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By Beth Pinsker


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At Jackie Ohringer's country inn, her boyfriend Josh Pappas is the celebrated chef. Her friend Stacie, a research librarian by day, is the respected sommelier on the dinner shift. Mike, an independent publicist, writes the copy for the brochures, and Steve, a professional photographer, takes happy snapshots of the spacious estate. Ohringer, the business manager, makes sure they have all have projects to look forward to, and bakes the muffins for breakfast, too.

Sounds lovely, doesn't it? Friends helping friends to do what they love? Unfortunately, it's only a fantasy -- so far.

While Ohringer sits at her desk in midtown Manhattan's Rockefeller Center, running the numbers on paper costs around the globe and checking up on press maintenance as a finance manager at Time-Warner, she can only dream. She has been sitting there since college, though crunching numbers has never been a true love... But how can she move from being an accountant to running a country inn?

Along with Pappas, a 27-year-old formally trained chef, Ohringer takes weekend seminars on starting food businesses and travels to inns whenever she can. She asks a lot of questions and looks at a lot of real estate. Ohringer studies business plans and learns everything she can about business from within Time-Warner; Pappas works for others as a chef and restaurant consultant. One day the dream will come true. In the meantime, there's a lot of uncertainty.

"How do you convince yourself that you actually have an idea that's not totally out there?" wonders Ohringer, who just turned 30. "How do you convince yourself that it's not a bad thing? Some of the most successful people on earth have the most hair-brained ideas."

But starting a country inn isn't exactly skydiving sans parachute off a financial ledge. It's as sound a business, certainly, as an Internet start-up. It only seems harebrained because it's riskier than a full-time job with benefits and a healthy 401(k).

A Home of His Own

"America is based on entrepreneurship" says Jason Spages, a 30-year-old wine merchant who, for now, works for a small importer in New Jersey but dreams of opening his own shop. He wants to settle into a comfortable community in one of those towns (either in northwest New Jersey or a place on the Eastern Shore like Red Bank) that increasingly attract urban professionals with a fondness for good wine. After years of traveling and soliciting orders for others, he wants a home.

"In order to make it, it's not necessarily about money. You have to be happy with your job," he says. "You have to be able to enjoy life. Working for yourself means a lot of headaches, but there are also a lot more rewards."

And what exactly do they say, these fantasy people who are supposed to be creating the new economy, who have actually gone out on their own and like it better?

"There are certain advantages to working for a company," says Lucia Giudice. "But working on your own outweighs that. I say go do it. You can always go back to working for somebody else for a living."  

"There are certain advantages to working for a company," says Lucia Giudice, an independent event and party organizer in Manhattan. "But working on your own outweighs that. I say go do it. You've got nothing to lose. You can always go back to working for somebody else for a living."

Giudice spent her first five years out of college working in a corporate atmosphere, planning events for large businesses like IBM. She collected a lot of experience and contacts, but was dissatisfied with the working environment. She says she stuck with it for as long as she did out of fear. Her business is seasonal, and she didn't know what she'd do during the slow months of January, February, and March.

Would she starve? Would she lose touch with all the people who could give her work once it was wedding season again? At 28 was she too young to make it work?

Then her employer, a restaurant group that planned all its own events, started furiously selling restaurants and adding others. The tumult frustrated her. "I just said, 'I'm going on my own,'" she said. "Now I make my own hours. It's liberating."

These days when Giudice dreams about the future, she imagines where she can take her own business. She wants to move from being a hands-on party planner, guiding brides through their menu planning, into a consulting role for large corporations. She also wants to start an Internet component to her business, facilitating RSVP lines and other party connections.

Got the Right Stuff?

The same concern that has kept Jackie Ohringer and thousands of others locked in their offices -- cash (or, rather, the lack of it) -- has so far kept Jason Spages from going solo. Starting a business requires business sense, energy, connections, and luck, but most of all it requires capital.

"Money. It's the main thing," says Spages, still dreaming of his wine shop.

The amount of money he raises to open his store will determine whether he can open shop this year or next, where he will open the store, as well as the size of the operation. For Ohringer, the amount of capital she can raise will determine how long she has to stay at her current job. If it turns out that she has to raise the cash on her own, she might even stay at Time-Warner until her earliest retirement age, 55 (by which time she'll have put in 30 years). Finding a private investor, however, could get her out earlier. Whatever the source of her capital, the amount will influence the location of the inn, as it will for Spages' business. A lot of capital will mean a location closer to New York, where real estate is more expensive but where they will be close to family. Less money will mean a far away location, maybe in Maine or far upstate New York.

"What I'm trying to figure out," says Ohringer, "is if I work for such a long time at a 9-to-5 job, collecting my paycheck, at what point in my life do I stand up and say 'I'll not do that anymore'? I've been working on doing this for six or seven years."

Someday it'll happen, she says... someday. One thing she's figured out: getting past the daydream stage means focusing not on What if? but on What's my next step?

February 21, 2000
Primary Editor: Eric Gershon
Illustrator: Steve Smallwood
Production: Fletcher Moore

We'd love to hear your comments about this article!

Beth Pinsker is a freelance writer based in New York. For three years she was the staff theater critic at The Dallas Morning News.


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