— all images courtesy of Erin Green
As a young girl, Sara Santaga often fantasized about owning an ice cream shop. She and her father laughed as they dreamed up “ice cream Saturdays,” playing off the name of the traditional “ice cream sundae.” The phrase became an ongoing joke within their family.
For Lucy Hodkiewicz, art was a family affair. Taking after her mother, who loved to paint and complete do-it-yourself projects in her free time, Hodkiewicz developed a passion for the arts at a very young age — art class was always her favorite at school.
“I didn’t play sports or music or anything like that,” she says. “I was just ‘the art kid.’”
Back then, both girls had no idea that their passions would eventually become their professions.
Today, Santaga, 22, is the owner and chef behind Sara’s Artisan Gelato, a wholesale gelato business in Green Bay. Currently a one-woman operation, Santaga spends most Tuesdays through Fridays, from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., churning out dozens of batches of the chilled dessert in multiple flavors — from fruit sorbets and toasted coconut, to cake batter and salted caramel — to be sold in local restaurants and served at special events.
About an hour-and-a-half drive north of Green Bay, Hodkiewicz, 24, owns, operates and handcrafts unique merchandise for The Lightbox, a screen-printing studio and shop in Ephraim, Door County. A variety of Midwestern female artists work on commission, contributing ceramics, jewelry and other wearable art pieces to the shop’s inventory, but Hodkiewicz alone is in charge of sales. Throughout spring, summer and fall, every Thursday through Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., you can find her behind the shop’s counter — greeting customers, handling purchases and screen printing an assortment of products, from tote bags to underwear.
But making the gelato and designing new prints are the fun parts. Santaga and Hodkiewicz, like many other small-business owners in Wisconsin, are taking incredible risks to live out their passions.
Out of the 25 “larger states” in the U.S., Wisconsin ranks last in startup business activity, with California sitting at the opposite end of that spectrum. Fewer than 7 percent of adults in Wisconsin own their own business as a primary job, and it is easy to see why. Starting a business often requires substantial investments of one’s time and finances. On top of that, only about 50 percent of startup businesses in Wisconsin survive beyond the first five years.
According to Dan Olszewski, director of the Weinert Center for Entrepreneurship at UW-Madison, Wisconsin’s “risk-averse” culture could also affect the state’s low startup activity. Many aspiring business owners in Wisconsin may be looking for the most “low-risk opportunity,” or waiting until “everything is lined up perfectly,” before they consider entrepreneurship, Olszewski explains.
But for some Wisconsinites, like Santaga and Hodkiewicz, the reward is worth all of the risks.
Santaga had years of culinary experience under her belt before starting her gelato business.
“I’ve always just really liked cooking and food and being creative in that way,” she says.
Throughout high school, Santaga worked in the kitchens of a few different restaurants and bakeries in the Green Bay area. Her formal culinary arts training began at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, but she completed her degree at Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton.
One night, when Santaga was still in culinary school, she and her father sat discussing the possibility of opening her own business after graduation — a topic they had visited multiple times before — when an idea came to Santaga.
“What about gelato?” she asked. Her father, Scott, saw potential. “You should go for it, because it’s a beautiful idea,” he recalls saying.
Belonging to a family with strong Italian roots, Santaga visited Italy growing up, and she loved the gelato there. Her father, who often travels between Green Bay and Bologna, Italy, for business, had begun to notice a general curiosity surrounding the Italian ice cream in Wisconsin. Both Santaga and her father saw a lot of opportunity in Green Bay, especially, where there are plenty of ice cream and frozen custard shops, but, at the time, no place that exclusively offered authentic Italian gelato.
Now, Santaga just had to learn how to make it. After a bit of Googling and hearing from some of her father’s Italian connections, Santaga discovered Carpigiani Gelato University in Bologna — “the world’s first university dedicated to ice cream,” according to the school’s website.
“If you want to become a successful gelato entrepreneur, then Carpigiani Gelato University is the school for you!” the website promises.
“Most famous gelaterians — everybody — went to that school, so I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to that one!’” Santaga says.
To save up enough to pay for the gelato program, Santaga spent summer 2016 working as a line cook at the Whistling Swan, a restaurant in Fish Creek, Door County. Exactly one year later, following her graduation from Fox Valley Technical College, she was off to Bologna, Italy, for a three-week course on gelato-making. By August, Santaga had already obtained her LLC, which established her business as an independent tax entity.
Santaga’s parents helped her with many of the initial business costs, but not before ensuring that she could be profitable. Her father, an entrepreneur himself, and, according to Santaga, the “king of Excel spreadsheets,” helped her draw up a detailed business plan. Though Santaga had never taken a business course herself, she worked to build her company on the basic principles her father taught her — good product, great customer service and fair price.
After purchasing a used gelato machine on eBay — an $8,000 investment — Santaga set up a workspace in her parents’ basement, “which is so cliché,” she says with a laugh. Using friends and family as “taste-testers,” Santaga spent months testing numerous recipes.
Near the end of 2017, she found a more practical home for her more-than-500-pound gelato machine within Rebecca’s Sweets Boutique in Green Bay. The bakery’s owner, Rebecca Henry, runs a second location in Appleton and only uses the Green Bay space as a storefront, so Santaga was able to rent the kitchen for $500 a month.
As Santaga’s dream business became more and more of a reality, a fear of judgment and failure set in.
“[The gelato] has my name on it, first of all. This is a small town — I’m really putting myself out there,” she says of her initial fears.
But supportive friends and family, as well as a strong sense of confidence in her own talents, helped her push past them.
By February 2018, less than one year after Santaga completed her gelato course in Italy, Sara’s Artisan Gelato was licensed and officially running.
“I kind of just jumped [in] and didn’t look back,” Santaga says.
But, as illustrated in the statistics above, Santaga’s willingness to “jump” into entrepreneurship, overcoming her initial fears, is rare in Wisconsin.
With our state’s “risk-averse culture” comes a greater concern for personal reputation and an aversion to failure, according to Olszewski. Working with entrepreneurs in California, the state with the most startup business activity, and then Wisconsin, the state with the least, Olszewski has observed a sharp contrast in how failure is perceived in each place.
“I go out to Silicon Valley and meet with people there, and it’s not at all uncommon to have them really almost bragging about their startups that failed,” Olszewski says. “It’s not something that they’re at all embarrassed about.”
But in Wisconsin, Olszewski says, it’s much harder to get people to talk about unsuccessful ventures. The fear of failure alone may be keeping many Wisconsinites from starting their own businesses.
Hodkiewicz, like Santaga, is an outlier in our “risk-averse” state. After graduating from UW-Madison with a fine arts degree in December 2016, she began “totally jokingly” looking at properties in Door County. The northern Wisconsin county is not only a popular tourist destination, but also a hub for the arts and entrepreneurship — many businesses there are independently owned. Having spent many summers in the area, Hodkiewicz had fallen in love with and wanted to contribute to the community.
Scrolling through Craigslist, Hodkiewicz came across a tiny shop for sale in the town of Ephraim.
“I can own something! I can own something that will gain value, [and] that I can use as my own space,” she thought to herself — and her mortgage payments would be less expensive than her rent had been in Madison.
She purchased the shop in March 2017 for $62,000 — before even knowing exactly what she wanted to do with it.
All spring and summer, the shop was left untouched as Hodkiewicz worked at a local wine bar and came up with a plan. She first considered making it a sorbet shop, with pink decor and edible-gold-flecked desserts, and then possibly a gourmet-picnic-basket store, where she could offer nice snacks for customers to bring to nearby parks or beaches. But Hodkiewicz wasn’t passionate about either idea.
“I just had to … strip it down to what I know, which is arts,” she says.
By the fall, Hodkiewicz had a clearer vision for her business. Inspired by a local potter’s dual studio and shop space, she decided to create a screen-printing studio and gift shop, featuring her own work and work by some of her female artist friends. Like Santaga, Hodkiewicz had never taken a business course, but neighboring entrepreneurs gave her advice and helped her through the legal requirements.
Designing the shop’s space, however, was all Hodkiewicz. Every space she has lived in has been designed around the phrase, “Live in rooms full of light.” Her name, Lucy, means “light,” and she loves the feeling of a bright space. This attraction and connection to light, along with the art processes she uses, inspired her shop’s interior design and name, The Lightbox.
Between September 2017 and May 2018, Hodkiewicz, with help from her father, stepfather and, occasionally, a few friends, transformed what had once been a cluttered pet supply store into a “room full of light.”
“I spent all winter — just me for the most part — coming in [to the shop] every day, plugging in [a] little heater ‘cause it was freezing and peanut-buttering the walls with joint compound so it was smooth, repainting everything,” Hodkiewicz says.
Interior walls became a light pink hue and the exterior was covered with a soft yellow. Blue carpet was replaced by light wood floors, and multiple-tiered display shelving was torn down.
Hodkiewicz sunk so much money into the shop that, at one point, she struggled to get by, “digging through old purses to find the remaining balances on Kwik Trip gift cards.” Lucky for her, generous friends and family kept her afloat.
Before opening, Hodkiewicz did not fear failure. Her mother, an entrepreneur herself, showed Hodkiewicz that business ownership – instead of being scary – could be incredibly freeing, in terms of pursuing your own interests and being your own boss. Her mother’s positive example, as well as the unwavering support from friends and family, likely contributed to Hodkiewicz’s initial bravery.
“I was completely thrilled. One hundred percent supportive. I couldn’t have been happier,” Hodkiewicz’s mother, Marianna “Yana” DeMyer, says of her daughter’s entrepreneurial efforts.
But Hodkiewicz was not exempt from all fears. Like Santaga, she feared judgment of her art and worried about a loss of passion.
“Am I going to get sick of coming here every day? Am I going to stop feeling excited about the pieces in [the shop]?” she thought to herself.
After putting so much time and money into this business, what if it didn’t make her happy?
On May 29, 2018, Hodkiewicz hosted a party for The Lightbox’s official opening. The day began with frantic organizing and a lot of nerves, but finished with cocktails, a packed shop and $1,200 in sales within just three hours.
“Everyone I know in Door County was here. It was a huge turnout,” Hodkiewicz says. “It was awesome.”
Like Santaga, Hodkiewicz had boldly jumped into business ownership, without looking back.
Entrepreneurship, along with significant investments of time and resources, requires an attitude of fearlessness, especially in Wisconsin. But Santaga and Hodkiewicz prove that sometimes taking the leap is worth it. Though startup activity is rare in our state, businesses that survive their first five years tend to continue surviving long after. According to the Kauffman Index, Wisconsin ranks second nationally in established small-business activity.
Now both a few months into entrepreneurship, Santaga and Hodkiewicz are watching their businesses grow and focusing on the rewards that come with crafting your own profession.
So far, neither business is profitable enough to sustain itself and provide a living salary for each woman. Santaga lives with her parents, and Hodkiewicz still works part-time at the wine bar and as a photographer, but they are moving in the right direction. Sara’s Artisan Gelato has been sold in nine different Green Bay restaurants, and Santaga has catered many events. She also just signed the lease to open her own storefront. Hodkiewicz is now looking to get certified in tattooing and add a space for that service in her shop. She is also planning special events and workshops to further engage with customers. Both are passionate about what they do and love seeing their work bring joy to others.
However, for Hodkiewicz, the joy of entrepreneurship isn’t even related to success — it’s about the reward of committing to your own passions.
“It’s fun to put every bit of effort toward your own goals,” Hodkiewicz says. “Even if your goals fail, it’s more fun that way.”