One very memorable piece of advice I received when starting my business was, “ask for help. And take it.” In some scenarios, this has been no problem, while in others, it has been easier said than done. When it’ hard, it’s REALLY hard. I get caught up in my head, resolutely stubborn, not wanting to bother anyone, thinking “oh, I can do this myself.” Truth be told though, the most fulfilling moments, the most monumental steps forward, have come as a result of asking for help and letting go, allowing help to act without incumbrance. Then, there are those times when you don’t ask for it, but someone watching you can tell you really need some, and offers it, the way a parent might do to their kid- out of love, and a genuine investment in their well being.
Of the many times I’ve asked for help and received it extraordinarily, there is one instance in particular that I really love, one that I aspire to pass along if/whenever I have the chance. To start my cured meats business 10 years ago, I spent the first 6 months of my “attempt to launch” calling different USDA inspected salami making facilities (there aren’t that many of them, and less so then), in hopes that someone could help me with my production. I didn’t have the funding or the knowledge to open my own place, romantic and idealistic as it sounded, so I needed help. Over that 6 month period, I got what felt like endless rejections, both over the phone, and in person, a new dead end seemingly waiting for me at every new turn. Finally, a bit discouraged and weighing alternatives to a life in the cured meats trade, one Friday afternoon, I learned about a little old school production facility that I had never heard of, and decided to give them a call.
What followed was a 2 minute conversation that would change the course of my life, by someone named Judy, who would earn the nickname, “the unlikely queen of salami.” Judy answered in her thick midwestern accent, seemingly old enough to be my grandmother, the last person I would ever imagine to be a salami maker, salami expert, and, ultimately, one of my cured meat mentors (I’m often asked, “did you apprentice under anyone,? a question that used to leave me on edge, thinking if I didn’t have some sort of romantic story, like from Spain, or Italy, or France, or something like that, that I would get judged for- thankfully I got over that and fully embrace Judy and her team as my true mentors in the charcuterie trade). I introduced myself and explained a little bit about what I was looking for. She interrupted, “Yeah, ok. Let’s talk about it some more. Can you come here for lunch on Tuesday?” I said yes, and the following Tuesday I travelled to St. Louis, where the facility was located, a trip I would make from New York for 1 week, every month, for the next two years.
By our 3rd or 4th meeting, we had already worked out a number of logistics -suppliers, recipes. test batches, production schedules, trucking companies, to name a few. But every time I asked for pricing, she’d change the subject. This made me uncomfortable, but I decided to run with it. After all, most of the relationships I’d ever been involved with before and since, have been based on a gut feeling. Some worked, some bit me hard. I had a good gut feeling here though and, more than that, I had no better options. If I wanted to start this business, this was my only path at this moment in time and, if it went well, it was a great option.
Finally, at a moment when I really couldn’t go any further, I said, “Judy, I REALLY need to know how much you’re going to charge me for all this.” Up to this point, our setup was that I order all the raw materials, she basically gives me the key to the facility for one week a month, and I work with her production crew to make our production. It was, in so many ways, ideal. She took a long hard look at me and said, in her thick accent, “Son, when you show me you’re making money off this thing, I’ll charge you. Until then, let’s just keep doin what we’re doin.”
I was shocked, touched, and grateful. Although all my life I had been wary of things that seem “free,” my intuition told me that this was a rare moment in which a genuinely well intentioned person was trying to help me out. Maybe she was trying to repair some bad karma. Maybe she was making an investment in her business’ future. Maybe she was plotting to screw me over. Or, maybe, just maybe, she was just trying to be nice to a kid looking to get his start, and help him out. The latter turned out to be true. I did pay her eventually, and her price was fair. It ended up being more of a mentorship than a customer/vendor relationship, and I was happy to pay, as she had taken me under her wing and, I could tell, believed in me. Taking help from her was vulnerable, but what monumental moment doesn’t come with its share of vulnerability?
Ultimately, no one can go it alone. If someone claims they do, that they are “self made,” they aren’t giving you the whole picture. The greatest stories, occurrences, triumphs in the world are made with help – helpers, people whose hearts are in the right place, and do their thing more or less unnoticed, with ego aside. That was Judy. And that is so many people out there, if only one asks, and welcomes them.
Ok – totally cheesy, a bit cliched, but true. Ask for help. Take it. Take it even when you don’t ask. We all need a little.