Sauce in the City: A Partnership Beyond Business

Welcome to Sauce in the City – a column on NOSH exploring the day-to-day business of starting and scaling a new food business. Catherine Smart is a veteran food journalist who recently launched the Not Just Co. in the Boston area. This column is part of a series for in which she will explore the challenges, triumphs, and decisions that crop up in the daily experience of the food entrepreneur.

In some ways, writing this column is no different than the last two I’ve filed for NOSH. I’ve parked my (now 9 months pregnant) self in front of the computer, at 4-something in the morning, and I’m mulling over the latest happenings at not just co., contemplating coffee.

But usually, I’ve got some kind of “ah-ha!” moment I can’t wait to share; a new insight gleaned from life in the startup trenches, paired with a bit of progress that I’m proud to shout from the rooftops.

This time, I’ve got just got one big, burning question:

What makes a good cofounder, when the crisis goes way beyond business?

In the year we’ve been working on not just co. , Jacqueline and I have supported each other through, what I thought, were some pretty impressive life challenges, some of which I’ve shared here: She was at the co-packing plant getting our first run of sauce done just weeks postpartum. I’ve been trucking through a pregnancy where “morning sickness” can apparently only be cured by birthing this baby (shout out to Amy Schumer for putting a face, and humor, to this unfortunate problem for some women).

We’ve quit jobs, stretched our personal finances to the limit, lost sleep, laughed our butts off, shared delusions of grandeur, made good food for people. All the usual things you sign up for when starting these companies.

And then, last week, just hours after launching our new website, thanking our team, and basking in the short-lived glow of getting a milestone checked off your list, Jacqueline’s bright, bubbly, and otherwise healthy 11-month old daughter ended up in the ER, and Jacqueline and her husband got the shocking news no parent wants to hear: Your child has cancer.

Full stop.

Thankfully, they are in Boston with some of the best doctors in the world. Thankfully, this little girl has loving, smart, steady parents who are ready to take this on, as ready as anyone can be. Already, I’ve witnessed thoughts, prayers, and offers of help come pouring in, and gotten a glimpse of that (blessedly true-to-life) cliché that horrible stuff like this really does bring out the best in people.

But what do you do after you drop off the casserole? When your relationship — while strong, healthy, and founded in mutual respect — has been rooted in business? In some ways, it feels wrong to even type that word at a time like this.

My first instinct (after the human instinct to curl up in a ball and cry) is to double down, on all of it. Work harder, smarter, and faster, so she can focus on being with her daughter, and have a little bit of peace knowing that we’ve got this. That the grueling work she’s put in over the past several months won’t go to waste while she takes care of her family, and that damnit, women can do it all: run businesses, and be good mothers, and set an example of going after things we want, even — maybe especially — when catastrophe strikes. When “working mom guilt” gets a lot more complicated than buying cupcakes for the bake sale rather than whipping them up yourself. On days when none of the choices on offer feel like the right one.

And then, the doubt creeps in. Am I projecting what (I think) I would want in her situation? Can I be a good leader without her always by my side in the coming weeks and months — and with a newborn? Am I really listening, when I ask her if she’s sure she wants to keep working at this furious pace? Is it fair to ask anything at all of a woman being put through what she is?

I don’t know. And despite my pleas, I don’t really think anyone can give an answer.

In the meantime, because — like all of us in this business — I’m stubborn as they come, I’m going to stay the course. Because despite the storm, Jacqueline is still the strong, ambitious, much-more-organized, half of this team. Because we’ve got new products to launch, ones we’re both excited about, that her baby girl was happily licking off a spoon last week. Because we worked hard on that website. And because her daughter, and my son, and the baby who is planning to make his entrance to the world any day now are going to have college funds. And family vacations. And moms who kept each other, and their business going, when the going got a hell of a lot tougher than we ever could have imagined.

Editors Note: Since submitting this story, Catherine welcomed her new baby boy to her family. 

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