able to help him get better.

“When I was still at USC, I just knew I needed to talk to somebody, so I would set up an appointment with their counseling group,” he recalled.  “Everyone was very friendly of course,and I could see their willingness to help and understand me. But I would just never show up.  Or, I would drive there, and I wouldn’t be able to find parking or something, so I’d freak out and go home…I didn’t know who I was or what I was doing, I was just completely lost. It was a very empty way for me to live.”

In addition to battling mental illness, Lacey also was suffering with the stress of his father’s first cancer diagnosis.  “What I thought was being healthy–coping by going out drinking with friends–what was wildly counterproductive,” he admitted.  Lacey acknowledged that even when surrounded by a group of friends, he still felt very lonely and hopeless.

Although he admits he had his share of “teenage angst” like any other young man, Lacey said it wasn’t until his early adulthood that he realized something was very wrong.   “I had a fear deep down of what would happen if I would just keep drinking and going out and living that lifestyle, feeling what I was feeling.  It really scared me, the road that I could have gone down,” he recalled.  “On my nights off, I tried to just stay in, but I couldn’t sleep. I struggled to find a way to cope with everything.”

Will Lacey and his dog, Dixie, who is the namesake for Dixie’s Molé-Inspired Blend by Savvy Foods.

The Beginning of Yellow Dog Barbecue

Lacey eventually found a job at a bar, which he acknowledges “wasn’t the best decision at the time.”  However, he soon noticed two major patterns among the people he saw every night.  First, he observed a very strong sense of community among Columbia’s food and beverage service industry workers, including other bartenders, cooks, servers, and bouncers.  “I got a sense of that kind of ‘family,’” he explained.  According to Lacey, service industry employees maintained a strong allegiance to one another.  They met up after work at late night bars to unwind, sharing stories of their shifts and building camaraderie.

That connectedness finally gave Lacey the courage to open up about his struggles with mental illness.  “A lot of people say, ‘just talk about it,’ but it’s not that easy.  I’ve been a wreck in the past, and it’s not something you can just snap your fingers to talk about,” he said.  “Unfortunately sometimes in a very supportive situation, you can feel like there’s no hope.”  Lacey finally opened up to his family and a few close friends about the problems he had faced for years, finding genuine support in “becoming so transparent and being honest.”

The second observation Lacey made while working in a bar was the effect that food could have on people.  “It was my first introduction really diving into food and cooking,” he reflected. “Everybody’s face lit up when they started talking about food.”  Feeling inspired, Lacey began filling his notebooks with recipe ideas to share with his friends and house guests.  Later on, he would use these notebooks to launch his first business.

It was during this time that he started to create the sauces that he now bottles and distributes through Savvy Foods.  “I got a notebook and started taking down recipes, then updating them with changes…I’d make a pint at a time, and split it between a few people to get their feedback on it,” he explained.  “It was fun for me, and very satisfying–a great escape.”

He explained that his initial “portfolio of sauces” came from a very dark time.  “Some of those recipes are just based off raw emotion.  Some were created when I felt incredibly sad and alone; others, when I was very angry and frustrated; and others, when I was skipping around the kitchen, listening to Van Morrison,” he recalled with a laugh.  “But that was the time when I was able to find out who I really was as a person, and accept some things. I just started to realize that every day is a different day. There will be good and bad, and I learned to cope a lot better, in a different way. The sauces, the cooking, it helped–it suddenly became a lot easier to interact with people, based around food.”

Lacey’s first business venture happened in 2012, when he started Yellow Dog Barbecue, a private event and catering company.  Named after the beloved yellow labs in his family, Yellow Dog Barbecue began by hosting small barbecue parties, and eventually became a regular food truck presence at Conquest Brewing Company.  As Columbia residents grew fonder of Yellow Dog, the company was able to manage the kitchens and design the menus for restaurants like Pinch and Jake’s on Devine.  “Eventually, we got to branch out, be creative, and develop a small menu.  For once, I actually got to ‘play with my food,’” Lacey recalled.

Through Yellow Dog Barbecue, Lacey not only took on a new role as a chef and business owner, but also found himself suddenly able to serve the community by donating his foods to different causes that moved him.  After catering fundraisers and donating percentages of sales for organizations like PETSinc, Animal Welfare Institute, and No Kid Hungry, Lacey found that giving back to those in need had a strengthening, therapeutic effect on his mind.  “Giving back and cooking helped me get out of bed when I didn’t want to,” said Lacey.  “I can be a neurotic and anxious person.  If it wasn’t for cooking, I don’t know where I’d be.”

One of the best influences Lacey experienced as an early entrepreneur and philanthropic volunteer was actually the hopefulness he felt from other volunteers.  “Interacting with people with big hearts..just being around that sense of positivity…they’re people who see the big picture,” he explained.  “It helped center me as well.”

The Emergence of Savvy Foods

After four years of steering his pilot company Yellow Dog through the Midlands market, Lacey formed Savvy Foods, a venture that specializes in the manufacturing of sauces that would complement the foods served by Yellow Dog.  Savvy Foods originated several unique, creative blends that are bottled and packaged for distribution, including cooking sauces such as Dixie’s Molé-Inspired Blend, Savvy’s Tomato Dijon Fusion, and Toddy’s Bourbon Honey Mustard (all fondly named after family pets, of course).  On September 1, 2016, Savvy Foods landed its first account.

In its first year of business, Savvy Foods has expanded its footprint from one to 70 accounts reaching from south Florida to the northeastern United States.  Lacey attributes the company’s success to what he calls “door to door e-mails.”  “Our approach was a blend of the 1950s door-to-door vacuum salesman and the millennial who understands digital marketing and social media,” explained Lacey.  Savvy Foods targeted specific potential clients, looking for similarly community-minded businesses who thrived on quality products.  “We want to work with, for example, a butcher who only sources his meats from farms in a 100-mile radius of his store,” Lacey explained.

 

After a year of hard work, including diligent, caring one-on-one interaction with small businesses, managers, and buyers, Savvy Foods has found tremendous success.  With their unique, flavor-packed sauces distributed in retail stores in seven different states and available in their online store, the company can now celebrate an incredible first year and also look forward to an expansive future.  His endeavors have also earned him the ability to be the chef for pop-up dinners across the eastern United States with the E.A.T. Foundation, a nonprofit that shared many of Lacey’s values and goals.

Lacey acknowledged that he led his business to such early growth and success while still struggling with mental illness.  “I still kind of struggle sometimes to think about how I did it,” he said.  “I knew that this was something that centered me, that made me happy, because I understood the way that food had such a positive effect on people.”

Running two companies with anxiety and depression was not easy, but Lacey was too focused to consider failure.  To curb his anxiety, he relied heavily on staying organized and writing.  “I just had to be very stern with myself on taking everything day by by day,” he said. “I bought notepads in bulk, and every day, I would get up write down what I needed to do, then check it off as I went along.  I liked the gratification of seeing something checked off, and seeing an idea I wrote down grow into something that’s going to play an integral part of my business.”

Even as both the company of Savvy Foods and Lacey himself age, he still remains true to the founding principle of utilizing food as a way to bring happiness to people.  “I wanted to create a product to help people create new memories.  Whether you’re a novice cook who burns toast at home or a chef in a major restaurant that does 100 tickets a night, our product lends itself to bringing people together–friends, families, and strangers,” Lacey explained.  “Our product does more, beyond sitting on the shelves or in the kitchen.  Food has a way of bringing a community together…it’s a wonderful vehicle to break the ice or have a conversation.”

Savvy Foods has selected Marcus Lattimore to be the chief adviser for their new philanthropic mission.

Savvy Foods Takes on a Philanthropic Mission

As Savvy Foods’ one year anniversary approached, Lacey was indeed thinking about more than developing and distributing quality products for the kitchen.  The more he watched his company expand, the more potential he had to reach out and help others.  Lacey said his reasoning was: “After all, where would any small business be without its community?”

With that philosophy in mind, Lacey announced that Savvy Foods will now have a consistently functioning charity mission.  The company will make a repeated, thorough effort to support nonprofits that advocate for the wellbeing of children, in particular children’s homes, shelters, and hospitals.  In addition to donations and sponsorships, Lacey is open to exploring creative ways to contribute to children’s charities, including donating the proceeds from ticketed box lunches or hosting donation drives.  

He has recruited former University of South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore to serve as his chief adviser for this Savvy Foods project.  Lacey said he was inspired by the work of the Marcus Lattimore Foundation, which offers programs for children and adolescents, including scholarships and internships.

Savvy Foods’ goal is to donate their time, goods, or services to at-risk children and children struggling with illness, in particular on special occasions such as Christmas or birthdays, to provide a day where the children can feel extra special and cared for.  So far, Savvy Foods has worked with multiple charities, including Palmetto Place Children’s Shelter and Carolina Youth Development Center. The company has also donated directly to families in need, bought Christmas gifts for local children, and even helped fund a mission trip.

Although this business owner is already pressed for time, Lacey is not worried about adding an ongoing charitable branch of his business to his hectic life.  “If I’m going to have a company doing something I love, it’s my responsibility as a humanitarian to give back,” said Lacey.  “Without community, I wouldn’t be anything.  If I have to work harder, I will. I’m definitely not afraid to work from sunup to sundown.”

Since the launch of Savvy Foods last year, Lacey has been especially motivated to continue contributing to organizations like Palmetto Health Foundation.  With his own father’s cancer struggles, Lacey has gained firsthand insight on the toll that a serious illness may take on an entire family.  But no one in his family has lost sight of helping others; in fact, Lacey’s father still delivers silent auction gifts and cooks oysters to help his son raise money for local charities.   “I am happy to have a dad who is still volunteering at my side,” Lacey admitted with a smile.

“When there is a cancer-related illness, it’s a difficult situation for a family to escape,” Lacey continued.  “And we want to be there for someone who can’t be there for themselves.  I’ve known so many people who have been affected by cancer–some have won the battle, and some did not.  But if I can alleviate the effects it has on the person and those around them for a moment–even it’s just by making them a nice birthday cake–I want to do that.”

Chipping Away at the Walls: Bringing Service Industry Workers into Volunteerism

Lacey has another motivation for driving Savvy Foods into more charitable work, and it is similarly deep, personal, and affecting.  He considers himself very fortunate to have found a way to cope with depression and anxiety through cooking and volunteering for different charitable organizations.  However, while working in bars and restaurants prior to owning his own businesses, Lacey watched many coworkers and friends cope with mental illness, substance abuse, and even suicide.  “Here in the service industry in Columbia, we’ve definitely experienced a large share of heartbreak and loss,” Lacey said gravely.    “I started cooking and volunteering more…it really helped me overcome a lot of mental health struggles, and I’d love for this to be an opportunity for others to use this as an outlet as well.”

Lacey hopes that bartenders, servers, cooks, and other restaurant and bar employees in the Midlands will become involved as volunteers with Savvy Foods’ charitable events and not-for-profit work.  He anticipates opportunities will include serving meals at children’s homes, helping prepare foods for catered events, and bartending fundraisers, among others.  “I think it’s important for anyone’s mental health to stay active and be involved, and to feel a sense of community,” he said.  “Food provides a great platform to give back…I’ve been fortunate to volunteer a lot, to see the joy that it brings somebody else. It fosters a sense of community as well.  It chips away at that the walls that you put up around yourself, chips away at the thought of being alone when you’re not.  The appreciation people have for what you’re doing always gave me a sense of how fortunate in the grand scheme of things I am in so many areas.”

As he celebrates Savvy Foods’ first successful year of business, Lacey has kept his sense of humor about how busy his life has become.  “Every day is a blur,” he said with a laugh.  “I don’t even know what day it is.  But, it’s controlled chaos.”  Staying busy with increasing his distribution and sales, Lacey said he still keeps “a notebook of products” he wants to develop.

“It’s my life-changing dream that’s now become my reality,” said Lacey.  “The fact that we made it one year, and we exceeded expectations and are in such a tremendous position to grow in the second year, it’s very humbling…When this all started, I felt like I was nothing, and to have this become something was unreal–to begin to have the brand become a way of life with the charitable side, cooking and bringing everyone together, fostering that idea…it’s eye-opening for me.”

Although his dreams may have came true, Lacey’s life is still impacted by mental illness–but it is no longer shaped by it.  “It’s an ongoing struggle,” he admitted. “I was fortunate enough to find cooking.”  Lacey said he still has “tough days” and feelings of being overwhelmed or overly anxious.  But he now has a career doing something he loves and is passionate about–a career that helps soften the effect of anxiety on his mind, leaving him feeling more at peace than ever before.

Savvy Foods is eager to not only give back to the community, but to encourage others to join them in helping those in need.  “All of this so much bigger than me…it’s about helping even one person know they aren’t alone, that there is hope,” Lacey acknowledged.  “People underestimate themselves all the time.  Whether it’s volunteering to serve lunch to children in need, or trying to impact something globally, we all play a role in progress. I believe we can all do everything.”

Lacey encourages the public to reach out to him to share their own stories, inquire about volunteer opportunities, or to ask for assistance.  He may be reached at will@savvy-foods.com.  More information about Savvy Foods and Yellow Dog Barbecue may be found at www.savvy-foods.com.

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