Laid-off Workers Fight Back with Ice Cream, Jellyfish and Hot Dogs

Everybody knows it’s a bad time to be a human being who needs money to buy things. And anyone who’s been unemployed for more than a few weeks knows that the desire to be productive and creative peaks at about one month and then plummets, resulting in entire seasons of Buffy being watched and astronomical numbers of Wikipedia entries being read (ok, maybe this was just my experience).

But there are people out there who refuse to give up. People who refuse to click on and read one more ad for a “legal ass.,” who shout “I’m doing me!” and capitalize on whatever their gifts are. So, without further ado, here are a few of those inspiring people:

1. Coolhaus Ice Cream/Natasha Case and Freya Estreller

Imagine this: ice cream sandwiches that aren’t freezer burnt and come in dozens of customizable flavors, like sea salt caramel ice cream between chocolate cookies, bananas foster between ginger molasses, etc. And just in case that’s not exciting enough for you, Case and Estreller are both major architecture nerds (hence the punny “Coolhaus”) who name cookie combos after famous architects, i.e., “the Frank Behry,” a strawberry ice cream and sugar cookies confection named after Frank Gehry. They began their business in 2008, and by all appearances seem to be doing very well–they have seven employees, Dwell magazine and the New York Times both did features about them, and they’ve expanded from L.A. to Austin.

2. Jellyfish Art/Alex Andon

I don’t think I’ll ever read a more inspiring sentence than this: “”¦frustrated with the [job] hunt, he turned to jellyfish.” In these trying times, where else can a young, laid-off biotech worker turn? Andon, who studied biology at Yale, got tired of job searching and turned his apartment into a jellyfish aquarium-building headquarters. The upside: he sold one large tank to a restaurant for $25,000. The downside: “I keep getting stung.” The New York Times profiled Andon in March, 2009, before his website went live, but it appears he is still in the jellyfish business today. From perusing his site, I gather he ships the fish with the aquariums, as he includes an “Arrive Alive” shipping pledge.

3. Domo Dogs/Buddy and Grae Lewis

This story is in a more somber vein than the two above. Buddy (60 years old) and Grae (52) were once employed as an animator and an Intel designer, respectively. It’s difficult to conceive that these people, in the two years since their jobs were outsourced, went from being comfortably middle-class to effectively homeless. As of Wednesday, when the Huffington Post published a feature about them, they were living with a friend in Portland and trying to complete repairs on their trailer so they can move into it before their friend’s home is foreclosed on.

They are making ends meet by selling Buddy’s Japanese-fusion “Domo Dogs,” which come topped with things like daikon sprouts, teriyaki onions, ponzu mayo and seaweed flakes (sounds seriously delicious, no?). Since they can’t afford the monthly fee to rent a sheltered “food pod,” they sell out of a simple, wheeled cart. Thanks to the Pacific Northwest’s perpetually inclement weather, they struggled upon opening in May, but have since gained a following, and set a record for profits by clearing $3,000 this October (no word on whether that sum is net or gross). That’s good news, but they still have the upcoming winter to truck through, not to mention significant health problems they have no way of addressing in the known future.

Reading Buddy and Grae’s story made me pretty emotional. And I have tear ducts of steel and a heart of ice, you guys. If you live in Portland, go eat a Domo Dog! (And hating seaweed, et. al., is no excuse, because they also sell traditional American dogs). Keep your fingers crossed that the HuffPo piece will net them some good publicity, and that they get back on their feet soon.

I don’t feel like there’s any way I can meaningfully elaborate on the Lewis’s story, so I’ll end with a quote from Buddy: “[Grae]’s a super-trooper. She’s the one who keeps me on my feet and going.  She’s never-say-die.  And all I can offer her is a room in somebody else’s home and a limpy little hot dog trailer that we have to keep fixing every time we have a couple of dollars to spare… That’s why she’s my hero.”

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