It’s All in the Family

These two Lawrence women put family first when choosing their careers.

| 2017 Q4 | story by Tara Trenary, photos by Steven Hertzog
“Life is the art of drawing without and eraser.”
-John W. Gardner

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Emily Peterson at Merchants Pub and Plate.

Choosing to start a new career can be a tough decision whether you’re successful or simply treading water until your next gig. But, changing paths mid-career might just be exactly what you need to get to that next level. Julia Child, Ray Kroc, John Glenn, Vera Wang, Jonah Peretti, Ronald Reagan, Donald Fisher: Some of these names you may recognize, some you may not, but all started careers doing one thing and ended up doing something completely different—and becoming extremely successful.

According to an article on Mashable, an online global source for tech, digital culture and entertainment content, a March/April 2015 survey of 8,000 participants concluded that 58% of the adults in or looking to join the workforce say they actively look at new jobs at least monthly. But, researching the job market and actually taking the leap and switching careers are two completely different things.

According to Monster.com, a global leader in connecting people with jobs, some pitfalls when deciding to change careers include: making rash decisions, choosing a new career based on salary, not researching the job market in your next field, quitting without having another job lined up, neglecting your networking, going back to school prematurely and not adjusting your resume for a career change.

A Dream Realized

Not everyone who decides to switch careers does so because he or she isn’t happy or is dissatisfied. “I really wasn’t seeking out something new; I loved my job and the company I worked for,” says Emily Peterson, co-owner of Merchants Pub and Plate, who previously worked in account service for Callahan Creek, a Lawrence brand strategy and marketing agency. “I was passionate about our clients, enjoyed my colleagues and friends; and the hard work I put in came with flexibility and great support from company leadership.”

A University of Kansas graduate in journalism and communications from Chicago, Emily and her husband and Merchants chef, T.K. Peterson, a Lawrence native, had dreamed of owning their own restaurant. The unexpected closing of Teller’s, at 746 Massachusetts St., in 2013 forced the couple to kick their plans into high gear earlier than expected. Although Emily was active in the development of the business, leading efforts to secure funding, developing the brand and designing the space, the initial plan was for her husband to run the restaurant with a business partner while she continued at her Callahan Creek position, where she was happy.

The restaurant industry being a notoriously tough one, the business struggled that first year. “While we were very fortunate to be warmly received by the community … it became clear that the restaurant needed the full focus of our family,” Emily says, “and I left Callahan Creek to make sure Merchants continued to grow and thrive.”

“She saved us when she left Callahan to come here,” Chef T.K. says. “From the beginning, she helped drive the design of the restaurant, she organized the funding, she was the one asking the questions that needed answers. She’s an absolute badass. Besides having the ability to put systems in place, she has a really good grasp on business and brand strategy. She’s the total package.”

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Emily Peterson at the bar at Merchants Pub and Plate.

Four years later, after making that tough decision to leave Callahan Creek, Merchants Pub and Plate is established in Downtown Lawrence, and the Petersons’ dream of becoming restaurateurs has been realized. And, Emily ultimately credits her job at Callahan Creek for giving her the confidence she needed to take on the couple’s business venture. “The biggest obstacle I faced was learning the restaurant business,” she explains. “My background was instrumental to me taking over the finances and operations to create a sustainable business plan, but I was really lost when it came to managing the day to day of the restaurant.”

The inherited staff of servers, bartenders, hosts and managers, along with her husband and the tight-knit restaurant community, helped Emily make her way in her new position and allow herself to be vulnerable, which she calls a catalyst to figuring out who she was in this new role. “Owning a family business is a totally different life, so much so that I refer to my days before the restaurant as my ‘past life,’ ” Emily says. “I am happy now, and I was happy then, but in different ways and for different reasons.”

T.K. continues: “She made a big sacrifice, and a lot of it was for me. So, now I use that when I go into work. It’s not just our vision or our dream; I want this to work for us because of what she had to give up, but it’s easier because she’s right there by my side.”

Science Takes a Back Seat

For Sybil Gibbs, Sunrise Project coffee manager and community connector, the road to a new career began with many differing personal interests, including a drive to get involved in the community through volunteer work and a need to supplement her income.

“Sunrise Project offers an opportunity to incorporate more of my talents under one umbrella,” Sybil explains. “I originally left Collier International to expand upon my event coordinating role to manage Culinaria Food and Wine. During my tenure [at Culinaria], I gave much beloved effort to launching their new restaurant component.”

Though she has a bachelor’s degree in cellular and molecular biology, early on, Sybil took a break from the “hard sciences” to study culinary arts and complete an internship in a French bakery. “A lifelong baker, I love honing the skill and technique of pastries—it’s a disciplined art,” she says.

After her first daughter was born, she returned to science and research for a time.

But, after moving back to Lawrence with her family in 2009 (she’d lived in town most of her formative years until after high school), she took a position with the Lawrence branch of Colliers International, an industry-leading global real estate company that operates in 16 countries. Though an international company, Sybil says the Lawrence branch of Colliers offered a warm and familial atmosphere, where she evolved into the marketing and research coordinator, studying properties, city regulations, prospects, history and various sundries.

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Sybil Gibbs at Sunrise Project.

Though she was happy in her position at Colliers, Sybil felt it was time to leave the corporate world and join a small, locally owned and operated business.

After Colliers, Sybil worked with Culinaria Food and Wine as main event coordinator and was motivated to invest in other aspects of her capabilities and her community. “It afforded me autonomy and individualism, which I value to a great degree,” she says. “I realized that my pride in community-building mostly extended from the fact that I was establishing something for myself and my children that we had never had. This experience exposed a more vibrant aspect of community.”

While working in a volunteer capacity with Sunrise Project the past few years, Sybil came to admire the Sunrise mission “to empower people to utilize food for social change through equity in access, multifaceted education and community-building,” and sought ways to become involved whenever she could.

She worked with Melissa Freiburger, Sunrise project director of programs, and a small team of highly motivated community members to revitalize the Cordley Farm to School Program. “We shaped our ideas into a fully interactive program, complete with raised bed gardens on the school grounds, biannual community meals, educational components and student-lead harvests,” Sybil explains.

More recently, Sybil facilitated a half-day seminar for the Sunrise Summer Youth program on food and cultural heritage.

“Sybil not only has vast experience and knowledge in the food industry and the world, but she truly loves our community and believes in building relationships, taking care of each other and working toward a more socially just community,” Melissa explains. “She is the perfect person to create a welcoming space where everyone, regardless of background, feels comfortable and happy … ”

Sybil’s current role with Sunrise Project allows her experience in the service industry and extensive corporate background to translate into a role that is a comprehensive extension of her abilities and beliefs.

“Sunrise Project is a natural fit for my personal philosophies,” she says. “Social justice, equal access, communal cooperation and education are core drivers in what we do, and I am exceptionally honored and excited to be able to share with my community in this capacity.”

As coffee manager and community connector with Sunrise Coffee, Sybil now handles all aspects associated with launching and running the “Coffee” component of Sunrise Project, including initial setup, staff and community outreach, and collaboration on community projects. An anonymous donation made it possible, and Sunrise Coffee will launch after the beginning of the new year to be located at 1501 Learnard. The plan is for the space to embody the same mission of empowerment through food and education, and all proceeds will fuel the Project’s programming.

“Sunrise Coffee will serve the community as a gathering spot, a hub, a neighborhood meeting spot for social, business, games, activism—you name it,” Sybil says. “Sunrise is built by the community for the community, and soon, food and beverages will complement our greenhouse community space.”

Ultimately, Sybil explains, “Sunrise is a strong community of extended family. When an opportunity arrived to be in a more directly active role, I could not refuse. After all, I have and would continue to give my efforts to this project for the sheer satisfaction of community-building.”

A Sense of Satisfaction

Both Emily and Sybil agree that family and community are the major reasons the careers they ultimately have chosen are the right ones for them at this time.

“My family gave patience and understanding in a way that I had not asked for or experienced before,” Sybil says. “This was not just ‘my choice,’ it was a choice for the family, and every one of us adjusted.”

Emily continues: “The community is at the core of our business, it’s why we do what we do. It is incredibly satisfying to buy food and other products from neighbors and friends, and then with love and thought, prepare those items for other neighbors and friends to enjoy.

“There’s no place I’d rather be,” she says. “The most rewarding aspect of what I do now has everything to do with the community—being an active part of it, helping shape its future, serving those who live here and visitors who wished they lived here.”

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