When we imagine the pathway to becoming an entrepreneur, we often envision a linear track: quit your job and start a business. Being an entrepreneur is an all or nothing proposition, right? Not always. Like many things in life, the pathway to entrepreneurship can be more winding and accidental.
This is what I found when interviewing 63 entrepreneurs in the culinary industry who started underground restaurants: alternative eateries taking place in people’s homes. Sometimes also called pop-ups or supper clubs, underground restaurants are episodic, they occur only once or twice a month (which is part of their appeal for diners). Because of their infrequency, one cannot run an underground restaurant on a full-time basis. Instead, daytime cooks or culinary hobbyists operate their pop-up restaurants on the side while maintaining a day job, sometimes in fields as incongruent as being a lawyer or a manager. If the underground restaurant becomes popular enough, the chef may transition into a formal brick and mortar restaurant or a catering business, or become a personal chef. If the underground restaurant flops then not much has been lost for these aspiring chefs, aside from an initial investment in a few Ikea tables and chairs, the bare bones needed to have a restaurant in their living rooms. In brief, underground restaurants are the bootstrapped, lean startup of the culinary world: they’re cheap to start and compatible with day jobs.
The experience of underground restauranteurs may seem a quirky outcome of our foodie-obsessed world, but part-time entrepreneurship is not. A growing number of people test the entrepreneurial waters by engaging in business activities on the side while maintaining their day jobs. As the lines between work and leisure become blurred, part-time entrepreneurship has become a particularly attractive avenue for people seeking to transform their passions into profitable enterprises. Online platforms, in particular, have helped enable this rise of the part-time entrepreneur. Take for instance the popularity of the online retail outlet Etsy, which provides a DIY space for hobby craft and artisan entrepreneurs. Similarly, blogs and video platforms, like YouTube or TikTok, allow people in artistic fields to access audiences straight from their living rooms. Doing “what you love” has become easier than ever with these advances in technology.
Indeed, this cultural mantra of following one’s passion emerged as central to how underground chefs explained their motivations for running a part-time restaurant on the weekends. Often these chefs framed their part-time work as a “labor of love”: it was a passion project, a way to experiment with their hobby cooking. Initially, these amateur chefs had little plan to grow their ventures. Few expressed desires to ultimately become a professional chef and own a restaurant.
As they received praise from diners and the media, however, their self-perceptions began to change. The prospect of a formal venture became a realistic proposition. For some, this process took an extended period of time — in one case, seven years. Being a part-time entrepreneur gave these individuals the opportunity to try on the aspirational role of chef and businessperson safely and slowly. Chefs could transition when they felt it was the right moment, with a dedicated group of diners built up over time and potentially offers for investment. Once chefs had transitioned to a full-time venture, their self perceptions changed to what we perhaps would have expected from the start; they no longer saw themselves as hobbyists but instead self-identified as entrepreneurs.
Take the example of Chris who was a lawyer by day and turned his part-time cooking venture into an established fine dining restaurant. When we spoke, he emphasized how it was “just for fun” at the start. After about a year of having dinners on the weekend in his living room, diners started to question when he would open a restaurant, and some even offered investment for a future project. Initially, Chris did not take these offers seriously. But after enough repeated support from his diners, what was once a long-term goal soon became a short-term one. He finally realized: “I’m really doing this as my job; this isn’t just a hobby.” Today he runs a popular restaurant in the Bay area.
These findings suggest several benefits to part-time entrepreneurship. First, it creates a safe and designated space for people to play and experiment with aspirational identities. Why does this matter? Because it helps people develop the necessary confidence they will need once becoming a full-time entrepreneur to engage with external stakeholders, like investors. Second, having a venture “on the side” enables entrepreneurs to gradually gain entry and acknowledgement with other professionals in their field, helping legitimize their activities to others. For the chefs I spoke with who had day jobs in fields distant from the culinary world, acceptance by their culinary peers was critical. These benefits — and others — explain why it has been found that freelancing as an entrepreneur can actually increase the odds of business survival once one transitions to a full-time venture.
Underground chefs show us that not everyone takes a traditional path and quits their job, writes a business plan, hires employees, and gets investment. Aspiring entrepreneurs should be reminded that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to founding a venture. There are many other pathways to business ownership, some more haphazard than intentional. Many times, people are on their way to something else when hobbyist activities coalesce and over time, they assume the identity of an entrepreneur.