Homesteader to Restauranteur: 4 Ideas to Spark your Inner-Food Entrepreneur

Reader Contribution by Lisa Kivirist

Are you a homesteader with a dream launching your own food business one day?  Perhaps a restaurant showcasing farm to table fare? Trish Watlington, owner of The Red Door Restaurant, shares four of her success strategies that launched her from backyard gardener to San Diego’s leading local food entrepreneur. I’d also call her an “ecopreneur,” given her focus on the environment and making the world a better place.

“Figure out what you really love and then figure out how to leverage that into a business,” shares Trish Watlington with a warm smile. This is the welcoming energy you’ll feel when you walk through the front door of The Red Door restaurant (which, of course, has a bright red front door), her relaxed restaurant where “farm to table” literally means the majority of produce comes year-round from her urban farm in San Diego, which Chef Miguel Valdez then creates memorable seasonal fare like Herbed Gnocchi with Squash Pomodora Sauce.

But what Watlington really serves up on her menu goes beyond the plate. A passionate champion for supporting the green business and local food scene in San Diego, she is an inspiring open book of information and resources to support others in getting started. 

Watlington shares four insights to inspire you on your food entrepreneur journey:

Learn from the journey: “When my husband and I were newly married in the early 1980s, we followed the classic homesteading dream and moved to 32 acres in Maryland, truly the middle of nowhere,” she reminisces.  “We had a big garden, an orchard and ewes that ended up so friendly they turned into our ‘puppies’ and sat in our lap.”

Watlington and her family ended up moving a few times with her husband’s job while she herself had a career as a family therapist, eventually ending up in San Diego.  “We always had a big garden and that first homesteading experience really taught me that ‘hands in the soil’ and sustainability mission is really where my passion is.”

Think crazy big: The idea for launching a restaurant percolated between Watlington and her husband, Tom, as a means to involve their kids in a shared business venture. Her son, Justin, had worked in restaurants and her oldest daughter, Sarah, brought the design skill set to the project.

“It was as big a whim as two people ever had,” she laughs.  “But sometimes you just need to get an idea off the ground and see where it goes.” The Red Door opened in 2009, focused on comfort food.

Reinvent: “While the Red Door was doing okay as a business, I realized early on the business model we were operating under didn’t feel right and did not reflect our sustainability values,” shares Watlington.  “We really needed to get back to our homesteading roots and focus on connecting eaters with locally-raised fare.” 

This revised focus inspired Watlington to transform her half acre back-yard garden into a vibrant urban farm that now supplies the restaurant with nearly 100 percent of its produce in the summer and 50 percent during the winter. The Red Door reopened with a new menu focused on seasonal fare and evolved into now a farm to table leader in the San Diego restaurant scene.

Think beyond yourself: Watlington’s leadership in the local food movement stems from a deep-rooted commitment to supporting other business start-ups. “In collaboration lies opportunity,” she explains.  “It’s not about competition; when we openly support each other, and share everything from our vendors to our successes and failures, we all grow and benefit.”

A great example of this is San Diego Farm to Work Week, a now bi-annual event Watlington initiated as a means to cooperatively promote area restaurants that, like The Red Door, support area farmers. The event has grown in just one year to now involving a team of restaurant and farm partners, bringing together a community of businesses with a local food focus.

“This initially small seed of an idea behind Farm to Fork Week quickly took on a life of its own and now we have a movement,” she shares with a grin. But movement’s start with someone first stirring the pot and business owners like Watlington thinking beyond the plate and beyond their own bottom line for the good of the whole community.

Lisa Kivirist is a writer, the author of Soil Sisters and founder of theRural Women’s Project of the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service. She is also Senior Fellow, Endowed Chair in Agricultural Systems at the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Minnesota. With her husband John D. Ivanko, she has co-authoredRural Renaissance, Homemade for Sale, the award-winningECOpreneuringandFarmstead Chefalong with operatingInn Serendipity B&Band Farm, completely powered by the wind and sun. Both are regular speakers at the Mother Earth News Fairs. As a writer, Kivirist contributes to Mother Earth News, most recently,9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son Liam, millions of ladybugs and a 10 kW Bergey wind turbine.

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