Meet the Madison twenty-somethings who quit their corporate jobs to start their own food businesses

How Therese Merkel & Shelby Olstad's 'pandemic pivots' paid off

MADISON, Wis.– You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘pandemic pivot’ by now: when someone decides to make a change, leave their job during COVID, and pursue their passion.

October is National Women’s Small business month, and News 3 is spotlighting local women who made successful pandemic pivots.

Therese Merkel started her ‘Tricky Foods‘ Instagram page four years ago after learning she had digestive issues.

“I was eating a lot of food that didn’t have a lot of flavor to it,” Merkel explained, “So I started styling it pretty, so it at least it would look good.”

Building charcuterie boards quickly became her hobby and, as they say, the rest is history. Today, Merkel has nearly 6,000 followers on Instagram, her own business, and dozens of weekly customers.

But it wasn’t an easy path to get here. Merkel worked an 8-5 job at Epic Systems until April 2020, when the pandemic caused her to re-evaluate.

“I was so, so nervous,” she said. “But I was just so sad working corporate.”

Merkel ultimately decided to quit her job and follow her dreams. Little did she know that across town, another young woman, Shelby Olstad, was in a similar situation. Olstad’s Instagram page, a cookie, brownie, and cake-making business called Miggy’s Bakes, was taking off.

“I was working until 4:30 p.m., would come home, and bake until midnight,” she explained.

After connecting with Merkel online, Olstad took her advice and quit her corporate job in April 2021. Now, Olstad has three employees, two local business partnerships with Marigold Kitchen and Babcock, and just one complaint.

“I physically can’t do more than I’m doing right now,” she said. “So I have to grow slowly.”

Both local entrepreneurs lean on each other, as well as a network of other Madison-area small business owners for support.

“Shelby’s success directly impacts my success,” Merkel said. “We have the same crossover and market. We don’t see each other as competition.”

Merkel and Olstad acknowledge they faced less risk leaving their jobs than some others, since they are young enough to stay on their parents’ health insurance plans. Regardless, they say they are happier than ever before and would encourage anyone weighing a similar decision to follow their dreams.

“There’s still stress, but it’s passion stress,” Merkel concluded. “And I can deal with that.”