Photo by Adobe Stock | Olezzo
After COVID, there’s no place like home sweet home for these Westchester business owners, all of whom launched home-based companies.
Katie Tolson has always felt her best in her garden, growing plants and harvesting organic seeds, though she never believed her gratifying hobby could blossom into a business.
“We’re creating a new normal now. Life is short; do what you love and what you’re good at, and there’s no better place to start than at home.”
— Katie Tolson, Owner, Seed-on-Hudson
Growing up in California, she learned from her mother and grandmother, who were both excellent gardeners. Tolson moved to Hastings-on-Hudson in December 2016 with her husband and two girls while working for auction house Bonhams (which she still does). Her move to the Rivertowns gave Tolson her first opportunity to own enough space to grow a full garden, and she was thrilled.
The practice of gardening has always been meditative for Tolson. She says, “I come outside, and hours feel like minutes. Working with plants clears my mind.”
In the spring of 2020, when the pandemic hit, her hobby grew in a new direction, as she seeded beyond what she could plant. She mentioned her overgrowth to neighbors and friends, and a successful plant sale resulted. After that, word of mouth took over; orders began to come in, and she thought, Wow, this is really fun. I’m going to keep going!
At the time, there was a need for her homegrown plants because everyone was on lockdown. “There was that huge boom, with everyone being home and wanting to garden and grow their own food,” she says.
Tolson sources her organic seeds from savers across the country and focuses on growing plants you can’t find in stores or markets. For example, she offered 29 different types of heirloom tomatoes this summer. Organic strawberries, peppers, cucumbers, herbs, and native plants are also common staples in her garden.
Last year was such a success that she enlisted her friend and marketing guru, Anne Schofield of Schofield Marketing & Events, to help build her website and formally launch her business, Seed-on-Hudson. Soon after, Tolson was approached by a customer about expanding her space, and she now hopes to grow her business in 2022 to offer organic, homegrown produce and a local CSA.
“Everything that has happened since I started that first little plant sale has evolved into fun surprises and opportunities,” Tolson says, adding with a laugh, “sounds cheesy, but it all happened organically.” Last year, she had about 30 buyers and now has more than 100 new customers. She says, “We’re creating a new normal now. Life is short; do what you love and what you’re good at, and there’s no better place to start than at home.”
Jody Hunter knew she would have to make some big life changes after the popular Hastings-on-Hudson restaurant The Mill closed due to the pandemic. She worked at the establishment for seven years as a chef and developed a popular following with her farm-to-table gastropub menu.
Like so many, she now had a family at home for schooling and remote working. Yet, giving up her love of creating delicious and healthy food was not an option for Hunter. With the understanding that more people were staying at home to cook in this time of uncertainty, the French Culinary Institute-trained chef hatched an idea to become a food entrepreneur straight out of her kitchen.
“Any restaurants that were operating were doing so with a skeleton crew, asking for long hours, offering low pay, and lots of personal health risks,” she says. “I had my fill of that and was ready to change gears to make this work for my family. I came up with a simple idea of selling soups and hearty grain and vegetable salads, all made of locally sourced ingredients and calling my business “Jody’s Kitchen.”
She pitched her idea to Morning Glory Markets founder Pascale Le Draoulec, who runs several farmers’ markets in Westchester and became part of her vendor lineup September 2020. She now has dedicated customers who visit her weekly.
After 10–12 hours a day almost every day (including weekends, holidays, and birthdays) in the hectic restaurant business, she now spends most of her time working from home, alongside her family.
When asked about her new home-grown business, she says, “I love it. I am frequently asked if I will ever return to the restaurant world. At this time, my answer is an emphatic no — with no regrets.”
Sabrina Santiago’s garage is a woodworker’s paradise, with wall-to-wall shelves of unfinished wood slabs, chisels, power tools, and sanding machines. Santiago would escape to the garage of her Yonkers home to create functional art, which she describes as everything from wooden lazy Susans to charcuterie boards.
Santiago made her first significant design in 2016, after her house had burned down the year before. She took one of the stumps from a destroyed tree and made it into a decorative house marker that sits in her fairy garden. After that piece was created, she knew she wanted to keep building.
After she was laid off in August 2020 from a telecommunications company where she worked as a sales trainer, each step toward her hobby’s headquarters began to have new meaning. Santiago would dedicate herself to her craft and make woodworking her full-time business, calling it Casa Cherrywood Carvings.
During lockdown, Santiago found support and knowledge from a diverse virtual community to help her excel at woodworking. She scheduled phone calls with manufacturers, exchanged instant messages with the group Seasoned Woodworkers, and built relationships via videoconferencing with other woodworkers. Santiago sells her creations mostly at pop-up shows and on Etsy. She resides with her partner of 13 years and her two children — a 25-year-old with cerebral palsy and a 10-year-old who is on the autism spectrum. Though she lives more frugally these days, she values the business she has created from her home, which keeps her closer to family.
When describing her new work/life balance, she says that she is much happier. “I come from a company where I made a six-figure salary. I’m not making that now, but the time that I have at home is more rewarding. You can’t put a price on that. Plus, I’m not climbing someone else’s ladder anymore,” she says.
Sara Annapolen from Ardsley plotted her homegrown business plan before COVID hit, while working in the garment district in New York City. It was her dream to use her own designs on bathing suit cover-ups and operate her business, Sara Joy, from home.
After the pandemic, her business took on a more precise focus. “I wanted to inspire positivity by empowering women to be confident. I use color as a tool to awaken joy in the world because it’s what we need now more than ever,” she says.
Annapolen began to run her business out of her home office by using virtual meetings and digital platforms to connect with customers. Zoom shopping events were especially popular. She found incredible support for her business through local and mom groups, like Hustle Like a Mom, HudCo, and Hey Mama. “The community has been the best support system to help me grow my business,” she says.
Annapolen cherishes the flexibility of running her business out of her home the most. She has two little kids and will sometimes wake up early and work before spending time with them and taking them to school. The unexpected silver lining is that her kids are seeing her do something she is passionate about every day. “My son, who is turning 5, sees my rack of clothes and artwork and says, ‘Your work is so pretty. I love it, Mommy.’ I was like, ‘That’s an amazing silver lining.’”