A couple weeks ago, I reached out to a high school friend with a strange request. Hey, I feel like you’re doing really incredible things and I think you’re a really good example of what it means to follow your dreams. Can I interview you and write a Smile Project post about it?
Because she’s a saint and can understand the good intentions that lie beneath my bumbling exterior, she happily agreed. On a sleepy Saturday morning, Julianna and I pulled up Skype, poured our coffee and water glasses respectively and began to chat. What you’ll read below is a transcript of that conversation.
What you won’t read below – but what you will perhaps experience yourself – is the profound tranquility and inspiration that comes from talking with someone who lives in grace in every aspect of their life. By the time our call had ended, my entire Saturday felt renewed. I found more clarity in my work and more desire to live authentically and wholly in pursuit of my passions.
I could write pages about how meaningful our states-away-Skype date was, but instead, I’ll let Julianna and her work speak for itself. Make sure to follow Vines Bakery on Facebook and Instagram and bookmark her website here.
Interview: March 25 2017
Julianna Hritz, Owner of Vines Bakery
Tell me about yourself.
I’m from a town called Seven Fields, just north of Pittsburgh. I graduated from Seneca Valley High School and in terms of when I first knew I wanted to be a baker… Well, it’s actually kind of interesting. I always said since 3rd grade that I wanted to be a pastry chef. Probably from 3rd grade to maybe 8th-9th grade that is what I would tell people. I obsessively watched the Food Network and I decorated cakes for fun.
When I got to high school, it became a thing where I was like, ‘well I want to go to college and do a smart people thing because that’s what I feel like I should do.’ I didn’t want to go to trade school or work in a kitchen. I wanted to go to a traditional college, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do.
By senior year, I landed on teaching. I decided to go to Ashland University in Ohio. I thought to myself, ‘I like science. I can be a teacher. I could teach high school.’ And I wanted to be the kind of teacher who was a mentor to students. That was my driving force. I had some awesome teacher role models, and I thought I would love to emulate them.
I got to college and thought, ‘I don’t want to take a chem-lab; I don’t like chemistry.’ Before the school year started I found Family and Consumer Science (FCS) Education as a major (which is basically home ec) so I got to teach and incorporate things that I really wanted to do like cooking and sewing instead of science.
That was the game plan and I stuck very strongly to said game plan. I was loving my major. I loved teaching. I loved being in the classroom. I loved my college. But then as I got to my student teaching, I realized I didn’t want to be a teacher after all – which was a very difficult thing for me because I like to know what’s going on and I like to be a planner and I like to feel like I know what’s happening in life.
And all of the sudden, I had no clue what was going on. I had several months before I was graduating college and I had zero direction at all because the thing I was planning on was no longer reality.
What did you do instead?
It was a real struggle for me to go back and forth on not teaching. It was a struggle of not going to the career fair and not looking for jobs to apply for. I was a mess for a lot of months (6 months post grad). I kept thinking, ‘what the heck am I doing?’ I felt very directionless. That was the word I was hanging on to. I have no direction. I have no goal in my mind of where to go.
It’s totally a God thing. Doors opened up that I didn’t even imagine. At the time I was like, ‘I don’t even want this stupid door.’ When I graduated, my boss said, you can live in my spare room and intern for me, so I stuck around at the university.
I didn’t feel particularly called to be anywhere. I liked being at the college and figured, ‘why not?’ I interned at the university because, again, ‘why not?’ That internship turned into me being offered a temporary position at the university working in Student Life, which I loved.
And that’s when you did the Farmer’s Market?
Yes, that summer, I decided to do the local farmer’s market in Ashland. I had a concept of a thing called Vines. The original thought was I wanted it to be a coffee shop. I always drew decorative vines on school work and in random doodles and stuff. I thought it would be business name because it also comes from one of my favorite Bible verses from the book of John: "I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” And that was what I was clinging on to in my time of uncertainty. That verse. That idea.
I liked the idea of having a coffee shop and having people come together and grow together where people could connect and grow like vines. It would be a safe space for people.
So my boss, Nicole, encouraged me to do the farmer’s market. Finally I was like, ‘okay whatever, I’ll bake some stuff.’ I spent 7 hours baking. Nicole helped me package everything and at 10 pm the night before the market, I sat on the dining room floor and started crying. ‘I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to show up. I don’t want to do this anymore.’
And Nicole looks at me and goes: “Sure, that’s fine. If that’s what you really want, but I think this is a fear-based response. And I’m not letting you react out of fear.”
I was terrified of failure. I was terrified that nobody would buy things or nobody would like it or me. I was terrified of trying out this thing that I was possibly going to fail out.
But I went. And then I went back. I sold out a few times. I made connections. I was able to decorate a table. There were regulars who came by and people would seek me out. Ashland is a welcoming and comforting community which is fun.
And what happened when the Farmer’s Market ended?
So, it’s not summer anymore and the Farmer’s Market is over. But I ended up staying at the university to work. I stuck around and worked with the students in student life and I loved my job. I got an office and I felt like I was doing something, but my position was still temporary. The deadline kept getting extended but eventually ended in December 2016. So now what?
Mini crisis again. But then things happen that I never expected. I was at a friend’s house baking Christmas cookies wondering: ‘What am I going to do? Am I going to get a job in Ashland?’
My friend’s mom knew someone who worked at a restaurant in town. I called and interviewed and they hired me.
I started working at the restaurant (I think I’d rather leave it unnamed if that’s okay J ) in January as a baker and a line cook. I’ve never worked in a kitchen before. I never imagined being a line cook. I call someone chef on a daily basis. I never thought that was going to be a thing. But I always wanted that to be a thing. ‘What if I got to wear a funny hat and call people chef? And now I do that. I wear a funny hat and I call people chef.’
No job is perfect and there are ups and downs. People keep saying ‘you’re living the dream.’ Somedays I feel like I am and somedays I’m 0% living the dream. Yes, my job looks awesome, but I don’t show you the pictures of me being head deep in a bucket of rotten potatoes. I show the good parts. It’s important to recognize the full story. All in all, it’s been a really cool learning experience to be at that job while I figure out what I want to do with Vines.
And what are you doing with Vines now?
I made a website and have done a few orders for people.
It’s definitely a process where I still doubt myself all the time and worry about being a perfectionist and I worry that I’m going to get it wrong and disappoint people. Sometimes I carry that. I don’t want to disappoint people and I don’t want to disappoint God. I just want to tell him, ‘you’re giving me all these things and thank you but don’t give me too much because what if I mess up and ruin the thing that you gave me.’
I had a really cool realization last Thursday that it’s not always in my power to make things succeed or fail. I just have to take one step at a time and have faith. I don’t have to carry the fear of failure around with me because ultimately it’s not my own power that’s going to cause things to happen. It’s me being trusting and obedient and doing what I love to the best of my ability.
When did you become interested in baking?
3rd grade – it’s been like a whole life thing. It’s been an interesting process. I’ve started embracing what I actually like to do. And I always thought that baking and hospitality and things like that – I had a phase in my life where I thought that was all kind of frivolous. What good does making someone a scone really do? I’m pumping sugar into a world that doesn’t need more sugar. It seemed so small. It still can seem kind of small and not super important in the world. My goal was to always help people or do something very intentional to show love to people in some way.
Now I’m kind of embracing the things that I like to do as meaningful. That is a part of who I am – instead of it just being ‘something I like to do’ I’m trying to make it part of my daily life. I’ve had all these realizations that, ‘no, this is what I’ve always liked to do. This is a core thing in my life that is important. It’s not meaningless and it’s not like something that’s frivolous.’
In 10th grade I baked my calculus class cookies and wrote them letters. I baked people stuff for my birthday. My boss gave me the day off and told me to take a peace day and I ended up baking cinnamon rolls and delivering them to people around campus. My boss was confused; she didn’t realize that this is what I love to do – it’s what centers me.
I remember the first time I made dinner for my family. My mom videotaped that because she said I would want it one day. I was probably in like 6th grade. I remember not being big enough to pour batter out from the mixing bowl by myself while I was baking. It’s the little things like that that are wild to think about now. Cooking has always been there.
Oh yeah, and throwing dinner parties is my love life. We had an Italian dinner party in my backyard and we had delicious food and we played croquet and everyone dressed up. It stands out as one of my absolute favorite days. I love food and bringing people together.
There’s a book called “Bread and Wine” by Shauna Niequist. It’s my whole heart. It talks about big meaningful God moments and how connecting moments in her life always happen around a table or around food and she understands how important that is in her life.
Do you remember the first baked good you ever sold?
When I was in middle school, two girls had a joint birthday party and someone asked me to bake their birthday cake.
What advice would you give to someone who is trying to start their own thing or take a risk and follow their passion?
You have to go with your gut. And don’t expect it to be easy, either. Don’t get discouraged. Looking back, I can say ‘I decided not to be a teacher and it was fine,” but I remember the feeling of overwhelming panic at that time when I was not fine with it.
Lean on your people and people that understand your heart and what you’re interested in. Ask for the best advice. Don’t always quit your day job but don’t quit your side hustle either. You can continue to walk toward your passion of what you’re interested in while still living somewhat of a normal life.
You can be a little Clark Kent / Superman-ish for a time until you are able to full force go into whatever you’re interested in.
Start small. You know – take a part time job that is somehow involved with your interest – even if it might not be some place you’re staying forever.
What is your favorite sweet treat?
Anything made with sugar I will consume happily, but I really like scones. I just made these scones the other day that were so good. I was always a recipe follower but then I figured I would never develop anything or be unique if I didn’t stray from the recipe. As I’ve been in the kitchen more I’ve started to come up with things on my own which is fun. I tried out blackberry ricotta basil scones that were really good and I made some great dark chocolate raspberry macaroons too.
Anything you’d want to add?
You’re definitely going to be stressed out – and feel a need to figure all this stuff out. I got to a point where I had to realize that ‘God knows my heart. God knows what my dreams are.’ Even when I felt like I didn’t know what those dreams looked like.
I had to say, ‘You know what God, I trust you. Do with my dreams what is going to be the best. If that means a store front bakery, great. If that means working somewhere part time, great. If that means teaching people, great. If that means living a ‘normal people life’ and instilling my love of cooking in my kids, great. Relinquishing part of that control was a good thing for me.