This spring, we're reporting a series of stories about business owners who've started something new or substantially changed their operation over the course of the pandemic. Up next: Starting a business after a job loss.
Since the pandemic hit last March, tens of thousands of Vermonters have lost their jobs. Even now, more than 30,000 people are filing unemployment claims every week. But despite – or perhaps because of – that, business advisors like Vermont Small Business Development Center Director Linda Rossi are seeing an increase in the number of people who are interested in starting up their own venture.
“When you have something as significant in your life as a pandemic, it really opens your mind to whether the thing I'm doing right now is what I really want to do, and whether there's a business in my idea,” she said. “So, whether it's people who are unemployed, underemployed, or really have a moment of, 'This is the time for me to go forward,' I think there's a range of examples of why we're seeing that.”
A layoff is what spurred Meg Dawson to start her own business. Dawson is the owner, operator and baker of Das ButterHaus, a venture she started in October 2020, just five days after losing her job.
Dawson has worked in restaurants for about 15 years, since she was a teenager. She has an impressive resume having held positions in restaurants in New York City, Virginia and Vermont.
And when the pandemic hit, she was working as a baker for Philo Ridge Farm in Charlotte. The upscale restaurant and market quickly turned their focus to their grocery operation.
“It was really, really, really busy,” she said with a laugh. “Like, kind of the entire time.”
Philo Ridge expanded to serving outdoor dinners last summer, but once it got cold, the business scaled back, and Dawson says they cut about 20 positions, including hers.
“It was such a stressful like, eight months almost,” she recalled. “And then suddenly, to not have that, and to not really know what else to do, I was like, 'Well, maybe if I just like create a baseline of stress.'”
Stress, but also, Dawson says she wanted to maintain momentum during the pandemic. So just days after losing her job, she decided to start out on her own and create Das ButterHaus. Her first goal was Thanksgiving. The previous year at Philo Ridge, she says they sold about 70 pies.
“And then when I did pies for Das ButterHaus, we sold 140,” she said. “I think people are just excited to continue to have a baker here and have like somebody local that they can go to with cakes, and I mean pastries are such a comforting thing.”
Through word of mouth and social media, the business kept going strong through the holidays. Dawson bakes out of the kitchen of a local restaurant in Shelburne, and she has a busy weekly schedule: 10 to 11 hours of baking on Mondays and Tuesdays, office work on Wednesdays, more baking on Thursdays, and then deliveries Fridays and Saturdays.
“I'm really sticking, trying to stick to like, a 45, 50-hour work week, which is honestly less than I have ever worked in my life,” she said. “It's jam-packed, but it's not 60-hour work weeks, which I'm used to. It's kind of nice.”
On the other side of the holidays and high-demand times for pies, Dawson says she’s pivoted to “butter boxes.”
“I'm calling them butter boxes, or you can get a smaller version called a baby butter box,” she said. “And it's basically an assorted pastry box. The larger ones have between eight and 10 items, the smaller have between four and five. So kind of like, one of everything … and every week it changes, but it's generally the same format. So like a loaf cake, we'll do like a round cake that's usually frosted of some kind. And then I'll do cookies and bars, and maybe a tart.”
Das ButterHaus began during a pandemic. And Dawson says as challenging a time as it’s been, especially when it comes to mental health and the limited interactions with other people, she doesn’t know if she ever would have started something on her own without that push.
“I like the safety of a salary and health care, so I think I always kind of hid behind that,” she said. “This kind of pushed me into doing my own thing. But I also think that right now, the kind of atmosphere of like, people are genuinely seeking out local businesses and like, supporting local people, and I don't think people would have known to look on Instagram to buy pastries until right now, kind of everybody's online. And so it's really, it's a lot easier to join that market than I think it was previously.”
Up to this point, Dawson has mostly operated her business by herself. But as things open up, she'd like to expand.
“I think it would be really nice to be able to hire some people, so I'm going to be expanding to do the farmers market in June,” she said. “And that's gonna add on this like, extra layer of selling off more individual pastries. And then I really want to be expanding the wholesale aspect in the next few months, to a few different farm stands in the area, once they start opening. But one of the bigger things is, I want to be adding on a pop up tent and be able to do little pop ups on the weekends. Potentially add in espresso.”
Dawson also has great ambitions for Thanksgiving 2021.
“I want to be able to sell 200 pies at Thanksgiving,” she said. “You know, I don't know if I ever really want to have like, a full-on storefront. But I like the way that, the direction that we're going in. And I'm really excited to just be able to keep creating different stuff every week, and changing the menus, and I'm so excited to have fresh fruit and vegetables.”
Next in our series, we'll hear from a couple who took over a farm and garden store in Chester from the family who owned it for generations.
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