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Paving an entrepreneurial path forward

De Pere entrepreneur looks to relaunch startup nearly a year after losing her home, business supplies in a fire

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March 23, 2023

DE PERE – Last May, De Pere entrepreneur Kelly Schwartz said she was riding a high with her startup business – Fridge Jerky.

Receiving great feedback from the community, making her way through Blueprint Green Bay – a 12-week startup accelerator program through the Greater Green Bay Chamber – and presenting Fridge Jerky to a room full of fellow entrepreneurs, community members and potential investors – Schwartz said everything seemed to be falling into place for her and her startup venture.

Unfortunately, that high didn’t last long.

Schwartz said little did she know, while she was pitching her business concept and looking toward the future of Fridge Jerky, her De Pere home was on fire.

“Within the context of the highs and lows, it challenged me personally to my core,” she said.

Not only did she lose her home, three family pets, all of her Fridge Jerky equipment and her sense of security, but Schwartz said she also began questioning her desire to move forward with her recently launched business.

Kelly Schwartz pitched her Fridge Jerky startup concept to a room full of fellow entrepreneurs and potential investors last May at the same time her house and all of her equipment were lost in a fire. Submitted Photo

“Because the fire happened while I was literally announcing my business to the public, I questioned whether or not I should keep pursuing this business,” she said. “It almost made me question, was I doing the right thing? Is this valid?”

For a while, Schwartz said she was almost resentful of the Fridge Jerky business.

“Because if I wasn’t pitching, I would have been home,” she said. “I would have been able to save my dogs. I would have been able to save my son’s bunny.”

Schwartz said it took her months to process things and recognize that “it’s not Fridge Jerky’s fault.”

“That was hard to work through – especially navigating the trauma of the aftermath,” she said.

Being a woman in the meat business, Schwartz said, in itself is not necessarily mainstream.

“Having this fire happen, I was like, ‘Maybe this is a sign I should stop,’” she said. 

Rebuilding a dream
Schwartz said she leaned on those she loved for words of encouragement and understanding to help her get on the path toward rebuilding – not just her home, but also her business.

“I sought counsel from the people I love and the people I’ve trusted with my business ideas, and my hopes and my dreams,” she said. “They supported me by saying, ‘You have something here, don’t give up. This might be a pause for you, but don’t let this be a closed door. Jump through the window and keep going.’”

Although slow-going, Schwartz said she has been working toward doing just that.

“I created the momentum for Fridge Jerky before, I know I can do it again,” she said. “And I think the story we have to tell now is much stronger and more meaningful. And there will be other things that come out of this that not only are going to bolster The Fridge Jerky brand, but also something I want to do that supports the community that essentially held me together.”

Although it took her some time to get there, Schwartz said she knows moving forward with rebuilding Fridge Jerky is the right move.

“I love fueling people through creative ways with food,” she said. “I know this is my calling. I know this is something I want to do. I know this is something I want my son to be able to have the opportunity to be part of.”

It’s the getting there, Schwartz said, that is up in the air at the moment.

“We’re kind of tiptoeing, and I’m excited to be able to jump in with both feet once we’re home,” she said.

Which Schwartz hopes is later this spring.

“My entire house had to be gutted and rebuilt from the inside,” she said. “(Since the fire) we have lived in a duplex. We’re in a hotel again right now. I’ve been fighting with insurance. I’ve been fighting with contractors. My experience as a young single woman has been anything but pleasant. Lots of personal growth throughout this entire scenario, including learning I have to speak up.”

An unexpected partnership
Although Fridge Jerky has been put on the back burner for a bit while Schwartz got back on her feet, she said a rebuild is on the horizon.

“Jerky wise, I have a ton of support,” she said. “I’ve made some jerky. I’ve given some samples out.”

Most recently, Schwartz said she has entered into an agreement with a new De Pere business to utilize the kitchen, which the owners don’t need.

Slowly, but surely, Kelly Schwartz said taking the necessary steps to relaunch Fridge Jerky. Submitted Photo

“I had a gentleman reach out to me through my Facebook page asking me if I needed kitchen space,” she said. “I said, ‘Yes, I’ve been toying around with a few ideas.’ He said, ‘I want to help you. I’m launching a business, and I don’t need the kitchen space.’”

The man – Chad Nehring – recently opened After: A Social Club along with his brother Jamie Cravillion in downtown west De Pere.

“When my brother and I decided to go forward with the After concept in fall 2022, we were pondering on what to do with our commercial kitchen space knowing we wouldn’t need it except for catering space during special events,” Nehring said. “I vaguely recalled the story of the fire and the fact it was during an entrepreneur presentation for someone making some sort of food.”

Nehring said after some digging, he eventually found Schwartz’s Facebook page.

“I sent a ‘you don’t know me, but…’ type of email,” he said. “Fortunately, it didn’t get blocked.”

Schwartz said they began talking, and as of January, “I’ve been able to use that kitchen space.”

Nehring said he’s always been an entrepreneur at heart, and to be able to take a part of their space that was not fully utilized and help, “it just made good sense.”

“I had so many good mentors over the years that it was finally a chance to be able to ‘pay it back’ and give someone else a helping hand,” he said.

Nehring said when he finally met Kelly, he was impressed by her energy in spite of all of what she’s gone through.

“I knew we wanted to help,” he said. “Sometimes it can be lonely as a small business owner, and knowing we can all work together to support our local community is super. By no means are we a standalone example though. There’s so much great collaboration in De Pere.”

Schwartz said Nehring recognizing the similarities between his ventures and her own meant a lot.

“To learn Chad is part of ComedyCity, which is a whimsical, fun, crazy, cool business – I’m within that same hemisphere of energy and quirky,” she said. “So, for him to recognize that similarity was cool.”

Schwartz said for Nehring to lift up her “baby business” in such a way out of the goodness of his heart seemed almost too good to be true.

“He’s been more than patient,” she said. “I don’t know if there will ever be an opportunity for me to repay him for how much he’s truly given me.”

Nehring said by allowing Schwartz to use After’s kitchen, she’ll “realize her dream” of getting her products out to more and more people.

“We’ll help her with this using our network as well,” he said. “Additionally, I’ve had 20-plus years of trials and tribulations with business and can offer advice if it’s needed, or even some good discussions on ideas we both have.”

Kelly Schwartz

Schwartz said the kindness Nehring has shown her during this tough time has been life changing.

“I think his graciousness and his initiative to reach out was probably one of the most defining moments to come from our house fire,” she said.

The road ahead
As the anniversary of the fire approaches, Schwartz said she is focused on the future of Fridge Jerky.

“We replaced most of our equipment,” she said. “I have to get a different dehydrator to meet commercial standards. I don’t have a ton of food supplies – we’re talking seasonings, we’re talking meat. Everything in that regard is relatively expensive.”

Schwartz said she also needs to get some certifications and licensing.

“Licensing is the hot topic,” she said. “I have to figure out how to get licensed, and there’s some front-end work with that. I have to have my product tested. I have to have it almost categorized to make sure it meets the criteria of jerky. I have to figure out what the expiration dates are for my product. So, there’s a lot of that from the front end.”

In terms of a timeline, Schwartz said April and May are when she plans to “hit the ground running” in terms of taking the next steps needed to relaunch Fridge Jerky.

She said she’s been working a little bit with the De Pere Health Department to figure out if Fridge Jerky products meet the statutory requirement for beef jerky, including moisture content. 

“I don’t necessarily know how long it will take to get licensing,” she said. “I don’t know if De Pere has any licenses for jerky at this moment. So, I think they almost have a learning curve along with me because of the uniqueness of my product. It’s not your typical – and I put this in air quotes – jerky.”

Schwartz said Fridge Jerky’s first big public reappearance will be at MeatFest at the Resch Expo in May.

“I’m delivering a presentation, and then I’m also going to have a booth – a booth of what, I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be samples. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to sell it. I am new to the whole licensing structure.”

Words of advice
Although her journey with Fridge Jerky was likely more dramatic than many others face, Schwartz acknowledges all startups have challenges.

She said for those dealing with similar issues, such as restarting a business, “I would say it all starts with you.”

“What gets you out of bed in the morning?” she said. “What are you excited about? What information are you consuming that fuels your soul? And how do you want to make a difference in this world?”

Schwartz said she is not making a difference in this world by providing people with Fridge Jerky.

Fridge Jerky’s first public reappearance will be at MeatFest at the Resch Expo in May. Submitted Photo

“I am making a difference in this world by being a better human, a better mom, a better employee, a better entrepreneur,” she said. “So, it truly resides within ourselves.”

Schwartz said after “terrible” things happen to “incredible” people, they have an opportunity to either let that continue to destroy them or use it to propel themselves into growth, evolution and healing.

Part of that, she said, includes giving yourself permission to “recognize that maybe moving forward with a business might not be your calling – and that’s okay.”

“I think giving myself that recognition, working through whether or not I wanted to continue Fridge Jerky was freaking scary because I was worried about what everybody else was thinking,” Schwartz said. “What I realized is, it’s not about them. It’s what I want to do to make a difference, and I decided to continue pursuing it. So, replicating that into advice – it truly all starts within.”

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