Jessica Schultz in the kitchen

Recipe for Success

Young alumna brings community, food, and conscious commerce together to create jobs and empower entrepreneurs

Millstone Kitchen is designed as a space where people can practice cooking using commercial grade equipment.

by Amy Painter

Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously stated, “Nothing is so contagious as enthusiasm.” Unfiltered and infectious, this delectable, if often overlooked quality, is an essential ingredient when it comes to Jessica Schultz’s recipe for local entrepreneurship – an emerging business model based not on competition, but on cooperation, connection, and community.

Though she graduated less than a decade ago, Schultz, 31, (’12 agricultural sciences, and human nutrition, foods, and exercise) is leading a bold vision. The young alumna is employing her passions for baking, locally-sourced agriculture, and connecting other aspiring entrepreneurs to support a symbiotic, grassroots model for commerce.

Schultz is the founder of an eclectic baking and crafts business called Find A Way, Bake, and Crochet, which she opened while she was in college. Her next commercial venture was the highly successful Blacksburg Bagels, which she opened in 2013 and sold earlier this year. Now, Schultz is expressing her gifts while helping to build a vibrant community in the New River Valley.

“I wanted to create connections with others around food,” said Schultz. “I get excited about a certain crop that comes in, or a certain recipe. I want to share that with others and to share that sense of joy and connection.”

Engaging and thoughtful, sensitive and cerebral, the Erie, Pennsylvania, native has a taste for learning and a passion for activism that have guided her pursuits. As a student, she earned numerous awards, including the college’s highest honor, Outstanding Graduating Senior, and participated in international initiatives such as Students Helping Honduras and Ut Prosim El Porvenir, a student-led honors class in the same country. While in the town of El Porvenir, she presented nutrition classes and exercised with local women to the music of Enrique Iglesias – a memory that still elicits a smile. However, she credits her work on a small-scale organic farm in Dixon, Montana, seven years ago as seminal to her understanding of how to transform a hobby into a viable local business.

“I went to Dixon to work on two farms that were owned by two badass women farmers. One of them let me use her kitchen to bake bagels,” said Schultz. “I started showing up at the farmers market in Missoula. Then, the locals found me. I was waking up at 3 a.m. to make 12 dozen bagels, and they would sell out in an hour-and-a-half.”

Laura Flory '08'

After Schultz returned from Montana, she worked for AmeriCorps VISTA based at the Blacksburg Farmers Market, where she helped promote the USDA Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. There, she helped families in need purchase healthy food, and ran a free market gardening program that enabled kids to sell their produce at the market. Schultz was then hired by the Blacksburg Farmers Market to research ways to increase low-income residents’ access to local produce. This effort, funded by the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, culminated in a final report and evidence that supported the development of what would ultimately become Millstone Kitchen.

During her Montana adventure, Schultz also met her beloved border collie-mix dog, Max, a former stray who now enjoys sampling recipes from her kitchen counter and exploring Heritage Park and Pandapas Pond, two of the duo’s favorite local hiking areas. Schultz credits her experiences in big sky country with bolstering her confidence as a grower and a baker while underscoring the value of collaboration and leveraging resources, lessons she took to heart during her five years as co-owner of Blacksburg Bagels, and in her current role as manager of Millstone Kitchen, a fully equipped, shared-space commercial kitchen that may be rented for affordable rates.

Located at the former Price’s Fork Elementary School in Blacksburg, Millstone Kitchen is available to small businesses such as caterers and food truck owners who can produce food without needing to invest in their own operations. The venture, owned by the non-profit Live, Work, Eat, Gather, Inc., has been open since July and is supported by donations.

“Millstone is a place where people can practice,” Schultz said. “It’s safe to try new things, to fail, and they won’t lose their shirts as they might with a brick-and-mortar operation. People can play and experiment with ingredients. That is very special and quite appropriate considering we’re located in the old kindergarten room. It’s still within the capitalist realm, but there is an opportunity to be creative. So, it’s low-risk and collaborative. We are encouraging the use of locally grown or raised ingredients to support community farmers and helping to create jobs for people who want to open their own businesses.”

Quote: I wanted to create connections with others around food

The opportunity is also allowing Schultz, a self-starter and a “systems-oriented person,” to guide and empower other aspiring entrepreneurs while mastering many new skills, a process that feeds her drive for growth and continuous learning.

“To step into a role like this where I could be a part of food safety, local food systems development, and small business development is really appealing,” said Schultz, who has been a long-time vendor for two businesses at the Blacksburg Farmers Market. Most recently, she sold succulents as a side-gig.

“The farmers market lends itself to so much transparency. There is so much interaction, and I am such an introvert. But, it’s nice to share these things,” she said. “My customers trust me and that what I’m making is good for them and worth spending money on. That kind of trust is humbling and really nice.”

Schultz shares credit for her success with many. At Virginia Tech, she cites HNFE professors William Barbeau, Frank Conforti, both of whom retired from the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise in 2013, and Susan Clark, a professor with the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences, as mentors who inspired her love for agriculture and ecology, or agroecology – a systems approach to agriculture that considers environmental, social justice, and economic elements – Schultz’s guiding framework.

She remains in touch with many of her professors, several of whom are working on collaborative projects at Millstone Kitchen. And fittingly, one of her prized possessions is a textbook in which she affectionately recorded Barbeau’s most amusing Bostonisms, including “stahhch” (starch) and “cahhbohydrate” (carbohydrate).

As a young girl, there was also her grandmother who taught her the basics of baking pastries, and her grandfather whose diabetes piqued her interest in nutrition. “His illness was my introduction to this field,” said Schultz. “Then, I began to ask questions about where nutrition stops and where foods come from, what kind of system are these foods a part of, who grows them, and what are their lives like?”

Jessica Schultz with her dog

Schultz and her border collie-mix dog, Max, pause for a breath of fresh fall air in front of a mural at the former Price’s Fork Elementary School in Blacksburg. The renovated building is now home to Millstone Kitchen.

Schultz has taken what she’s learned to formulate the principles and practices she now lives by, while also honoring life’s tougher lessons with grace and humility, as grist for the mill. Although young, she seems wise beyond her years. She understands the impact that a small business can and should have on a community. She cares about intentional growth, responsible sourcing, and the importance of community connection. She has also learned how a business can run an owner versus the other way around. The outcome? Balance is a priority in her life.

For aspiring entrepreneurs, Schultz has some words of advice. “Be aware of the impact your business can make – either positive or negative – and how you can help the world through your decisions. It’s a responsibility, and you have the power to shape the community around you. You can have a big impact, so make sure it’s good.”

At the end of the day, Schultz’s commitment to people may be both her greatest gift and her most powerful source of inspiration.

“People and their stories inspire me. Passion is contagious. That’s why I like my work so much,” she said. “Everyone has an idea of what they want life to be, how they want to shape it, and how they want to define what they do. I’m glad I can help them and that there’s a non-profit like Millstone Kitchen dedicated to this process.”

We’re glad, too.

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