Starting a home-based business can be daunting. Yet three local women chose the path of becoming ‘foodtrepreneurs’ and are now finding joy in doing what they love while creating highly popular and delicious products.
Jamie Wadowsky of Ross is known as the Call Me Crazy Cookie Lady, but before she started her home-based business, she’d been a kindergarten teacher for 15 years. “I got into teaching cookie classes and backed off my role as a teacher,” said the mother of four. “I was combining my classes with other local businesses, like The Candle Lab, or we’d go to wineries and hold a ‘sip and decorate’ class.”
Wadowsky also makes personalized, decorated cookie platters for teams, corporations, graduations or virtually any celebration. “We were doing really amazing on those for a long time, and then COVID hit,” she said.
That’s when Wadowsky started experimenting with the latest food craze, hot chocolate bombs. Dropped in boiling milk, the bombs—decorated shells of homemade chocolate filled with marshmallows—'explode’ and make a decadent cup of cocoa. In addition to plain chocolate, Wadowsky offers specialty flavors such as salted caramel, peppermint, and French vanilla. She also creates gender reveal cocoa bombs which are made to order, but can also be found in some local shops.
Though Wadowsky herself is not much of a sugar fan, she considers herself an artist. “I look at things from an artistic perspective; I can color match, and I look at things in layers,” she said.
Wadowsky said the most difficult part of establishing the business was creating her website. Still, most of her business comes from word-of-mouth advertising. “I’ve been really lucky. I’ve had Duquesne University, Carnegie Science Center, and a lot of the large names around Pittsburgh use my cookies at corporate events,” she said.
It was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling; her decorated gingerbread men and Italian wedding cookies can be seen in the Netflix movie, Happiest Season, which was filmed in Pittsburgh.
Wadowsky recently held her first virtual cookie class and hopes to do more. “I just ordered an ‘edible’ printer that will be perfect for logos and will make things easier for more custom personalization cookies,” she said. “I also want to continue to do more fundraising for the cocoa bombs because that was amazing—it was very simple and beneficial for everyone.”
Josephine Caminos Oría’s passion for dulce de leche was inborn. Though raised in Pittsburgh, Oría’s grandmother made the drink for her family after they moved from their native Argentina.
“Dulce de leche is a taste of childhood. It’s a taste of home,” explained Oría.
For her grandmother’s 90th birthday, Oría decided to try to recreate the rich and creamy caramel-like ‘milk jam.’ After several years of selling her product at farmers’ markets, Oría gave her last jar to a customer, who happened to be a buyer for Whole Foods. Though he suggested the product be sold in Whole Foods’ farmers’ markets, Oría negotiated a more favorable deal. Three months later, her homemade dulce de leche was on the shelves at Whole Foods, and a company, La Dorita, was born.
Oría quit her job as the CFO of a medical company in 2017. “I had five kids and felt like I had been the only woman at the directors’ table. I knew I had reached my ceiling, and it was up to me to rewrite my story on my own terms,” she explained. “What did I value most? I valued my time.”
Oría initially converted her dining room into a commercial kitchen, but after having her fifth child, she knew she had to reclaim that space. After a six-month search, Oría found a 6,000 sq. ft. building in Sharpsburg that had been an old Elks Rotary space. It was much more space than she needed, so she decided to open it to the community.
A kickstarter campaign followed, and after the first year, seven companies were using the space.
“It has continued to evolve,” said Oría. “Since then, we have built 4,000 more square feet of kitchen space and currently have 24 companies working there.” She added that her culinary incubator is now a larger portion of her business than her small-batch product, though her next project is to scale production of the dulce de leche.
As an homage to her upbringing and a way to pass down her family traditions, Oría has also published a cookbook called, Dulce de Leche: Recipes, Stories and Sweet Traditions, and next month will release a more personal story called Sobremesa: A Memoir of Food & Love in Thirteen Courses.
Oría learned a lot of lessons about opening up a home-based food business, which, despite being difficult in terms of regulations and restrictions, she finds incredibly rewarding. One of Oría’s passions is mentoring startups, like Sarah Tuthill’s company, whose idea for a coffee table book morphed into a charcuterie board business called Gathering Boards by EZPZ Gatherings.
“I wanted to do something that was about easy entertaining. Ever since I started to entertain in my 20s, I was always saying that you have to keep it simple, but present it in a way that’s memorable,” said the Aspinwall resident. “If you serve a bowl of nuts, make it enormous. That was the premise of what I was thinking my book would be.”
As Tuthill was getting ideas for her coffee table book, she intended to devote an entire chapter to charcuterie boards, but then an idea struck her—what if she opened a charcuterie board business? People always asked her to bring one of her beautiful cheese boards to parties, and when her research disclosed that no one in Pittsburgh was doing this sort of thing, she knew she was on to something.
With invaluable training from Oría, who walked her through permits, licensures and legalities, Tuthill started her company just before the pandemic hit. She stayed in business by catering small, private gatherings and porch parties, with full boards or a ‘board in a box’, as well as hosted virtual classes.
What also helped was collaborating with a community of other women in the charcuterie board business on Instagram, who shared tips and ideas. She said that TikTok has been a big help, too—it is where she learned to make a salami rose.
On her boards, Tuthill likes to mix textures, like soft and hard cheeses, while adding such classic charcuterie meats like salami or capicola, as well as seasonal fruits and nuts. She’s also made many holiday or personalized boards, including doing cutouts in cheese to personalize a company logo.
“There are so many things you can put on a board, and it makes it so much more fun,” she said, adding that she’s made a s’mores board and a dessert board, though her niche is meats and cheeses. She can also create boards to adhere to any dietary restrictions.
Tuthill recently bought a storefront in Aspinwall to put her gathering boards together and to display some local jams and jellies. She hopes to hold in-person classes and events in the future.