Sarah Simmons served up an entrée of inspiration, with a side of hope, to Midlands leaders at One Million Cups. While recounting her story, she quoted a famous Yiddish phrase to the crowd of entrepreneurs, business leaders, and supportive friends who’d come to hear her speak at the One Million Cups event, held weekly at the main branch of the Richland County Library. The proverb reads, “Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht,” meaning “Man plans, and God laughs.”
15 years ago, Sarah boarded a flight from New York City to Grand Rapids, Michigan, commuting regularly between the two cities working on a project for Amway. Flying with such frequency offered her the opportunity to read books and magazines, and on this flight she happened to have a copy of Food & Wine. She stowed her luggage, keeping the magazine handy for in-flight entertainment. While perusing its pages, she spotted an advertisement for a cooking contest to find the “Best Home Cook.” Her instincts said to enter the contest, and instead of succumbing to the fear of rejection, she accepted the challenge and bested her competition.
Sarah’s world changed as several top chefs from around the country lauded her work, many of them advising her to cook professionally. With all of her $60,000 savings she opened CITY GRIT.
Two short years after its opening, CITY GRIT found itself near the top of an extremely competitive New York City culinary market.
“Though this sounds more like a fairy tale, believe me. It was more house chores and little birds patching things together than a night at the ball,” she sarcastically said. CITY GRIT became a brand which expanded to another successful restaurant, Birds and Bubbles.
Sarah’s roots are in Columbia, having graduated from Spring Valley High School, but she hadn’t given much thought to returning until her grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She realized being close to her family was important, and decided to explore the possibility of establishing a restaurant in her hometown. By this time, her restaurants in New York City were doing well, enabling her to make frequent visits to scout locations. She decided on a small building in Five Points with scaleable potential.
Rise Gourmet Goods & Bakeshop opened one day before the disastrous flooding of our city in October 2015. Sarah worked tirelessly with her now-husband, Aaron Hoskins, to open the new business on schedule. But when the waters receded they felt the pulse of the community and chose to delay their marketing efforts, realizing it would be hard to generate enthusiasm for artisan sandwiches in the midst of such devastation. Rise barred its doors for one week after the flood, and couldn’t open completely until the curfew was lifted.
Fortunately, Rise didn’t suffer any flooding, but troubles were just beginning for the little shop. Compounding the financial hemorrhaging from the marketing delay were equipment failures, cost overruns, and high turnover during its first year. Sarah found herself logging over 100 hours a week at Rise, trying to resuscitate the 700 square foot space by doubling down on time and financial investment. The gamble started to pay off, and they’d dug themselves out of more than half their $200,000 debt. She started breathing a little. But not shortly after her recent successes, she began hearing rumors the building was being sold.
Meanwhile in New York City, the staff of Birds and Bubbles returned to the restaurant, having recently finished preparing a meal for CBS This Morning anchor, Gayle King and her crew, only to find water running from the light fixtures. The building had come under new management, who chose to lease part of the holding to residents. One tenant in particular fed pigeons from her balcony, rendering the porch of Birds and Bubbles useless for restaurant seating. The property management company never evicted the woman, but merely gave her notice to cease feeding the pigeons. This happened ten weeks too late, during which the business incurred an estimated loss of $300,000 in sales revenue. The restaurant couldn’t host patrons during the summer season—one of the busiest times of the year. Water damage led to a mold problem, destroying kitchen equipment and structural integrity. And on the very same day, they received official word the location of Rise had been sold, leaving Sarah and Aaron’s business holdings in New York City and Columbia in complete turmoil.
They worked diligently to keep their brand alive while also courting entrepreneurs from other markets who’d invest in their culinary prowess. But after looking closer at Columbia than they’d ever done before, Sarah and Aaron viewed the city through a lens filtered by opportunity. They rejected offers to move into other markets and decided to firmly establish their lives here.
Plans for a way forward came during a respite suggested by Aaron. Sarah’s mind shifted to asking questions about what Columbia needed, in addition to thoughts about sweeping reforms for the entire restaurant industry. They spoke with community leaders and forged alliances with citizens who worked to make Columbia a better place. Themes and trends surfaced from her interactions, which led Sarah to create a scalable culinary business model for micro and macroeconomic opportunity.
Her plan establishes a career path into the culinary arts for underprivileged members of the community, which will be facilitated by she and Aaron’s forthcoming establishments. This training would provide them with marketable skills they could leverage into better jobs for a brighter future, while simultaneously paying them a living wage. They’ll soon be opening part of the operation at the main branch of the Richland County Library, followed by other businesses in the coming months.
When asked by one of her potential investors what she’d learned from the failure of her business, the question blindsided her because she never thought she’d failed. If she was going to fail, it would have been 15 years ago by rejecting her intuition to enter the Food & Wine cooking contest.
You can hear Sarah tell her inspiring story on the Midlands Anchor Facebook page.
Photo credit to Sergio Aparicio