“From Avocation To Vocation: How I Turned My Hobby Into A Career” With Stefanie Salem Of Newport Beach Wine & Food

An interview with Phil La Duke

Phil La Duke
Sep 8 · 11 min read

Media is crucial. It is essential to have a successful and well connected PR company to work with — Getting the word out takes time. It is important to have a PR team who can connect you with the proper media channels in order to receive the best exposure. You can build the best event in the world, but if no one knows about it, you’re going to have a tough time selling tickets.

a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Stefanie Salem, the founder and CEO of Newport Beach Wine & Food, one of Southern California’s most anticipated and acclaimed epicurean events. A self-proclaimed ‘taste-bud traveler,’ Salem spent most of her 20's and early 30's traveling the world while working for a publication company and beginning her own business ventures. After 75 countries, 6 businesses, bungee-jumping on 3 continents, and a lifetime’s worth of experiences, Salem returned home to Newport Beach, California where she embarked on her greatest adventure yet: Newport Beach Wine & Food. Now in its sixth year, the festival continues to feature the country’s best culinary talent alongside the finest dining and wine that California has to offer. The events and participants are rooted in the festival’s Orange County home, but over the years, it has grown to include nationally-acclaimed chefs and wineries, largely due to Salem’s “get out and go do” personality, Rolodex of connections, and desire to incorporate the best of the best in the OC-based festival. Newport Beach Wine & Food returns this year from October 3–6, 2019, and will feature better-than-event culinary events, an elevated wine program, and much more.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Stefanie! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

was born and raised in Carlsbad, San Diego with my two older brothers and parents. My fondest memories involved cooking with my mom and grandmothers, and the camping trips we would take every summer. We would pack up for a road trip to somewhere in the US we had never been before.

In high school, I was very involved in student government, serving as the president of many clubs and ASB Vice President my junior year, which is how I discovered my passion for leading a team. Through these clubs, I had one of the most eye-opening and incredible experiences. I spent the summer in Geneva, Switzerland as an exchange student. I remember trying new foods, such as horse Vietnamese fondue and baby octopus. That summer inspired me to make it a goal to see as much of the world as I possibly could. I was hooked on adventures in food and travel and am so lucky to have made a career out of it.

What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?

I had taken four years off of work to stay at home and care for my two children, but I quickly realized I was ready to start another business. I read the book Springboard: Launching Your Personal Search for Success, which helped me focus on what I was most passionate about: food, animals, and travel. Then I started watching documentaries about the journeys of successful entrepreneurs to try to help trigger the idea for my next business.

I remember watching a documentary about how Ted Turner built his empire and how Jay-Z built his music festival to include every genre of music. Ted Turner said, “If it’s not a little scary, it’s not big enough.” I was inspired by Jay-Z’s vision of how festivals bring diverse, like-minded people together to have an experience they’ll never forget. I knew that Newport Beach, the city I call home, had a food and wine festival that had taken place annually for the past 24 years but ended two years prior. It was then that I had my “ah ha” moment. I decided to create my own Newport Beach Wine & Food Festival.

There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?

There is no easy way to take an idea and turn it into an actual business. The first couple of years were very challenging, and the only way to get through the struggle is to work hard and push through the moments that you feel pressure. It can be stressful knowing that you don’t have a security blanket when failures inevitably happen. Learning to brush it off, accepting your failure, learning from it, and moving on are essential to reaching your goal.

What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?

Leaving a financially secure position to go start a dream business is risky, so I understand their reluctance. However, if I spent the rest of my life wishing I had tried to pursue my dream but didn’t out of comfort, I would regret it every day. We only get one chance on this earth, so it is important to explore and try as much as possible in the little time we have.

It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?

Now that I have a much larger team to share the workload, everyone is able to focus on the things in which they excel. I find that people enjoy doing things that they are good at, so I try to determine who is best suited for each role. I’ve done every job there is in my company from A to Z, so I have no problem asking anyone to do any task at hand.

What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?

I do love the satisfaction that comes from taking an idea and building it into a successful business. There is a sense of accomplishment that is hard to describe when you finally see it all come to fruition, which is a feeling I get to enjoy each year with Newport Beach Wine & Food. Knowing how much work it takes to get to that feeling of achievement is one of the things that keeps me engaged and why I continue to do what I do. Additionally, I like the flexibility of taking time off for vacation. I just know that I’ll have to work twice as hard when I get back for as long as it takes to finish the job.

The positives far outweigh any downsides, but the 100% risk responsibility I’ve taken on in my businesses has been stressful at times. If something goes wrong, I am solely responsible for it, regardless of who in my company made the mistake. I have thick skin and try not to let issues get me down. Instead, my team and I work together to find solutions for any problems that arise. We all make mistakes, but we make sure they only happen once and that we learn from them every time.

Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

When I first started planning the Newport Beach Wine & Food Festival, I thought I would focus mainly on gaining partners and raising funds to pay for the event, but I ended up doing everything from dealing with high-level partners to distributing flyers door to door. There is no job that I haven’t done myself. Now, with seven years of planning under our belts, my team handles full production for the festival and additionally hosts events year-round for our corporate clients all over the country.

Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?

No, I’ve never thought about giving up on any of my businesses. When I start something, I am fully committed to it even when times were extremely difficult, especially at the beginning. However, I can’t count how many times other people have told me to get a “real” job, particularly when I was struggling to get the festival off the ground. But, I never doubted that I would succeed, so I chose not to listen to them. I’m glad I didn’t because now we’re about to produce the 6th annual Newport Beach Wine & Food Festival with award-winning celebrity chefs, luxury wine brands, world-renowned partners, and more.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One of the funniest mistakes my team and I have ever made was when we didn’t schedule our maintenance company to put the giant dumpster trash liners into the dumpsters before the festival. Because of this, my team and I had to climb into the dumpsters to put the bags on ourselves (I told you I’ve done it all…). We laughed at each other the whole time as we were climbing and hanging on the dumpsters to try to fit the bags on correctly, and I promise you that this is not a mistake we will ever repeat again!

Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?

My dad, who recently passed away, has always been my greatest role model. He taught me not to give up on anything and that the best things worth having are worth working for. He was a serious businessman and a present, devoted father who loved our family deeply. I miss him every day, but his love and lessons continue to inspire me.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

This year, Newport Beach Wine & Food has partnered with Covenant House California, which is a charity that has become very meaningful to myself and my team. It is a nonprofit organization that provides housing and services for youth aged 18–24 that are experiencing homelessness or human trafficking. We are hosting our Opening Night Gala at the Newport Beach Country Club that will benefit Covenant House California and raise awareness in hopes of building a Covenant House in Orange County. It has been an incredible experience partnering with a charity that I am passionate about.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Most new events lose money in their first year — I took on a lot of financial risk when starting the festival and ended up investing considerably more personal capital than I originally intended. Thankfully I did, because the Newport Beach Wine & Food Festival is now in its 6th year and is known as one of the top food and wine events in the country.
  2. Live events are fluid and surprises can and do happen so staying flexible and having Plan A, B and C is key— No matter how well every event is planned out, there will always be issues that arise. It’s essential to have a calm and dedicated team that can manage and resolve unexpected surprises. The show must go on.
  3. Finding the right people for your team with the needed skills is pivotal to success — I’ve learned a lot about what to look for when hiring new people for my team. A symbiotic team creates a seamless and enjoyable work environment. This is critical to the growth of my business.
  4. Media is crucial. It is essential to have a successful and well connected PR company to work with— Getting the word out takes time. It is important to have a PR team who can connect you with the proper media channels in order to receive the best exposure. You can build the best event in the world, but if no one knows about it, you’re going to have a tough time selling tickets.
  5. Accept that you can’t please all the people all of the time — There will always be someone who is not happy with what you’ve produced, no matter how perfect you think the event was executed. I don’t take it personally as it is always helpful to receive input in order to continually improve the event each year.

What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

As I’ve established in the beginning of the interview, my most cherished memories and favorite moments revolve around food and travel. It would be my dream to inspire young minds to pursue their passions, even if it’s not the most traditional path taken, just like mine. Last year’s festival hosted culinary students from C-CAP to cook alongside celebrity chefs in the live cooking demos and Pacific Sales Grand Tasting tent. This year, we’ve partnered with Covenant House as the benefitting charity for the Opening Night Gala, and my goal is to help open a home in Orange County and hopefully set up a program where the youth involved can learn to cook their own meals, learn how flavors work together, and understand that cooking at home doesn’t have to be difficult or inaccessible. Who knows, maybe they will end up becoming world-renowned chefs!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Travel. Money will return. Time will not.” I have many favorite quotes, but this one in particular is incredibly relevant to me. I work as hard as I do so I can travel. I want to see the entire world and I’m about halfway there. I travel when I have the opportunity to go somewhere with friends or my sons, or have had a goal to see a certain place for years, or I have a wild hair and I want to go somewhere, or for any reason at all. Travel fills my soul and I could not spend my life experiencing only one place, and like the quote says, money will come back, but the time will not.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I’d love to break bread with Eric Ripert. He shares my passion for food, travel, and adventure, so I think we’d become fast friends. I truly enjoy being around like-minded people so we share our experiences and learn from each other, and I’m positive we would have more than a few laughs over lunch. Eric, are you reading this? Where in the world should we meet?! :)

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

About the Author:

Phil La Duke is a popular speaker & writer with more than 400 works in print. He has contributed to Entrepreneur, Monster, Thrust Global and is published on all inhabited continents. His most recent book is Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention listed as #16 on Pretty Progressive magazine’s list of 49 books that powerful women study in detail. Follow Phil on Twitter @philladuke or read his weekly blog www.philladuke.wordpress.com

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Phil La Duke

Written by

Author of “I Know My Shoes Are Untied. Mind Your Own Business” and “Lone Gunman. Rewriting the Handbook on Workplace Violence Prevention

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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