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Three years into her post as director of business development at NewBo City Market in Cedar Rapids, Julie Parisi knows she has a valuable perspective to offer budding entrepreneurs.
It didn't come from studying business management - Parisi graduated from the University of Iowa with degrees in political science and Italian studies.
Parisi's perspective comes from starting her own business, Zaza's Pastas, watching it grow and succeed for more than a decade. She was on the board of directors at NewBo City Market when the business development job was created in 2018. She thought long and hard about whether to apply.
'I thought, you know, I am uniquely qualified to fill this role because I've had the experience of being a shopkeeper, so I know the struggles and the work involved in that side of things,” Parisi said. 'And then having been a board member, I also understand the needs of the organization.
'Sometimes those two sides don't always match, and maybe I could be this glue that would help connect the two perspectives and tell a better story about what we do.”
STARTING FROM SCRATCH
Parisi spent the early part of her childhood growing up on Long Island with her Italian family close by.
Every Sunday afternoon she would run across the street to her grandmother's house to help make pasta because she was the oldest grandchild. Later in the day, 20 family members would come for dinner.
'That was my duty, but it was also a lot of fun. I learned a lot from her,” Parisi said of her grandmother.
When she was a student at the University of Iowa, her love of cooking truly took hold.
After graduating, she moved back to Long Island with plans to work at a restaurant, which she did for a year - enough time to determine restaurant life wasn't for her. The long hours, working weekends and holidays, never seeing family members - it seemed too difficult to combine her dreams of having a family as well as a career.
She left Long Island and went to San Francisco, where she worked as a nanny for a few years before reconnecting with her now-husband and returning to Iowa City. She had fallen in love with the farm-to-table culture in San Francisco and 'wanted to be tied to the food scene somehow in Iowa City.”
She experimented with her grandmother's noodle recipes, and, in the summer of 2010, sold out at every farmers market she attended.
'It was insane. It was like you'd think people hadn't seen pasta in their life. It was a fantastic reception,” she said. A regular customer commented how much he loved her product. 'I had never considered it a ‘product.' ”
That conversation changed the way she thought of her pasta - that it could be a viable business. She crunched the numbers, recruited investors - 'mostly family members” - and, in early 2014 opened her first shop in downtown Iowa City.
Two months later, she learned she was pregnant with her first child, Hugo.
'So, I was really going to test that whole concept of having kids and a business right from the get-go,” she laughed. 'I was thrilled to be starting a family, but wow - what a time to be starting a business. Life just really happened all at once.”
That first year, Hugo accompanied his mom to work. A bassinet was set up next to the cash register. Fourteen months later, her second child, Stella, was born.
'It was just bing, bang, boom - the kids kind of grew up in that pasta space I had for two years,” Parisi said. 'Then we got the second location inside NewBo City Market.”
She soon decided to close the Iowa City location and focus on getting her pasta to more people.
'I didn't know what I was doing, to be honest, but I started going after wholesale accounts,” she said. 'My first one was with New Pioneer Co-op and then some local Hy-Vee stores, and then it just got bigger and bigger.”
So big, in fact, that by early 2020, Zaza's Pastas was in 80 food cooperatives and natural food markets across the Upper Midwest.
MAKING A CHANGE
At the same time her business was growing, Parisi was getting more involved at NewBo City Market. She was named to the board of directors and worked with other entrepreneurs who, like herself, were working hard to grow their business.
But with her growing family, she realized she was missing out on a lot, both at home and at work.
'What I really loved about my stores was interacting with the customers. I loved talking to them about pasta, about how they should prepare it,” she said. 'They would watch me cut ravioli by hand and all these things - that's what I really enjoyed.
'When the wholesale side of the business really started ratcheting up, I couldn't be creative,” she said. 'I had no customers to interact with - instead I was dealing with a purchaser at the end of a phone line who had a (purchase order) for a pallet of pasta. It was so impersonal.
'Because life wasn't crazy enough,” Parisi took on the full-time job as director of business development at NewBo City Market while maintaining her wholesale business. She maintained that pace for two years until she knew she had to make a change.
'I had reached this point where I was feeling like that work-life balance just wasn't the balance I wanted,” she said. 'I wasn't at home as much as I wanted to be, the kids were getting more and more active and doing dance class and things like that, and I was missing it.”
She decided that 'something had to give,” and she pulled back from the pasta business in late summer 2020.
'I love what I do at NewBo City Market,” she said. 'I feel like I have an important role in helping businesses. And I could see that this was more my future path than getting the next big wholesale account.”
NewBo City Market is a business incubator of sorts, with small retail and restaurant booths for business startups. Offering management training and development tools, Parisi and others work with the business owners to help them grow to a point they eventually can go out on their own.
She remembers being where they are, just starting out and learning about business.
'Having owned a business for 10 years isn't that long, but it's long enough to make enough mistakes and have enough rebounds,” she said.
'What I love about my job now is I get to tell people what mistakes to avoid, and I can help guide them in a direction that they maybe hadn't considered before,” she said. 'I can help give them a roadmap and a focus for that very fledgling first couple of years where things can be a little hairy.
'Oftentimes, they have no capital, no investors, so they're really bootstrapping it. I can relate to them on that level.”
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