Michele Jerry, owner of Limoncello Productions— a full service production company specializing in Commercial Food Photography and Video—thinks of herself as a creative first and a business person second. But she believes if you want to be successful, you have to be equally adept at both. Going from an early career in retail management and visual merchandising to now owning her own production company proved to be a career path with many twists and turns. But it landed Michele exactly where she wants to be. Her journey shows us all that evolving your career is sometimes necessary—even when it seems impossible.
In this interview, Michele shares how she navigated her career without altering her character and why it’s important not to let your own fear and insecurity stand in the way of your goals.
Tell us a little bit about your culinary journey. How did you end up in the food industry?
My journey into the culinary world has been far from direct! At a very young age, my interests were centered around art and design. I love fabric, paint, color and texture, which lead me to design school, concentrating on Interior Design.
While I love to cook and have amazing food memories from my childhood, a career in the culinary world wasn’t on my radar. Once I began my working life 35 years ago, I never stopped. I started in retail management before moving to visual merchandising and display which spoke more to my artistic roots. I worked in fashion and home design, but my career was constantly evolving. My philosophy, for better or worse, was never say “no” to anything. Whenever a new opportunity arose, I went for it.
While working as a department store stylist, a local publisher needed the store for a location photo shoot. I happily volunteered to assist the crew. At that moment, I knew that was what I was meant to do. Soon after that shoot, the publisher hired me as a prop stylist. I went on to do magazine work and through connections I made in this industry, found myself accepting a position with Kraft Foods as their photo studio manager. This is where my culinary life began and continues to grow. As of 2012, I established my own commercial food production company, Limoncello Productions. I feel very strongly that all I had learned professionally to this point, helped me build my business and better serve my clients today.
What has been the biggest accomplishment of your career thus far, and what do you want to achieve next?
With every job I’ve had, there were so many personal accomplishments—things I did that I never thought I could do. The first real job I had was with Laura Ashley, a high-end fashion and home furnishing retailer with over 200 stores worldwide. I started as a part time sales associate while going to design school. I moved up the ladder very quickly and soon became the youngest store manager in the US. This set the stage for how I would approach any job from that point forward. It gave me a strong sense of responsibility. I felt that working hard, working smart and with integrity would take me wherever I wanted to go. Starting my own production company has definitely been something I never thought possible. Being able to employ talented people is the biggest accomplishment of my career and I would be thrilled for that to continue.
Another very meaningful accomplishment has been the opportunity to teach and share my love of food photography with college students. When I was a senior in high school, my biggest dream was to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in NYC. Unfortunately, I never applied as I was given a scholarship to another school. I always wondered how my life might have been different if I had gone there.
Fast forward to 2018 and through some amazing connections centered around the release of a wonderful cookbook I had worked on, I found myself with my 2 colleagues, teaching a course on Commercial Food Photography at FIT! Talk about fate! Being an adjunct professor at a school that I had always dreamt of attending was a big moment for me. Because of that experience, we also taught a class at Yale in New Haven…yes, Yale! I love being able to share my experiences and hopefully inspire someone to pursue their own dreams. This is something I’d be very happy doing in the years ahead.
I felt that working hard, working smart and with integrity would take me wherever I wanted to go.
What has been your favorite project you’ve worked on to date?
My favorite project, by far, has been producing and prop styling my dear friend Alyssa Alia’s cookbooks; “If the Table Could Talk, A Taste of Celebrations”and soon-to-be released “A Taste of the Holidays.” Being involved in such a deeply personal project like this is such a joy. Alyssa’s cookbooks are not just about sharing recipes, they are about sharing the experience of celebrating with family and friends. The recipes have such history behind them, it was so fun to hear all the stories while we worked. To have the opportunity to help someone else accomplish their dream, is so gratifying. How ironic that in helping Alyssa achieve her dream, I too was able to achieve something so meaningful to me as this was the cookbook that allowed us to teach at FIT.
Can you share a formative moment when you did not succeed or share how it feels when something doesn’t live up to your expectations? What did/do you take away from the experience to grow?
I am very proud to say that I am a business owner, but this was not how I saw my professional career playing out. As I mentioned, I was hired by Kraft Foods to manage their photo studio in New Jersey back in 2002. My responsibilities increased and by the end of my tenure, I was managing 3 of their 4 studios. I loved that job and thought I’d be doing it for a very long time, but the corporate world had other plans. Kraft Foods split from Nabisco (now Mondelēz) and proceeded to layoff many employees, my director being one of them.
With no one to report to, I was also without a job. A makeshift team was put in place to handle the photo needs of the company, but I was purposely excluded. It seemed that someone I had worked with thought they could do a better job. I was very hurt and a bit angry but had to make new plans for myself. It took about a year to realize that I had the tools to do this on my own. Why couldn’t I start my own production company and find my own clients?
I had earlier experience of being self-employed, but this was different, I had a family now. The idea of putting yourself out there without the safety net of a company was really scary. I talked it through with my husband and with his support, I dove in. I emailed a director at Mondelēz who I had worked with for years, told him I started my own company and literally within 2 minutes, he emailed me back and said, “Let’s talk.” It’s crazy how the universe works.
I am now back with the company I love, doing what I love to do, but now it’s my company that runs and manages the photo studio. I am also free to take on other clients and build my business. I think the takeaway from that experience was, don’t doubt yourself. I knew I had everything I needed to make this happen, but doubt and a little fear stood in the way. I also knew I couldn’t do this alone. I am so very fortunate to have a team of extremely talented people who stood with me as well. I truly could not do any of this without them.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career? Have you encountered any challenges in the industry because of your gender?
So far, the biggest challenge was starting my own business. The first step was believing that I could actually do it but then came all the mechanics that go along with it. I always thought of myself as a creative person first and a business person second, but if you want your business to be successful, you need to be equally adept at both. When you walk into a room, you need to have the confidence that you are the expert in your field. Now this does not mean you need to be an expert photographer or food stylist but know your business so well that you can talk through any situation with knowledge. Experience really is the best teacher. Surrounding yourself with trusted colleagues is key as well.
What does being a woman in the foodservice industry mean to you? Do you have any advice for women who want to work this industry?
I personally never felt that my gender was a hindrance. I know from others that the Food Industry can be rife with prejudice against women. I feel that when you have confidence, treat people with respect and truly know your business, you’re on the right track. I had someone tell me once, you should teach a class on how to be the boss without being a bitch! I took that as a great compliment but understand that many women feel the need to have that persona to gain respect or show that they are in a place of authority. I don’t judge. You do what you must do in your given situation, but I was able to navigate the business with my true personality and never felt I had to alter that because of my gender.
The first step was believing that I could actually do it but then came all the mechanics that go along with it.
What was it like raising a family while working in this industry? What advice can you give for working mothers out there?
Balancing home life and work life is always a challenge but having a supportive husband has made this possible for me. We have 2 boys who are now grown, but for us, communicating constantly was the best way to handle our day to day. Through the years you always have feelings of “mommy guilt” working long hours, missing “firsts” but what counts is how present you are when you are together. That makes a huge difference. Making sure you spend as much “family time” together just gives your kids the sense that they are important and loved. Having a strong support system, be it family members, an amazing babysitter or great child care can put your mind at ease while you’re working. My sons are amazing young men, so I think we did a pretty good job!
Is there one piece of career advice you received that has stayed with you over the years?
I have been very fortunate to have had strong and encouraging women in my personal and professional life. These are women who I looked up to and showed me what it looks like to be fulfilled in all that you do. It’s not always easy, trust me, there are days when you just don’t feel like doing anything, but on the days that you do—look out! My mom has always been one of my biggest champions. When I was young, she always encouraged and supported me whether I succeeded or not. That gave me the foundation to go out into the world and do my best. I have reported to female supervisors in just about every job I’ve had over the years; the publisher, the retail management, the display positions. I remember clearly, the senior female designer I reported to at Domain, told me “the world is your oyster” and that phrase has stuck with me all these years later. She was saying to me, don’t let things stand in your way. There’s so much out there for you to discover so go get it! I try not to let my own insecurity and fear stand in the way of things I want to accomplish, and I hope I’ve lived up to it.