February Spotlight: Ask Chef Dennis

Each month, I’ll be featuring an entrepreneur, an industry leader, or expert in the field here on The Talk About Town with the focus on marketing, storytelling, and balancing dreams and the 9-to-5 grind. 

Chef Dennis Littley, founder and blogger of Ask Chef Dennis, is a classically-trained chef who has used the internet to set voyage to his journeys as an entrepreneur. Boasting over 52,000 Instagram followers, Chef Dennis provides home chefs and bakers with the tools and knowledge they need to create restaurant-style masterpieces in their own home on his blog and beyond. From working as a Chef in white tablecloth restaurants to traveling the world in search of the perfect meal with his wife, we can learn a thing or two from Chef Dennis about making a passion a career. 

LG: It’s so great to have you on the blog today, Chef Dennis! Tell us about yourself and your business. 

Chef Dennis: Thanks for having me on your blog, Lauren. I started my blogging career accidentally, I was teaching a culinary program at the school I was working at and I needed a place for my students to go for recipes. My students wanted the one on one connection with me and none of them ever used my blog as I intended.  But other students at the school and the teachers started reading my blog.  

Blogging really came at a good time for me, and the turning point was joining an international group of food bloggers called FoodBuzz.  I was pretty much burned out at the time and interacting with people around the world seeing the dishes they prepared really revitalized my interest and passion for cooking.

I became a travel blogger pretty accidentally as well when a friend referred me to a hotel on the beach in Melbourne, Florida that was looking to host bloggers.  As I stared out of the 9-foot sliding glass doors to the ocean from our third-floor room, I realized I could capitalize on my food blogging stats and start traveling around the state for free.  

Well, nothing is free which you find out when you start writing stories, taking pictures (and editing) and sharing on your social channels. But I loved traveling and meeting new people making friends where ever we traveled, too.

The turning point in my travel career was attending my first TBEX, where I met travel professionals and got a better idea of what traveling blogging was all about.

LG: How was your blog, Ask Chef Dennis, founded? What was your first step to publishing your blog on the website? 

Chef Dennis: My first post is no longer on my blog, it was just a recipe, with no pictures.  It was intended for my culinary class and that was in November of 2009.  

I had the school IT person help me set up the blog. It was easiest to set it up on Blogspot which was owned by Google. Blogspot was not the best vehicle for a blog although people still use it, but it’s where I started before migrating to WordPress.  The original name of my blog was “More Than a Mountfull” with the subheading “Yes Virginia, there is more to life than takeout and the microwave”.

When I moved to WordPress, I also rebranded to A Culinary Journey with Chef Dennis.  I knew I wouldn’t be at the school too much longer and decided a rebrand then was better than later.  A friend gave me the @askchefdennis name because I use to write a weekly post to help other bloggers learn their craft. 

LG: How have you grown your social media following? 

Chef Dennis: That has been an ongoing battle. My first big push into social was on Google+.  I was noticed by Google early on as an early adopter of Hangouts and a power user for Philadelphia. They put me on their Foodie follow list with Anthony Bourdain, Martha Stewart, and all the other big-time TV chefs. I eventually wound up with 1.2 million followers on Google+ before its demise. I did work for Google in an advisory position and also did live cooking broadcasts for them.

This is what drove me to grow my social accounts. I don’t know if it was more of an ego trip or just good business, but the strategies I use have continued to help me grow my social following.

LG: What is your marketing strategy for Ask Chef Dennis? How do you make a profit from your blog?

Chef Dennis: My marketing strategy is to do what I enjoy doing and hire people to do what I don’t like doing.  That actually makes me happier and open to working with brands on projects that bring in more money.  

My revenue is split about 60/40 with the larger part coming from ads on my blog through Mediavine. They are an incredible company with the largest profit share from ads in the business. I would probably do a lot more sponsored and social work if it wasn’t for that income.  But having a great source of passive income allows me to do what I want and get the amount of money I deserve for the projects I work on. It also allows me to spend more of my time traveling.

LG: How did you find your niche? How do you help your audience? 

Chef Dennis:  Restaurant-style recipes have always been my niche. I do write other types of recipes but the ones that do the best are my chef style entrees and desserts.  My goal is to share my knowledge and cooking techniques with my readers to demystify cooking. I keep my recipes fairly simple and try to keep the time prepping and cooking to under 30 minutes whenever possible.  I don’t have the time or the energy to cook after working all day, I can’t expect non-chefs to work harder than I’m willing to.

LG: What’s the most rewarding part about being an entrepreneur? What’s the most challenging part? 

Chef Dennis: The most rewarding part is getting emails or comments from people that have made my recipes.  How their friends and family loved the dish and that it was as easy to make as I said it was. Food is the bond that brings us all together and being able to bring smiles to a dinner table with family and friends is a gift they will always remember.  

The most challenging part is creating recipes that are meaningful with some of the branded work I get.  I could just post a hack or easy use like many bloggers do, but I try to bring my expertise to the table when I prepare things you wouldn’t think a chef would eat or use.  

LG: What has been a major success in your business? A fail?

Chef Dennis: The major success in my career has been working with high profile brands on long term projects or as a spokesperson. Not only do they pay really well, but they also lend more credibility to my brand.

The biggest failure in my eyes was seeing Google+ shut down. It made me work harder on the other platforms but anytime you lose over 1 million followers in a day, its a bad day.

LG: What do you view as the most critical element of your business’ marketing plan?

Chef Dennis: The most critical element is being on social media all the time. You have to be seen and heard to be remembered. I spend 4+ hours a day on social platforms. And that’s with having virtual assistants do as much, if not more work than me.

LG: What’s your biggest piece of advice to entrepreneurs out there? 

Chef Dennis: Love what you do, and you’ll always do what you love.  You’ll work hard, but you’ll be happier doing it. The other bit of advice is to hire people to help you as soon as you can. Start adding one person, then another.  You have to spend money to make money.

LG: What’s the one thing you wish you could go back and tell your younger self?

Chef Dennis: Don’t eat the brown cheese…sigh. Only kidding. I would tell my younger self to not be afraid to charge for my time. To learn to be a better photographer and a better writer. That life gives you what you put in, and to stop being so damn lazy.

LG: You have TONS of recipes on your blog. Tell us, what’s your favorite recipe you’ve published?!

Chef Dennis: My favorite recipe is Tiramisu. Its been my number one post since I wrote it and drives the most traffic to my blog. I also like my restaurant-style dishes, its how I like to eat and how I shine in the kitchen.

It’s the month of all things love. Turn to Ask Chef Dennis’ blog for the perfect restaurant-style recipes for date night. And don’t forget to follow him on Instagram

Author’s Note: A special thank you to Chef Dennis for his participation. Working with you for the last 6 months has been such a great experience. Bon Appetit! 

January Spotlight: Colin Comstock of Arsenal Mediaworks

Each month, I’ll be featuring an entrepreneur, an industry leader, or expert in the field here on The Talk About Town with the focus on marketing, storytelling, and balancing dreams and the 9-to-5 grind. 

Colin Comstock, the owner of Arsenal Mediaworks, founded his South Philly-based full-service video production company in 2006. His five-person team strives to bring the highest quality product to clients with a focus on the details and boasts clients like Penn Medicine, Movado, Kimco Realty, and Visit Bucks County. Headquartered in the sun-filled and iconic Bok Building, Arsenal Mediaworks continues to tell stories through a creative lens in an unparalleled way. 

LG: Thanks for being with us today, Colin! Tell us about yourself and Arsenal Mediaworks?

CC: Thank you for having me! I appreciate the opportunity to talk about the business!

Arsenal Mediaworks is a video production company based in the Bok Building in South Philadelphia and I am the owner and founder. We help people and businesses tell their story and communicate information through engaging and strategic video content. 

That can look pretty different depending on the project (ie: who the client is and what outlets we are creating the video for), but generally speaking, we produce client-facing “about us”/brand videos, social media content, internal communication videos and event videos for organizations large and small. 

We have also produced some long-form documentary and TV series/entertainment work recently and that is an area that we are going to continue to develop in 2020. 

LG: How was Arsenal Mediaworks created in 2006? What were you doing prior to becoming an entrepreneur? 

CC: Prior to 2006 I was a student at Temple University, a waiter at an Italian restaurant and a musician in a bunch of fledgling bands of various quality. I started doing video work for small businesses while still in college and I haven’t had another job since.

LG: How has Arsenal Mediaworks changed over the decades? How do you envision your company in 5 years?  

CC: Things have changed a lot over the last 15 years or so. I started off as a one-man-band taking odds and ends video gigs and slowly started to bring in freelancers more and more to help with larger projects. 

I hired my first full-time employee in 2012 and we started working out of my garage. Since then we’ve grown to a team of 5 full-time people (plus a network of freelancers) and we’ve been working out of a beautiful studio in the Bok Building since June of 2018. As we move forward I’ll be looking to hire a couple more people to help take some of the weight off of everyone’s shoulders and allow them to focus on the parts of their job that they enjoy and excel at most. 

LG: How did you build Arsenal Mediaworks’ marketing strategy? What tactic has made a difference in your marketing goals? 

CC: I was really struck by a book a friend recommended to me called “StoryBrand” by Donald Miller. The basic premise is that you want to make the customer the hero of your brand’s story and marketing materials (rather than yourself). 

In light of that, we try to position ourselves as “a guide” who can help people solve a problem through video, rather than just talking about all the cool stuff we’ve done and how long we’ve been in business. 

Beyond that, we are also big on showing the personality of our staff through our website and social media channels and believe that peeling back the curtain and showing that we don’t take ourselves too seriously helps build stronger connections with our clients and potential customers. We have a really good culture and a lot of fun working together and I think that definitely sets us apart from some of our peers. 

The Arsenal Mediaworks Team

LG: Your website really tells your company’s story. How did you create your website? What’s most important to you when people and prospective clients reach your site? 

CC: We are really lucky to have some brilliant multi-talented people on our crew (ahem, Mr James O’Brien) and he actually designs the website. Because it’s done in-house that allows us to kind of try things out and adapt/change a little easier (or cheaper) than if we were hiring a developer to do it. 

We’ve overhauled the site a couple times over the last several years and each time we’ve started from a place of “what we do we think is the most important thing to communicate” and worked backwards from that. We also knew we wanted to incorporate moving background video into our design so we identified a couple places where that would make sense early and specifically shot some clips to fit in that design.

With this most recent iteration we were obviously inspired by StoryBrand, but also a real desire to help demystify the production process. Producing video can be complicated, and there are often a lot of moving parts, but we’ve really honed in our processes over the last couple years and I think that’s helped make things a little easier for new clients to wrap their head around. 

LG: What’s the most rewarding part about being an entrepreneur? What’s the most challenging part? 

CC: I was recently accepted into the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business Program which is a 16 week intensive program for small business owners to really sharpen their business and entrepreneurial skills. I think having the schedule flexibility to be able to carve out an entire day out of the work-week to further develop myself is a real gift and benefit of being self-employed that I really appreciate. And beyond that, seeing how the people back in the studio really step up in my absence and handle the day-to-day operations is incredibly rewarding. 

On the other hand, nearly every day is challenging in a new (and often unforeseen) way. Running a business, especially a creative service agency, is not for the faint of heart – and the highs and lows/feast and famine stuff can really wear you down if you let it. I have a lot more grey hairs than I did a couple years ago but I’m really thankful for my team and our clients who have helped make each year better than the year before it. 

I’m also really blessed that my father, who was very successful in his career and is now retired, lives close by and we have continued a tradition that dates back to me being in high school of having breakfast together every Monday morning. That time together ends up being an awesome opportunity to bounce ideas off of him and seek advice. And being an entrepreneur means that if that goes long no one can reprimand me for being a little late to work in the morning 🙂

LG: What has been a major success in your business? A fail?

CC: When I think about what success looks like for us I think about lots of happy repeat customers who have grown alongside us. The world has changed so much in the last few years. I remember going to networking events in the early days and trying to convince people that they needed to use video as part of their marketing strategy. Now it seems most people inherently understand the power of video so we’ve shifted our focus to showing people why they should be strategic and thoughtful about the video they produce. 

As far as times I’ve failed, there have been a lot for sure, but speaking generally – I think I’ve often said yes to too many things and foregone sleep or eating in an attempt to keep pushing the business forward or take advantage of new opportunities. You can’t be everything to everyone and the times I’ve tried were shortsighted and have come back to bite me more often than not. 

LG: How do you manage the balance between your role as a father, a creative, and a business-owner?

CC: That’s a great question and something I think about a lot. One big thing for me was recognizing and accepting the fact that since I spend so much of day communicating with clients and employees, and trying to think big picture about the direction of the business, that it’s important for me to be protective of what little energy and headspace I have left over at the end of the day. 

I’m absolutely crazy about my wife and 3 daughters (!!!) and really desire to be a good husband and father to them. It can be tough because I often come home exhausted and with a lot of things still bouncing around in my mind – and they (particularly the little ones) don’t care about any of that stuff – as well they shouldn’t!

One of the big shifts I made a couple years ago was getting completely off of social media. Not just “I never check it” but actually deleting my accounts. For me, that was one less big distraction and thing that kept me from being fully present when I’m at home. All that other passive time doing the endless-scroll and seeing what other people are up to is all time that I could spend being present with them (or resting). 

I had convinced myself that I needed to be on social media for “work reasons” but I was able to delegate the Arsenal accounts to some very awesome people in the office and things have actually only grown since then. I couldn’t be happier, I’ve never felt more mentally healthy, and am pleased to say I’m never going back. Simplify, simplify.

LG: What’s your biggest piece of advice to entrepreneurs out there? 

CC: Seek out help and don’t be embarrassed by what you don’t know. 

Running a business is complicated and always changing. No one person is good at, or knows how to do, everything. In my case in particular I’m “a creative” whose business grew and essentially had to learn how to be a manager out of necessity. I never set out to run a business, I was just putting one foot in front of the other and knew I didn’t really want to wait tables for very long – mostly because I was really bad at it.

This is an incredible time to be alive and the amount of information we have at our fingertips is pretty amazing. But beyond searching the internet for things, it’s also important to get out and talk to other people. I joined an Entrepreneurs Small Group that gets together once a month to talk and present issues and hear from experts in different fields. It’s been really interesting to realize that even though we all do different things, a lot of our problems are the same and it’s nice to know you’re not alone in some of that stuff. Beyond that, if you can get into a program like Goldman Sachs 10KSB or “Power Up Your Business” or SBA’s “Emerging Leaders” – DO IT. The things you’ll learn and the people you’ll meet are totally worth the investment of your time. 

LG: What’s the one thing you wish you could go back and tell your younger self?

CC: Set aside money for taxes and don’t conflate your personal worth and identity with the success of your business. And dont forget to floss 🙂

LG: Here’s your chance. . . why does every company need to be using video!? 

CC: Ha! Thanks for the opportunity to make a pitch here. I would just say that video is an incredibly powerful communication tool that can really shape and change the perception and awareness of your brand or company. If it’s approached thoughtfully it can also be done efficiently and have a real measurable impact on your business and/or your culture. You don’t necessarily need to hire a production company for everything, but for the projects that need to be done right – give us a shout! 

If the New Year has sparked change in your company’s marketing plans, consider adding video to the mix! Get started with Arsenal Mediaworks today: https://www.arsenalmediaworks.com/contact-us 
Author’s Note: A special thank you to Colin for participating in this month’s spotlight!

December Spotlight: Alissa Carpenter of Everything’s Not Ok and That’s Ok

Each month, I’ll be featuring an entrepreneur, an industry leader, or expert in the field here on The Talk About Town with the focus on marketing, storytelling, and balancing dreams and the 9-to-5 grind. 

Alissa Carpenter is the owner behind Everything’s Not Ok and That’s OK, a company focused on providing actionable advice and strategies for employees from entry-level to mid-management in today’s diverse workforce. Alissa provides clients with training, consulting, and speaking services to help their workforce communicate across generational lines, find commonality through differences, and start a meaningful dialogue about diversity and inclusion in the workplace. 

Alissa has worked with organizations ranging from non-profits to multi-billion-dollar enterprises and has recently delivered a TEDx talk on authentic workplace communication! In early 2020, her book How to Listen and How to Be Heard: Inclusive Conversations at Work, is set to release. Pre-order on Amazon now! 

LG: Thanks for being with us today! We’d love an introduction. Tell us about yourself. 

Alissa: I am a mom of two kids, married to my high school boyfriend, have an adorable Australian Labradoodle, and love to bring positivity into everything that I do.  

When I meet people for the first time after chatting with them on social media or through email, they always say that I am exactly how I appear online.  I pride myself on being authentic, transparent, and honest. I love being able to try new things and flex my creativity muscle while making a difference in the way people communicate with one another at work!

LG: How was Everything’s Not Ok and That’s Ok created? What were you doing prior to becoming an entrepreneur? 

Alissa: I was a higher education administrator for about 13 years working with undergraduate students, faculty, and staff. I was seeing students say they were OK when talking with their friends and then breaking down in my office because of a job they didn’t get, a test they didn’t do well on, or a recent break up.  It quickly became obvious that there was an understood “public face” you had to show and when behind closed doors, it was OK to let it out. I wanted to flip the script and let people know that whether it’s in your personal or professional life, it’s OK to not be OK. As long as you recognize where you are and take steps towards making a difference.

I never thought I would be an entrepreneur as I truly loved working in colleges and universities.  But, I saw a need to bridge the gap between what students were learning in school, what the workforce offered, and how we communicated across these differences.  I wanted to make a bigger impact beyond higher education.

LG: How old is your business? How do you envision ENOTO in 5 years? 

Alissa:  I started my business in 2015 and went full time about three years ago.  In that time I have pivoted from a career coach to keynote speaking and creating and facilitating learning programs to enhance employee communication.  

I am constantly checking in with what the market is looking for, what I am interested in and capable of offering, and what the future of work holds for both organizations and employees. I would love to say that I know exactly what ENOTO will be doing in five years, but the truth is, I am not sure as how we communicate is changing.  Right now, the US economy is losing $30.5 billion annually in lost productivity! And a lot of that is from people just not having efficient and effective conversations with one another. What I do know is that I hope to have expanded my reach and help more employees feel valued and heard in their roles.  

LG: How did you build ENOTO’s marketing strategy? What tactic has made a difference in your marketing goals? 

Alissa: Relationships and communication.  There are so many things out there that claim to provide the five steps to grow your business or the three things you need to do to market your company.  At the end of the day, it all comes down to people trusting, liking, knowing, and relating to you and your work. I’ve done this through attending in person events, actively commenting and engaging in social media, and reaching out to my network to help spread the word. 

I think it’s so easy to get sucked into the vanity metrics on social media.  It’s something that I know I’ve done many times! It’s not so much about the likes and comments as it is about meeting your objectives.  Did people sign up for my mailing list? Book me for a speaking engagement? Refer me to a new client? I think staying focused on my end goals and creating a platform based on authenticity has helped move closer towards my goals.

LG: What is the goal of your weekly podcast?

Alissa: My goal has been two-fold, to share people’s stories and get to know people who I would have otherwise not met.  At the moment, I am not looking to monetize the podcast but give a voice and space for people to share the great things they’re doing to bridge communication gaps and bring together people at work.  I’ve met so many incredible people who have either been on the podcast or reached out because of it.

Every Tuesday, Alissa releases an episode of her podcast, Humanize Your Workplace, that you can listen to on your phone, computer, or smart device no matter where you are. 

LG: You not only host a weekly podcast, but you’ve somehow found the time to publish a book! Tell us about your journey to writing your book! 

Alissa: It’s been such an incredible journey and one that I am beyond grateful for.  As a first time author, there is so much I’ve learned along the way from writing a book proposal to pitching and working with an agent to the editing.  

The one thing that I did not anticipate was how life does not stop when writing a book.  I naively envisioned myself writing at a lake house like in the movie, Love Actually. Where I would take some time and be one with my thoughts, research, and computer.  

But with running a business full-time, two little kids, and not having a lake house; that’s not something that played out.  Instead, I found pockets of creative time where I would write in between client calls, speaking engagements, and training preparation. I even used the voice memo function on my phone while traveling to make sure ideas were not lost.

Each chapter in my book stands alone and focuses on a different area of employee communication.  Being able to pick the one I wanted to address in that moment made the process flow more smoothly.  When I had an idea for a specific topic, I ran with it and didn’t edit my work until I was finished.  Getting everything out when I could, kept me going.

LG: What has been a major success in your business? A fail?

Alissa: Writing the book and giving a TEDx talk were huge accomplishments for me.  Those two things have been on my dream list for a long time.

As an entrepreneur, failures are inevitable (big or small)!  There was a time when I thought I got a contract because of a verbal agreement, started working on the project, and found out that they pulled it.  I spent several hours on that versus other things and should have waited until the written contract was signed. I’ve hired the wrong people and lost money from unfinished work.  I’ve launched a course without doing research to see if people even wanted that specific course content.    

But with each failure, I’ve learned something new about myself, the market, and the direction I want to take my business.

LG: How do you manage the balance between your role as a mother, wife, author and entrepreneur? 

Alissa: I put everything on my calendar (self care, kids’ schedules, husband’s travel, projects, client outreach, social events, etc.).  I need to see everything electronically and all in one place to best plan around it. If I have a busy client day, I usually leave my nights free for family time and work catch up.  And if we have a big family event I need to prep for, I’ll keep the day light and block out more time the week before for work.

But, I’ll be very honest and say sometimes I don’t find or manage the balance that well; especially because I am passionate about what I do.  I don’t want to let someone down whether that be my kids, husband, or my clients. I’ve started to leave my phone at home when we have family time and made a more active effort to create a work schedule as opposed to all day, everyday.  I also ask my network to be my accountability partner in taking a break so I don’t burn out.  

LG: What’s your biggest piece of advice to entrepreneurs out there? 

Alissa:  The up and down emotions you’ll have are like nothing you’ve ever experienced before. One day you might think you’re on top of the world and the next, not so much.  Make sure you have mentors and people who you can rely on for advice, support, and reality checks. When you start something you’re emotionally invested in, it’s important to surround yourself with support.

LG: What’s the one thing you wish you could go back and tell your younger self?

Alissa: I struggled in school to find things I was interested in.  My parents and my brother are into science and math and the “main” school subjects did not excite me.  If you would have told me in high school that I would write a book someday, I would have laughed.  

I would tell my younger self to keep looking and you’ll find what you love to do.  There’s a path and role for everyone and it’s just a matter of finding where your strengths and talents meet and help the needs and pain points of others.

LG: From your perspective and experiences, what is the biggest challenge or threat to American workplaces today? 

Alissa: This is such a good question!  There are so many things that I could talk about here but one of the things that I see over and over is the inability to create a community within virtual workspaces.  So many people are working remotely whether it be full or part time. And it’s hard to have a connection to a person, organization or cause if you don’t feel part of it.  When we don’t physically see the people that work with and for us or even know how our daily tasks are impacting the mission of the company, why not look for another job?  

Planning your fall calendar and looking for any speakers for your events and programs? Interested in listening to a new podcast? Look no further! Learn more: http://www.notokthatsokcoach.com/
Author’s Note: A special thank you to Alissa for allowing me to participate in ENOTO and providing incredible perspective into leadership in American workplaces.

September Spotlight: Nick Farrell of Sovana Bistro

Each month, I’ll be featuring an entrepreneur, an industry leader, or expert in the field here on The Talk About Town with the focus on marketing, storytelling, and balancing dreams and the 9-to-5 grind. 

Nick Farrell, restaurateur and owner of Sovana Bistro, has brought fine dining and catering to the quaint town of Kennett Square, PA for over two decades. Blending locally grown and sourced food with the tastes and cuisines of the world, Sovana Bistro is a dining destination for those near and far. 

LG: Thanks for being with us today! We’d love an introduction. Tell us about yourself. 

Nick: Hello Lauren! I grew up in Glen Mills, PA, as the youngest of five in a family where food was always at the center of everything we did. I spent a lot of time as a teen playing sports and working part-time at a neighborhood restaurant. After high school, I attended West Chester University and then went on to Culinary School at The Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts in Pittsburgh, PA. After graduating in 1995, I spent some time working in Malvern with my brother Tom at The Classic Diner. In January of 1998, I opened Sovana Bistro. It was there that I met my wife Linda! We now live in West Chester, PA, and have four amazing kids with one on the way in November 😊 along with our 2 dogs.

LG: How was Sovana Bistro created? Where did the name come from? 

Nick: I began the process of looking for a restaurant location at the age of 22 (in 1997). I was told by a friend about a spot in Kennett Square not too far from Longwood Gardens. I met with the landlord and we discussed the idea of a small Italian-style restaurant. He liked my proposed menu and vision and agreed to lease me the space. The name “Sovana” comes from a small town in southern Tuscany. I had grown up cooking simple, rustic, Italian food and the quaint village town of Sovana seemed to resonate with me.

LG:  Almost 22 years later, how has Sovana grown? Where do you see the restaurant going in the next 5 years? 

Nick: Sovana is continually evolving and changing. We have expanded on and upgraded the facility year after year. Highlights would include adding a 65-seat patio, getting a liquor license and two bars, adding a pastry, bread, and pasta kitchen. Our goal is always to continue to add value to our loyal guests and staff.

LG: How did you build Sovana Bistro’s marketing strategy? What tactic has made a difference in your marketing goals? 

Nick: We focus very heavily on guest experience to drive visitation through word of mouth. We are part of an intimate community and have been heavily involved in supporting our schools, churches, and local organizations. Our marketing has been mostly “grass roots”. I believe Social media has helped us stay connected to our fans.

LG: What has been a major success in your business? A fail?

Nick: I would say our success comes from building a healthy and positive environment and culture around key principles of life that seemingly attract the best people to our organization. We spend a lot of our time keeping the core values and mission in focus.

I have failed at many things over the past 22 years. Each and every one of them has made me better and provided insights that I would not have had.

LG: How do you manage the balance between your role as a father/husband, an entrepreneur, and a co-founder of Dineable

Nick: I love it all. I am grateful for each role that I have been given. I did not always have the right balance as a young husband and father. Building a restaurant required years of sacrifice and it was difficult for many of those early years. My wife Linda focused on the home and I focused on keeping the restaurant going. It took about 12-15 years to get things to a point where I  could see more balance in my life and start to spend quality time with Linda and the kids. The core team at Sovana is amazing and they are quite capable of executing at the highest-level whether I’m there or not. This level of flexibility has been a wonderful thing to have in my work/life balance.

I really love being an entrepreneur and building things from the ground up. When the chance to be a part of a young start-up Dineable crossed my path, I jumped at the opportunity. It’s been a great experience and I get to use my life’s work to help build a tool that I believe can seriously improve and better people’s lives.

LG: What’s your biggest piece of advice to entrepreneurs out there? 

Nick: There are moments when it’s so heavy and you want to quit. You are capable of so much more than you think. Nothing comes without a sacrifice and a willingness to give up comfort in the moment for the results you are driving towards in your life. 

LG: What’s the one thing you wish you could go back and tell your younger self?

Nick: Stop feeling sorry for yourself when it gets hard and be thankful for what you have in every moment.

LG: What has been the most rewarding part of Sovana’s journey thus far? 

Nick: Going to the restaurant and seeing it all come together every day the way it was designed and enjoying the relationships with the folks who bring it to life everyday. They are my family. Hearing people share the moments of their Sovana experience is a way that says we nailed it.

Come one, come all! Sovana Bistro would love to host you for lunch, dinner, and your next big event! Make a reservation today. 

Author’s Note: A special thank you to Nick for participating in this spotlight and his support of me through many different roles at Sovana over the years.

August Spotlight: Aimee Beam of Top Knots by Aimee

Each month, I’ll be featuring an entrepreneur, an industry leader, or expert in the field here on The Talk About Town with the focus on marketing, storytelling, and balancing dreams and the 9-to-5 grind. 

Aimee Beam, Founder of Top Knots by Aimee, is an award-winning bridal hair specialist creating beautiful looks and helping women feel their very best for life’s most special moments. Aimee’s passion for all things beauty began early on and after almost a decade in the marketing industry, she’s become a full-time entrepreneur traveling from big day to big day with hot tools and her signature “Top Knots” look. 

LG: Thanks for being with us today! Tell us about yourself! 

Aimee: Thanks for having me, Lauren! I’m the owner and founder of Top Knots By Aimee (@topknotsbyaimee) – I have the pleasure of styling more than 100 brides a year with my team of 7 stylists in the greater Philadelphia, Jersey Shore, and New Jersey areas. I really love what I do – and pinch myself every day that styling brides on their wedding morning is the full-time job I created for myself. In addition to my NJ cosmetology license, I also have a degree in Journalism from Lehigh University. I live in the Philly ‘burbs with my husband Jon and 2-year-old son Max! 

Haley Richter Photography

LG: How did Top Knots by Aimee begin? 

Aimee: Almost every client asks me this! It happened by accident, but once I got a taste of the on-location wedding life, I was hooked! I had gone back to Cosmetology School after college with the aspiration of owning a hair salon, but once I was in school, I hated cutting and coloring! I was too far into the program to step away once I realized this (I went two years every night from 5-10 pm), but I was thinking about how I was going to use the skills I had learned. I always loved the beauty industry, my Mom was a manicurist, and I grew up around the salon. I got my first client by chance after meeting a makeup artist at a social event in Philadelphia, and she recommended me to the bride. I sweated my whole way through that first hair trial the only photos I had to show her were of my mannequins! But she ended up loving her hair, and hired me, that was in May of 2013. After that first wedding at the Hotel Monaco in Philadelphia, I was so energized by the “job” and the experience of delivering an exceptional wedding morning for a bride loved everything about helping a bride get glamorous for her wedding day! I went home and started researching how to set up an LLC and built a website later that month. I had a clear vision of the dream job I could cultivate for myself! It would take me many years to make it my full-time job, but I moved forward slowly to ensure it was truly the full-time path that would make me feel fulfilled. 

LG: We love your logo, website, and amazing photography. How did you decide on your brand? 

Aimee: Thanks! Here is where I use my Journalism degree I had learned how to build a website in college and I use SquareSpace. Our photos are all used with the permission of our client’s wedding photographers so we always have fresh photo content. The wedding industry is all about sharing sharing content, sharing photos, and tagging each other for as much exposure as possible. As far as our logo, I wanted something clean that used my name and our photos speak to our level of hair artistry, so I didn’t want anything overly complicated for our logo. A “top knot” is a signature bridal look obviously we specialize in countless hairstyles beyond this updo but that is where our name came from. 

LG: How did you build Top Knots by Aimee’s marketing strategy? How do you attract and engage your clients? 

Aimee: The wedding world is so unique! So much is vendor referrals and client referrals! I always stress to my team that every client is the most important client not just the bride. So many of our brides hear about us because their friend was a bridesmaid loved her hair just as much as the bride! My inner circle of vendor friends in the industry are called “friendors” these are talented wedding-related business owners that specialize in areas outside of hair some are photographers, some are makeup artists, some are bridal dress shop owners…we all refer to each other and work together! When brides hire a team that has all worked together before we can collectively deliver a truly cohesive and special wedding experience! Putting time and energy to these relationships has been the best “marketing strategy.” As far as traditional marketing we spend the most time of Instagram – hair is so visual! We get our largest percentage of non-referral clients from Instagram. You can follow along over at @topknotsbyaimee

LG: What has been a major success in your business? A fail?

Aimee: As a business owner, I fail often! But when you’re wearing so many hats, you get really good at fixing any of the said failures and work to find a solution quickly! As I’ve expanded my team, and am not on-site for every wedding anymore, I’ve learned you can never over-communicate enough when it comes to timelines and what is included in the services. I’ve also flat out have had clients want a total hair change and my rule is no one leaves unhappy. We always offer to start over and take everything out if a client isn’t 100% happy. There is so much I’m proud of about this business! I’m most proud that I’ve created a culture and clientele that other super talented hair artists want to be a part of I seriously love my team of crazy talented bridal hair specialists!   

Lauren Fair Photography

LG: How do you manage the balance between your role as an entrepreneur with a growing team and your home life (including Max. . . the cutest toddler ever)?

Aimee: I’m still searching for the balance… in my opinion, you have to love what you that much because my business is a lifestyle, it’s not just a job. I get a lot of help which I’m eternally grateful for from my husband, parents, and in-laws. Their support is what makes me running full steam ahead possible! And Max, Max man gives me so much energy! He’s the best baby in the world! 

LG: What’s your biggest piece of advice to entrepreneurs out there? 

Aimee: I’ve never had one regret from leaving the traditional 9-to-5 world – if anything I wish I had the guts to do it sooner. I really feel like I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing, and am grateful for this adventure I’m on! Also, this life is a hustle – you really have to love it in your bones. It’s harder than any job I’ve ever had, but it’s the best. 

LG: What’s the one thing you wish you could go back and tell your younger self?

Lauren Fair Photography

Aimee: There is a crazy-beautiful SUCCESSFUL life outside of the 9-to-5. I was always so afraid to “break” the norms of what everyone else defined as success as far as climbing a traditional corporate ladder.

LG: Your work is amazing! What’s been the most memorable wedding or event you’ve worked so far? 

Aimee: Recently, I was invited to be a part of a styled shoot at Terrain in Devon, PA alongside all the top wedding vendors I admire in the Philadelphia region. My first job out of college was at Terrain at Urban Outfitters Headquarters and it was a very “life coming full circle” moment for me. I moved to Philly for the Terrain job 10 days after graduation 11 years ago, I got the idea to go to beauty school while working at Terrain, and now I was the hired wedding hair stylist for a shoot that was going to be featured on Ruffled Blog at Terrain alongside every vendor I admire in Philadelphia.

Know someone planning a wedding or special event? Be sure to use Top Knots by Aimee and her incredible styling team! 

Author’s Note: A special thank you to Aimee for her time and helping me grow as a marketing professional while we were colleagues!

June’s Spotlight: Mark Surkin of Dineable

Each month, I’ll be featuring an entrepreneur, an industry leader, or expert in the field here on The Talk About Town with the focus on marketing, storytelling, and balancing dreams and the 9 to 5 grind.

Mark Surkin, CEO and Co-founder of Dineable, brings tech to the dining room table in the best way possible. Created with the customer in mind, Surkin blends his background in IT with his dedication to living with dietary restrictions in our world today.

LG: Tell us about yourself!

Mark: Anyone can probably get a pretty good read on me by knowing 4 things:

  1. When I was 13, I asked my parents if I could spend some of my bar mitzvah cash to buy… WINDOWS 95. Seriously. My idea of fun was sitting at home installing an operating system.
  2. Baseball is the greatest sport in the world and I dare you to try to prove me wrong.
  3. I believe that reading is one of the most important things anyone can do with their free time. Sci-fi, romance, self-help, history, whatever. Just read.
  4. I love to travel and have been lucky enough to do a lot of it. But even when it’s not possible, anyone can go anywhere with a great recipe. Food is universal, and even when there is no common spoken language, all it takes to make a friend is a taste and a smile. That’s why Dineable exists: to give everyone a seat at the table.

LG: You’ve launched Dineable. How did it all begin?

Mark Surkin, CEO of Dineable

Mark: Like most IT people, I can’t help myself from trying to solve problems with tech when I see them. I’m food-restricted. So are many of my family and friends. Getting together over a meal always began with exhausting conversations about who can’t eat what – sometimes among ourselves, sometimes with a server or chef.

There had to be a better way, and I wanted to find it, because I was tired of repeating myself and tired of feeling isolated, frustrated, or just plain hangry when there was nothing around for me to eat. I knew others shared my perspective, and I was lucky enough to be in a position to try to fix the problem.

LG: Describe the Dineable brand.

Mark: We get that food counts to everyone, each in their own unique way. Dineable helps anyone get food right for them, and we help anyone serving food to get the information they need to serve each guest at the highest possible level. We are all about hospitality – the simple act of knowing your guests as well as possible enables anyone to create magic moments.

LG: How did you build your company’s marketing strategy?

Mark: Marketing has always been kind of nebulous to me. I’m fascinated by it, but it’s not something I’ve ever figured out how to do effectively on my own. I watched Mad Men but whiskey didn’t seem to help much! So instead my team and I worked hard to define the segments we wanted to go after, and the order in which to go after them, and we hired you (Lauren) to help us get to where we want to be. In the end, whether it is marketing or sales or building software, it is all about having a great team.

Dineable

LG: What has been a major success in your business? A fail?

Mark: Our first major LOI was with one of the biggest auditing firms in the world. Talk about starting with a major success! From a company perspective, it is humbling to consider that most startups fail and that Dineable is still here, finding new successes each week. A few weeks ago we had to move our team meetings to a larger room. Walking into that full room was an amazing moment.

We failed a ton as we’ve been building this company. It is the nature of new things and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Remember my story about installing Windows 95 when I was 13? The most exciting moments for me was when an error message popped up, and I got to figure out how to fix it. Specific to Dineable, the initial product we rolled out had incredibly poor UX. We were so focused on building something functional and keeping it secure, that we lost sight of the core value of our product, and thus it was not presented directly to new users, and we provided very little guidance to existing users. We had a great team of software developers but only a part-time adviser keeping track of UX. If I had that to do over again, I’d have adjusted that balance.

LG: What’s your biggest piece of advice to entrepreneurs out there?

Mark: Talk to everyone you can, and be gracious and helpful. You never know who someone knows or where they can take you.

LG: How do you manage the balance between your role as an entrepreneur with a growing team and your home life?

Mark: Honestly I don’t manage it very well. I’m lucky to have my wife, Katie, be so patient and supportive of me, even while I spend most nights working until past midnight. I’m writing this interview at around midnight on a Saturday night, in fact, after getting home from date night. We don’t have kids and I’m not sure how anyone does this with kids. They deserve a ton of respect. And probably a few naps. For myself, Dineable could be the most important thing I ever do professionally. I truly believe the world needs a system to help get food right, that this is an incredibly rare opportunity to help a lot of people on a very large scale, and I’m super passionate about the work we are doing.

I do try to just ignore the pile of work once in a while and spend time with family and friends. Even a few minutes with my cat, or an afternoon with my nephew can rejuvenate me and fuel me through my next late night of work.

LG: What’s one thing you wish you could go back and tell yourself as a young adult?

Mark: “Stop and think.” Also, a bonus: “Stop comparing your insides to other people’s outsides.” I think I read that second one in an airplane magazine interview with Rob Lowe (the actor), and it’s really stuck with me.

LG: We’re all ready to use Dineable! How do we get started using the app?

Mark: If you’re food restricted or have a special diet, click here to create your own, free, personalized food profile and start sharing today!

If you’re an event organizer or food preparer, click here for the easiest way on the internet to ask guests if they have food restrictions or a special diet.

If you’re interested in learning more about Dineable, visit dineable.com.
Author’s Note: A special thank you to Mark and his passionate team for bringing me on to learn more about marketing in a tech start-up setting!

May’s Spotlight: Lynn April of Fresh April Flours

Each month, I’ll be featuring an entrepreneur, an industry leader, or expert in the field here on The Talk About Town with the focus on marketing, storytelling, and balancing dreams and the 9 to 5 grind.

It seems fitting to kick off my spotlight series with my first client, a business partner-turned-friend, and hardest working woman and recipe master in all of Philadelphia. My inaugural feature begins with Lynn April, the creator lady boss behind Fresh April Flours, a food (with sprinkles of life and family) blog bringing easy and delicious meals and treats to your kitchen with simplicity in mind.

LG: Tell us about yourself!

Lynn: I’m Lynn, full-time mom, full-time antibody purification technician, and self-taught baker. When I’m not wrangling children or at work, you can find me in the kitchen or behind my camera lens photographing food.

LG: How did you get started with Fresh April Flours five years ago?

Lynn: I started Fresh April Flours as a place to share my recipes. From 2010 to 2014, I baked and decorated custom cakes. It was really fun until it just wasn’t anymore, so I stopped. I wanted to continue sharing my cakes with people, but I also wanted to branch out into other desserts, so I started the blog to sort of “document” that. What started as a place for me wound up a place for all of my readers.

LG: Describe the Fresh April Flours brand.

Lynn: Since I’m self-taught, you won’t find anything super fancy on my blog. Instead, you’ll find real recipes from a real person. I love taking the time to learn something new or challenging and teaching someone else how to approach it from an amateur standpoint, but I also know that sometimes it isn’t realistic to want to make croissants from scratch because they take literally all day and you get 8 of them. What I do want FAF to bring to the kitchen, though, is quality, tested recipes that make you feel good about what you’re putting into your food. When you make quality recipes, and something you put time and effort into, sharing it with others becomes a celebration. My favorite thing to hear is that one of my recipes reminds someone of their grandmother’s or makes them nostalgic for something they had growing up. Helping people learn how to get back into the kitchen in a fast-paced, instant gratification world is what I aim to do with FAF.

LG: How did you build your company’s marketing strategy?

Lynn: Honestly, I’m still learning this one. My husband’s background (before he became a personal trainer and gym owner) is in marketing. For the most part, he helped me figure out what to do prior to my outsourcing of marketing, which was the best thing I have done for my brand thus far. Marketing is probably the hardest part of owning this brand, as the digital world we live in is constantly changing and moving a lightning speed, and all I know how to do is bake, take pictures, and write about my recipes. What I depend most on is word-of-mouth and sharing on social medias from my readers. Pinterest is my #1 traffic source followed closely by Google. I didn’t put myself there – other people did. The brand, in a way, markets itself!

LG: What has been a major success in your business? A fail?

Lynn: As far as success goes, when I realized that blogging was actually making me decent money, I started paying for things like vacations with that income. We’ve been on a few vacations in the last few years paid for solely by the blog, and that’s liberating. Overall, the blog itself making it to the 5-year mark is a major success in and of itself, considering this is not my full-time job AND we have two young kids. When it comes to fails, I actually can’t think of a single one. Nothing I’ve done along the way has set me back or broken me down. Everything has been a step forward. Except my baking fails. I have a lot of those. Do they count?

LG: What’s your biggest piece of advice to entrepreneurs out there?

Lynn: It sounds cliche, but do not compare yourself to other brands. The food blogging world is humungous and quite saturated. There are food blogs out there I could only dream of being as popular as. And some of my most loyal and regular fans/readers have no idea what those blogs are. I say the same thing to my husband whose gym is within a few miles of some major “big name” gyms — your people are with you for a reason. You are their person/brand. While quantity is important in the business world, so is quality and loyalty. If you can build your brand to be trustworthy, necessary, significant, and timeless, people will stick with you. And that can take you far.

LG: How do you manage the balance between your roles as a full-time scientist, blogger, wife, and mom?

Lynn: Coffee, a supportive spouse who gets it, non-negotiable me time (the gym), and regular quality time/dates with my husband.

LG: What’s one thing you wish you could go back and tell yourself as a young adult?

Lynn: You’re going to marry someone who loves to talk about business strategies and ideas. Listen to him in those early years… He knows what he’s talking about.

LG: We’re dying to know. . . what recipe must we try from your page?!

Lynn: Oh my goodness, you’ve got to try a yeast bread. They’re so NOT as intimidating as people make them out to be. My Italian anise bread, cinnamon babka, or funfetti cinnamon rolls are great places to start. As far as my most popular recipes: blueberry lemon pie bars or, believe it or not, my make-ahead breakfast casserole are fan favorites!

Interested in exploring Fresh April Flours recipes? Visit freshaprilflours.com. Want to know more about Lynn and her company? Visit https://freshaprilflours.com/about/faq/.

Author’s Note: A special thank you to Lynn who will forever be my first marketing client, her eagerness to support this new venture, and her willingness to be spotlighted!