Four North Sounders Left Established Careers to Follow Their Hearts

This is not a midlife crisis, or the result of a few bad days—or months—at work. A second act is one deliberately made, one that requires a plan to realize a long-held dream of a different career or a different life. It usually means financial risk, a giant leap from the safety and security of a job that you’ve trained for and worked toward for years, one in which you are probably an expert.

Bellingham’s Russ Kendall and Doug Robertson, along with Orcas Island’s Audra Lawlor and Susan Soltes of Bow, are each on their second acts. A second act takes chutzpah, because it’s a leap into the uncertain. It takes passion and confidence and stubbornness, people who support you, and sometimes ignoring others who say you are crazy. We thought it would be a good idea for them to tell what led to the leap, and how it’s playing out now. Here, in their own words, are their stories. –Meri-Jo Borzilleri

Pizza, With Gusto

For most of the past 35 years, I enjoyed a rewarding and meaningful career as a documentary photojournalist, living and working in Alaska, Colorado, Maine, New Hampshire, even Russia. I’ve camped with grizzly bears, lived with Eskimos, run from a towering wall of flame with a remote Hot Shot fire crew as they battled a 300,000-acre wildfire, and published eight picture books with Scholastic Inc., selling over 3 million of them.

In December of 2012, after eight years as the picture editor of the Bellingham Herald newspaper, I walked away from my career to start a catering company, Gusto Wood Fired Pizza, named after my son, Gus.

Starting in late 2007 and continuing through today, the newspaper world has been rocked by massive and continuing layoffs and budget cuts. The Herald, owned by the California-based McClatchy Co., had 200 employees when I joined the staff in 2005. It has around 30 today, according to The Herald’s own website.

One round of layoffs is demoralizing. Two is soul-crushing. I survived six rounds of layoffs. What’s worse, seeing your friends, staff and colleagues lose their jobs, or the survivor’s guilt and shame you feel when you get to keep yours?

Knowing it was only a matter of time until I got laid off, I started thinking about my Plan B. I’ve always believed that we should all have a Plan B tucked away, no matter how good our current situation. The worst time to think about your next job is just after you’ve suddenly lost your current one.

When I took a three-year detour from photojournalism to teach college in Portland, I built a wood-fired pizza oven in my backyard and loved cooking in it, inviting the neighbors over for pizza parties. I had summers off and remember telling my wife, Thérèse, how much I’d love to put the oven in the back of a pickup truck and drive around to beaches and parks and people’s houses selling pizza and catering parties.

That never happened, but our son was born, and we moved to Bellingham. Life and work were great until the layoffs came and came and came. In 2011 that mobile wood-fired pizza oven started to sound like a pretty good Plan B. I’ve always loved cooking and have a vivid memory of my grandfather, a short-order cook, bringing me into his kitchen when I was 6 years old and solemnly teaching me how to cut onions with a chefs’ knife. When Gus was 6, I brought him into our kitchen and taught him how to cut onions with a chef’s knife. It was as if my grandfather was in the room with us.

I did my research. For about the cost of a new car, and with the love and support of Thérèse, I took the leap of faith. In December 2012, after being invited to join the Bellingham Farmers’ Market as a food vendor, I gave The Herald my two-week notice. Ironically, I never did get laid off.

That first year, 2011, we had just five events. But the business grew and just about doubled every year. In 2017 we had more than 130 events. We’ve vended and catered hundreds of events, everything from small dinner parties to 350-person wedding dinners. By rough calculations, I figure that since 2011, I’ve cooked more than 50,000 pizzas!

Today Gusto Wood Fired Pizza owns two mobile ovens, a commercial tow vehicle and a commercial property in which we hope to build our own commissary kitchen and a business office, maybe even one day, a Neapolitan pizzeria.

Every Saturday we’re at the Bellingham Farmers Market, where we set out tables and chairs for our friends and clients. We believe strongly in buying as locally and organically as possible and have built a strong network of local farmers and producers.

Interestingly, the things that helped me succeed as a journalist—good people skills, ability to multi-task while meeting multiple deadlines, creative problem-solving and out-of-the-box thinking—are the same skills that have helped me succeed as a caterer.

At the farmers market I used to give free pizzas to any journalist who’d lost their job, but I had to stop. There were just too many of them. Two years ago, I started a Facebook group called “What’s Your Plan B?” for journalists who have lost their jobs and those who haven’t lost their jobs…yet. It had just 15 members when I started it but has nearly 13,000 members today.

Russ Kendall owns catering company Gusto Wood Fired Pizza, where he built a portable pizza oven and opened for business with his wife, Thérèse. He is a regular vendor at the Bellingham Farmers Market on Saturdays. His Act One was working as a photojournalist, most recently at the Bellingham Herald, where he was photo editor for eight years until 2012.

Continue reading our feature on Second Acts here.

"In 2011, a mobile wood-fired pizza oven started to sound like a pretty good Plan B."