The sign hanging from the front door inside the 800-square-foot artisanal pasta shop on Lincoln Avenue in Pasadena was clear about the reason why it was uncharacteristically closed for the day — especially on a weekday during the holiday shopping season.
“CLOSED MONDAY 12/10 FOR MY KIDS' HOLIDAY PERFORMANCES. —LEAH”
Leah Ferrazzani, owner and sole proprietor of Semolina Artisanal Pasta, which crafts varieties of certified organic dried pasta, decided to forgo a day of production and sales in order to see her two young children perform in their school holiday plays.
“It was really stressful to do that [close Semolina for the day] but the converse side is that I would've regretted it if I didn't see them in their performances because I don't get that back,” Ferrazzani says.
Ferrazzani runs Semolina on her own terms and exemplifies how to maintain a healthy work-life balance as a small-business owner.
Semolina derives its name from the business's core ingredient, organic U.S.-grown durum semolina wheat — high in protein with weak gluten development and a dense but not elastic structure.
Semolina Artisanal Pasta produces more than 750 pounds of dried organic pasta a week, using bronze metal dies as opposed to Teflon dies. As the pasta is extruded through bronze metal dies, it experiences drag and friction, which according to Ferrazzani “creates a rough texture on the surface of the pasta and makes the pasta more porous, which allows the sauce to stick to it.” Semolina's pasta takes 16 to 20 hours to dry, as opposed to heat-blasted, mass-processed dried pasta such as that found in grocery stores.
Ferrazzani started the artisanal pasta company in 2014 out of her Mount Washington home kitchen.
“I always wanted to be a community pasta maker. I wanted to feed L.A. first and foremost,” she says.
“I had no idea how challenging it would be when I started,” says Ferrazzani, who had no guiding resources at her disposal. The small-batch pasta-making community didn't exactly communicate very well, she adds.
Producing optimal conditions for drying pasta inside her laundry room led Ferrazzani to channel her inner MacGyver.
Box fans circulated the humidity-laden air, which required the ceiling, floor and walls to be tiled. She employed an assortment of consumer electronics ranging from a Vicks vaporizer to a space heater and an egg incubator hydrostat to transform her laundry room into a full-fledged pasta dry room.
Ferrazzani also was equipped with invaluable cultural experience she had gained from traveling to Gragnano, Italy, earlier in 2014. Gragnano, a small town nestled on a hill between the Gulf of Naples and the Amalfi coast, is known as the epicenter for the traditional practice of making dry pasta.
Her business began to boom in 2015, and Semolina needed more space for production to keep up with demand. Ferrazzani moved into L.A. Prep, a warehouse in Lincoln Heights with co-working spaces designed for culinary entrepreneurs and small-batch producers.
Once the budding pastaio — Italian for pasta maker — had her own space, with L.A. Prep's guidance she was able to obtain her full commercial license from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
“Had I not been at L.A. Prep,” Ferrazzani says, “I wouldn't have been able to grow the business up to the point where I felt comfortable to move” to her Pasadena shop.
Before opening Semolina in Pasadena in November 2017, Ferrazzani came to the proverbial moment of truth as a small-business owner. Her increasing rent at L.A. Prep was eating away at her working capital.
“I had grown and doubled the size of the business, but the bar for where I needed to be to break even had completely moved because of the cost of growing the business,” Ferrazzani says.
“I had seen all of my capital nearly depleted,” she adds. “I was faced with the challenge of either taking on an investment and slashing costs or go out of business.”
This “trough of sorrow” stage (as it is commonly referred to in entrepreneurial circles) was equally complicated for a more personal reason.
Ferrazzani was concerned that her work-life balance would be compromised and heavily influenced by an outside investor seeking greater scale and output from her artisanal dried pasta business.
“I spent a lot of time crying and a lot of time struggling,” she says. “I also spent a lot of time watching Gabrielle Hamilton (a James Beard Award winner) on The Mind of a Chef, which was critical for me because she runs Prune [a highly regarded restaurant in New York City's East Village] and is instrumentally involved in the restaurant's day-to-day business operations and pours her heart and soul into everything.”
She found Hamilton's business acumen inspiring and a vehicle to rein in and balance her ambition and work-life balance.
“Being reminded that there's a version out there of a business that is big enough and not a national brand,” Ferrazzani says, “allowed me to figure out how I would be able to pay all the bills of the business and have something to take home at the end of the day.”
Since Semolina opened its Pasadena shop in May 2018, Ferrazzani has been able to expand the footprint of her business inside and outside of the Golden State.
Eataly L.A., Milkfarm in Eagle Rock and about 20 Whole Foods locations in Southern California — in addition to notable local restaurants including Church and State, Love + Salt and Lincoln — carry and serve a range of Semolina dried pasta.
“I love feeding people,” Ferrazzani says. “There's nothing that makes me happier than knowing that somebody is taking a bag of my pasta home and making a meal for their family that's going to be incredibly satisfying, that's made with simple ingredients, and that's really good.”