Fellow Feature: Aaron Washington - food and resilience in New Orleans
The Camelback Fellowship application is open! We are featuring past Camelback Fellows from our different tracks to share their stories, perspective on the application and program experience, and what they’re up to now.
Aaron Washington is the founder of Local Menu NOLA (“LM NOLA”), a socially conscious organization that is contributing to the New Orleans legacy of having great tasting food and beverages. Aaron participated in the pilot of our 2018-2019 Good Jobs Initiative, and is therefore one of our first five Camelback Fellows in our new Local Economies track.
Camelback Ventures (CBV): Aaron, tell us about what you decided to start Local Menu NOLA and what those early years were like.
Aaron Washington (AW): I was working for a restaurant management brand that had to go through some closures, and I got laid off. I felt like my back was against the wall -- I had to earn a living. I had self-taught skills in baking and cooking, and I knew I could do it, so I started there. A few years back, this is when vegan food was becoming popular and requested in the city. So, I decided to start making vegan pastries. I recognized an opportunity where I could monetize that at scale -- I pitched myself to local coffee shops. I was able to get in a few -- Arrow Cafe in the French Quarter and another in Algiers Point. I was going a few days a week, delivering the pastries, and through that scene I realized coffee shops and bars were hosting food pop-ups. I knew I could tap into my savory skills, but I had to differentiate my cuisine from the popular New Orleans creole cuisine. So I started creating a new fusion style that was my own -- things like chicken and waffle sliders with different sauces, a seafood grilled cheese, things like that. I got the opportunity to host my own pop-up four days a week at a mid-city spot called Bar Culture. That was such a cool opportunity to have my own kitchen and my own food; I got lucky and got some notoriety and was invited to participate in a program with Good Work Network, and later have my own brick and mortar spot at Roux Carre*. Having that spot, given where I started off myself, not being an entrepreneur for very long, not even having the tools to even know the infrastructure of a business, was amazing.
I started doing catering, and I eventually met a Camelback Fellow which led me to meeting Nadiyah Morris (program director for the Good Jobs Initiative pilot), and then I got into Camelback’s program. At the beginning of that program, I was still at Roux Carre -- I was able to cater my first wedding, I ran a stall at a major festival in the city. I started running two different meal prep businesses, as well as a holistic herbal beverage company. So, I had all these different streams of work that I was offering, and I know it sounds like it was all over the place, but I was really just focused on whatever it took to make my company work. I think at the beginning, I just had the idea of “hey, survival” -- I lost a job two years in a row due to organizational cutbacks, and that takes a toll on you mentally, the struggle. I just had to be relentless and focused to find a way to make money.
I think my perspective really changed for the first time once I was in the Camelback program.
Aaron Washington with his daughter at the Camelback showcase for his program.
CBV: How did the Camelback experience help you the most? What surprised you?
AW: I learned so much from Camelback. I learned way more than I ever thought I would, about everything...about pitching a company, finding an investor, pricing my products, marketing strategies -- all these things I didn’t know anything about...And this was all presented to me for FREE by people who cared about changing the narrative about what’s been going on in the city.
It wasn’t until I got deep into the cohort with Camelback’s Good Jobs Initiative that I started to think about long term goals. You know, how could I start a company with the right infrastructure, the right growth plan. A company that my wife could be a part of, that my kids, my nieces and nephews, my community. It was this big picture moment for me in Camelback.
So, Camelback gave me this whole new perspective I wasn’t expecting at all. To own a company, what you have to do in order to be successful. Camelback had all these instructors, these facilitators come in and teach so many valuable lessons, helped me create so many goals...Goals of being ruthless for all the s--t you gotta do to make it happen. I am taking time right now to rebuild my structure, my vision of what it can be. It isn’t always going the way I thought it would or I expected, but I think I needed to take a pause, to reevaluate myself and what I need to do to build the strongest foundation I can.
Honestly, one of the things that Camelback has really surprised me on as well is just the community, that feeling of support. I don’t have a degree, and they made me realize how much I do want to finish college. I want to get stuff done. So not only can you prove all those people who wrong who doubted you, but then to raise up this army of people who will really change the narrative of what’s been told and what’s been going on in this city.
And it makes me emotional -- all the little ways everyone shows up for you from the community. The team chipped in and bought me a juicer so I could go to farmer’s markets and create fresh juice on the go. It’s these little things that you realize just make such a difference when you know that people have your back. And I don’t want to disappoint you all. I don’t know if I tell y’all enough -- just, thank you. Especially to Nadiyah. All of you, you all have shown up for me and the rest of the cohort in different ways.
Camelback gave me this whole new perspective I wasn’t expecting at all.
CBV: What advice would you share to local business owners like you?
AW: Try to see the big picture. When I was working for other companies, I felt I had to bite the bullet a lot of the time. There was this crazy wage disparity, a lot of BS you had to deal with to get ahead. I just kept thinking some day people would notice my hard work, and it would pay off. Without Camelback, I don’t think I would’ve taken a step back to see this big picture system at play...I realized how I could take control, how I could shake things up to make myself successful, and build a team of people to join me on that journey.
I used to just go out in the city with the idea of “make money.” But I didn’t think, how do you keep the money? How do you ADVANCE the money? How do you grow it in your community?
Camelback made me really want to build a long-lasting business, not just a side hustle. I want to stay focused -- I deleted personal social media, because I realized that so much of that doesn’t matter. I know from that early success that I could do just me and my catering or a few cases of juice...but I don’t want to just say “oh, we were hot for a few years back, and we won this one contest…” I want to keep winning.
Aaron Washington with Camelback team and a few other members of his cohort
CBV: What are you working on these days?
AW: My juice was blowing up and it was great to have all these coffee shops and grocery stores going, “hey I need two cases here” or “drop another case tomorrow.” But I couldn’t do that all on my own. And I didn’t have the right cash flow because money would only come through if end customers bought the drinks. I didn’t want to let anyone down, but I just couldn’t create the product fast and consistently enough on my own. So I made a hard choice. I sent this mass email to all of my customers and said, “Thank you for believing in me, thank you for your patience. I need to press pause until I can figure out until I can make the drinks at scale, to take them to the next level.” I know it was the right call, but at the time it felt rough.
I am focusing now on building a sustainable business. I am going to experiment with the flavor, to elevate the look of the bottle. I just got this great opportunity to be a mentor to junior and high school males at a local charter school in the upcoming school year. And I’m so excited, for all of it.
When I was looking at starting at the school, I was checking out the website and saw this video for their Maker’s Space Club. I’m watching one of the teachers, and they win this $50,000 from a contest -- you can see in the video that the wind is just knocked right out of him. But then at the end of the video, he’s like “Okay, I got work to do, let’s go.” And I thought, dang, that’s the mentality I want to keep and have -- I just want to keep hustling. I want to keep going. Camelback helped me get to that headspace.
I want to keep winning.
Aaron Washington pitching his beverage at the Camelback showcase
CBV: Last question, hopefully a fun one. Any books, music, or films that have recently inspired you?
AW: Since my days for working with restaurants and kitchens and all that, I got really into more instrumental beats that can help just focus in on work, like J Dilla. Common always inspires me. My fellow Fellow, Melissa Izor, gave me this book called Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business by Gino Wickman. That’s given me a lot of direction, I’ve highlighted so much of it. Especially this idea of focusing on core values, and what you want your company to be about. Your vision. Be what your company is, and focus on perfecting that one thing. It’s all just helping me focus. And I’m excited. I’m really excited about my future.