I grew up in the food business. Like many first generation immigrants in search of prosperity, my parents turned to entrepreneurship to realize their American Dream.
I spent most of my time there — at the business, and in the dream. It all took shape on an urban street corner in my hometown in Southern California, wedged between a machine parts shop and a dusty RV lot.
It wasn’t a store, or anything else I could easily describe to my friends at school. “What does your dad do?” It would take my whole young life, becoming my father’s disciple, and owning the work to find out.
A food scientist by trade, my father brought his entire self to bear through this enterprise, formulating delicious products inspired by heritage family recipes, and scoring used steel kettles and machinery through hilarious side deals to set up a factory.
Goofy, tenacious, unstoppable, he came to America in the 1970s via food and ag school in Europe. He convinced a resourceful pretty lady to go on a wacky entrepreneurial adventure with him. She tempered him, gave him ideas, and took care of us — seriously we’d all be dead without my mom.
If he wasn’t in the plant, my dad was out driving the delivery van — the secondhand Picnic Sandwiches jalopy with the broken refrigerator unit that backfired a salute to some great entrepreneur before him.
My mother’s prayers and worries carried him and our freshly wrapped pallets of hummus, soups, and spaghetti sauce to warehouses far and wide where his small chariot jockeyed with air conditioned sixteen wheelers for a spot on the docks.
The business grew and nurtured me like a third parent for over 30 years. It was full of love, gods, promise, and dignity, and it was tough. The seven years I spent there working with my father before we sold in 2018 were the hardest and most developmental years of my life and career in food.
They were unglamorous compared to the time I spent dotting through sexy restaurants in Las Vegas, doing cash audits in a shamefully tight skirt suit. This was real work. It pushed me to my physical and emotional limits as a family employee, daughter, and ultimately a keeper of legacy.
Life is different now. I’m a business professor, and try to stir the plucky innovator I see in many of my students. Still haunted by my family’s epic saga, I write to illuminate others’. These are friendly ghosts though, the ghosts of story. They remind me that the America of possibility still exists.
The food industry gave me — a young woman of color — position, resources, and a voice I wouldn’t otherwise have. It also left me with an irresistible urge to tinker, and that is what I do here with words.