Six months ago, I was on the way home from the canceled Natural Products Expo when news broke about cases of coronavirus in New York City. Walking through the terminal at JFK, I saw people in masks for the first time. Nobody on the flight from L.A. had had one on, including me.
The city was on the verge of quarantine. My daughter Ramona’s school transitioned to wholly remote learning. I felt lucky that my business had been deemed essential, but with my kid thrown into the equation, everything changed. How would I manage full-time motherhood on top of full-time entrepreneurship? It seemed impossible, but I needed the money.
A failed attempt to outsource Anita's Yogurt packaging and labeling processes in 2018 had cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars and basically put me out of business. Without investors or advisors to fall back on, I’d spent 2019 crawling out of the grave and rebuilding my company from scratch.
But even with half a million in sales that year, things were still precarious. On the bright side, I remembered that the business plan for Anita’s Yogurt had coalesced in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, while I was living on unemployment and using the Brooklyn Public Library’s free Wi-Fi to do market research. Would this new disaster act as a similar opportunity to turn things around?
I was prepared to dive back in to work, under the delusion that—because my product was probiotic—people would stock up to boost immunity against the virus. And to my relief, during that first week of quarantine, my distributor placed their regular order. But that would be their last for two months. Sales dropped 70 percent. I was not prepared for the massive shift from in-person to online shopping, nor for the shift in focus on specialty goods to baseline staples. My product was essential to some loyal customers, not to mention my family’s livelihood, but stores were, understandably, only working to fill demand for basic essentials like milk, eggs, and canned goods.
My head raced with thoughts about rent—for my home, the factory. My daughter’s tuition, still due even though she was learning from home. Between rushing her through assignments, making her snacks, and logging her in to Zoom, I sent emails. I had to get sales back up or face losing everything. I had to get my e-commerce partners back (I’d lost them all after the copacking debacle). But like the grocery retailers, they were focused on the overwhelming demand for commodities.
Though the food industry includes thousands of small businesses employing hundreds of thousands of people, it was soon made clear: Disaster aid was not meant for us. With no food-service orders, I had more than 1,600 pounds of yogurt sitting around. I was able to donate it to new organizations like Food Issues Group and Heart of Dinner, both founded by local chefs to feed frontline workers and local at-risk seniors. Even though it felt like systems were failing all around us, seeing my peers in the hospitality industry remain truly hospitable was immensely inspiring.
Meanwhile, I did scavenger hunts, built Lego cities, and learned about the solar system at home with my daughter. There were spelling worksheets to oversee, lunches to prepare, and naptime to be enforced. With every passing hour of the school day, it felt like my business was slipping away. One day, I tried to squeeze in a call with a buyer too close to naptime, and a tantrum forced me to end the call early. I was pretending not to be a full-time parent while dealing with work, and pretending not to be a full-time CEO while dealing with school.
In those unavoidable moments when worlds collided, I was angry about having to keep up this charade for others’ comfort. I was angry at the city for funding more police in our schools instead of more teachers for remote learning, or childcare for the essential workers that keep our city running. I was frustrated with myself. I felt inadequate as both a mom and an entrepreneur.
If I could not get a break in getting my product back out there, I was definitely not going to get cut any slack for my dual role as a working mom. My stress compounded as the weeks went by, and had a residual effect on Ramona, along with the break in her usual routine. Though we couldn’t overcome our stressors, we escaped them with cooking. We documented our baking projects for fun, and even baked corn bread with her class on Zoom.
By May, I got purchase orders again. Ramona started coming with me to work and attended class from my desk. It felt good to be with coworkers again and return to a daily routine, but Ramona complained about being too tired to push her scooter. On the second day, I explained how business had been flagging, and that we had to work to get it back. From that day on, she raced me to work.
But by June, New York City was under curfew. Police helicopters hovered above our neighborhood at all hours, while fireworks went off in the streets all night. I told my team that anyone who had to travel to the factory after hours would get reimbursed for cabs. After work, I joined protests calling for justice for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. There were kid-led marches and bike marches. The warmer weather encouraged us. Chefs joined forces, once again, to provide food for organizations like Occupy City Hall.
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On social media, racism in the food industry reemerged when key figures and their colleagues—either emboldened, fed up, or both—spoke out. While it was disheartening to hear others going through similar experiences of dismissal, undervaluing, and erasure, it was also affirming. Being able to identify this as a real problem, alongside others, means we are that much closer to fixing it.
By July, Ramona started summer camp, and it felt like I finally had breathing room and could dig my heels in at work. After months of delays, Anita’s Yogurt launched e-commerce on Goldbelly and anitas.com, and at Erewhon Markets in Southern California. Despite having my lowest income since waitressing in 2003, I felt optimistic and renewed.
Anita’s Yogurt is not going anywhere. Over the past seven years, my small-but-mighty team and I have churned out over a million cups of yogurt. I've been pitching the brand to national chains, with a presentation I made with my daughter at my side. This was not my first and it definitely will not be my last disaster.
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