July Amber Grant Awarded to Love Again Local
On Saturday, we announced 5 July Amber Grant Finalists.
Today, we’re delighted to reveal the $2,000 recipient and the qualifier for our $25,000 year-end Amber Grant. Congratulations to Elena Mascherino, owner of Love Again Local. Elena’s business story proves that experience isn’t always the be-all, end-all. Her journey back to work — after raising 3 children — shows determination, and how it’s never too late to reach your business dreams.
WN: Share the story of how Love Again Local started.
EM: The doors of my shop opened almost exactly two years ago when I was 45 years old. Although my career background is not in the restaurant business, I always fantasized about opening a place to call my own in my awesome town of West Chester, Pennsylvania.
I believe that the choices you make about what foods you eat are some of the most important daily decisions of your life. Plant based diets are growing in popularity. I wanted people to know that they don’t have to make huge lifestyle changes to incorporate more plant based foods in their diets. So I took a lot of time and energy developing a strong business plan and an all star menu consisting of tried and true classic deli sandwiches that I made to be vegan.
My vision was two fold. First, I wanted to serve delicious food that people would crave and come back for. And not just people who ate exclusively vegan foods.
Secondly, I wanted to create a positive work environment for my staff members. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about what I’m doing to fulfill these two missions. I talk to customers everyday who, whether vegan or not, tell me that they love walking in my door because it’s always welcoming, the staff is amazing, and the food is delicious and satisfying. My staff members, who consist mostly of college students, are bright, positive and love what they do.
Previously, I chose to stay home with my three children (currently age 12, 15 and 17) when they were little, even though we could have used the extra income. When I decided that it was time for me to start working again, it was tough and discouraging. After about a year of unsuccessful job hunting and a lot of soul searching, I realized that I needed (and wanted) to change the direction of my path. I was itching for something new, exciting and fulfilling. I loved and cherished that I was able to devote those years entirely to my kids, but I was ready to take on a meaningful career for myself.
It started out with some delicious vegan cookies. People have always told me that I should package and sell them. And so that’s what I did! After the first year in business selling my cookies wholesale, I spent some time evaluating the direction I was going.
I ultimately decided that the wholesale business was not where I wanted to be. I wanted to be around people. I wanted to see them enjoying my products. I wanted to have a place for people to gather to eat, talk, celebrate, and be happy. I woke up one morning and the decision was made. I was going to open a sandwich shop — an all vegan sandwich shop that would be so much more.
I spent many months in front of my computer researching how to open a successful restaurant, how to find the best location, how to negotiate a lease, how to fund an entrepreneurial venture, how to hire staff, and so much more. I spoke to other business owners to get advice and gain knowledge. I did all of my homework.
Here I sit, two years later, and I am in awe that my vision has been realized. This journey has been the craziest, most exciting and exhilarating ride of my life and I can’t wait to see where it goes from here.
WN: You mentioned you had zero experience in the food business. How have you been able to overcome that?
EM: I’ve never even worked in a food service environment. I probably wouldn’t recommend doing it that way, but in some ways, I think it’s had its advantages.
I didn’t have the “that’s not the way you do it” limitations that come along with having experience. Although I sometimes have to correct certain things I do, I have a fresh approach to how I run my restaurant. There are so many aspects of opening a restaurant from the ground up, so some areas were trial and error. I had to ask a lot of questions to get the information I needed. And I had to overcome feeling insecure because I knew I was asking questions that I should already know the answers to.
Food ordering was a huge challenge in the first few weeks. I had no idea how much of anything I would go through. Do I need five pounds of lettuce for the first week? Or fifty? I ordered way too little of some things and way too much of others. It took a while to get in the grove, but with patience, perseverance and sometimes begging distributors and vendors to deliver overnight, it all fell into place.
WN: What are your plans for future growth, and how will you get there?
EM: Before any of this manifested itself in the real world, I spent many hours hashing everything out in my head and on paper. I made a business plan that includes everything that we have already accomplished as well as where I want to go with it.
Store location number one…check. Next we have location number two and then three. If all goes well, the plan is to franchise. I have designed location number one to look like a franchise. People ask me all the time, “is this a chain?”.
We always keep that idea in the back of our minds as we develop new ideas for the shop. “How will this scale?”, meaning, “how can we make lots of this if we were supplying it to multiple locations?”. We also have plans to eventually wholesale products for other restaurants and retailers to purchase as well as direct to consumer, online retail sales. So there’s lots of work to be done. I have a fantastic small group of staff members, who I consider partners, who believe in what we are doing and are interested in growing the brand. Plant based products and foods are a huge trend and there is lots of room for new products and ideas to succeed.
WN: How will you utilize the July Amber Grant?
EM: I am so excited and grateful to win this grant. When I was researching how to open and run a successful restaurant, the one thing that was consistently emphasized was the high cost of it all. I must have read it a thousand times!
But it takes time, investment and patience. The very appreciated $2,000 will go toward a few updates and improvements to the current location. Sometimes the updates and improvements get put on the “back burner” because there are always more pressing issues that need to come first. But it’s important to keep a clean, fresh and updated appearance in the shop at all times. I have been talking about getting a logo sign for above our counter since day one, but just haven’t had the budget for it. We’ll also be purchasing some new shirts for our team members as well as some other branded marketing materials which will be used in store to help bring together our overall appearance.
WN: What advice would you give an aspiring female entrepreneur?
EM: FOCUS, FOCUS and FOCUS! You can do anything if you can focus on your idea, know your strengths and run with it! I have always embraced the bold and simple concept with everything I have done. It’s so easy to get distracted and get off course.
Opening a restaurant has MANY parts to it. There is finding a location, negotiating a fair lease agreement, designing the space, fitting out the kitchen and buying the equipment, getting proper permits, licensing, and setting up your business as an “entity.” There is hiring staff, paperwork and more paperwork. There is menu development, menu pricing, and food ordering. If you don’t focus on one thing at a time, you can get swallowed up. But if you convince your stubborn self that you can do it, then you will do it.
WN: If you have anything else to share, please do — this is your platform!
EM: Love Again Local has been a dream come true for me. I am so grateful to everyone who has been a part of making it a reality. I’m so lucky to have always had the overwhelming support of my friends, family and community who cheered me on from the start. I never experienced any of the negativity that I read about in my research. I read that sometimes well-meaning loved ones will warn against taking such chances on something so risky. I had none of that! Everyone has been so excited, encouraging and inspired that I would go after my dream. I am forever grateful for this entire experience, regardless of where it goes from here.
Special thanks to all my staff members from the very beginning! They have been the ones who have really made it happen. Without them, there would be nothing. With love, kindness and compassion, we can do anything!