By Andrew Wigdor, Studio M staff //
While many millennials choose to pursue higher education directly after making their way through middle and high school, some, such as Ellen Woods, the owner of Ellie Michellie’s Eatery and Catering in Morristown, Tennessee, prefer to take a different path; a path filled with hard work, goal-oriented passion and a healthy dose of her famous grilled chicken.
“When I decided to do this, I was coming into my senior year (of high school),” Woods said. “And that’s when everyone is like, ‘What are you doing with your life? What do you want to major in?’ And, I was just like, ‘I don’t know.’ At that moment in time, I knew I did not want to pursue college. … I didn’t want to go to college, spend all this money and have no clear vision of what I wanted to do.”
Woods said she then looked into options outside of the “traditional path.”
Eighty-one percent of students who attended high school in 2013 graduated, which was an increase that put America on-track to meet a goal of a 90-percent graduation rate by 2020, according to a research consortium at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Members of the consortium include the Alliance for Excellent Education, America’s Promise Alliance, Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center.
While it is apparent that many students see the worth of a high school diploma, a large number, such as Woods, choose to avoid higher education immediately after they leave high school. According to data collected by the U.S Census Bureau, the percentage of high school graduates who enrolled in college directly after graduating from high school dropped from 69 percent in 2008 to 66 percent in 2013.
Woods was home-schooled by her parents for the entirety of her high school career and developed an interest in cooking at an early age.
“I wanted to start a restaurant,” Woods said. “I’ve worked with food. I’ve worked in the food industry, and I thought it’d be fun to cook. I wanted to be my own boss and give this a shot. And, luckily, with really supportive parents, they were like, ‘Cool. How do you want to do this?’”
Woods said she spent the entire summer before her senior year of high school and the fall semester of that year getting the restaurant ready to be opened.
“I took part of my college savings and bought the business with my own money,” Woods said. “And my mom was like, ‘I’ll help you run it’ … All we knew how to do was turn on the lights, and it just kind of grew from there.”
Woods said that her mother was known as “The Greeter” in the eatery due to her love of conversing with the customers.
“She would go around and talk to people and make sure everyone was having a fun time,” Woods said.
Woods took ownership of the restaurant on her 18th birthday in November 2013 and opened Ellie Michellie’s Eatery at the beginning of 2014. Woods said customers from Morristown and across the country ventured to the restaurant quickly.
“Everybody wants to see young people succeed,” Woods said. “There’s a few grouchy old people, but, generally, in life, you’ll find that if they see a young person trying to better themselves or trying to have a career, they’re gonna help. So, a lot of people said, ‘Oh, you’re young. We’re gonna check you out.’”
Despite Wood’s apprehension for college education, she is now enrolled in courses at Motlow State Community College in Smyrna with a major in business management. Woods began classes in August 2017, and, due to this change, has transformed the eatery into more of a catering business than a restaurant.
“I started thinking about going to school the first of this year,” Woods said. “I love (the restaurant). I knew it was something I wanted to do, but I thought that if I did decide to relocate somewhere, what would my resume look like. … I know that a lot of people look at your college education, and I didn’t have that. … I thought, ‘If I do go somewhere else, I want the education to back up the experience.’”
According to Woods, one of the challenges of returning to school after her three-year absence included feeling old.
“One of the first classes I went to at the end of August, I walked in and a kid that I had taught in Sunday school was in there,” Woods said.
Wood’s said that the transition into a catering business has been smooth due to the eatery having some previous catering clients. That aspect of the restaurant had become much more popular in recent months, according to Woods.
“I was like, ‘Maybe if I advertise it more towards catering, it will open up more time to go to school,’” Woods said.
Despite the modern push for every young mind to enter the world of higher education, Woods believes that a dream or path outside of college is just as worthy as pursing a degree.
“I think the idea of, ‘You’re never gonna get a good job unless you go to college’ is ridiculous,” Woods said. “If you’re driven and you have an idea and you have goals, you’ll be successful no matter what you pursue. If you know that you want to do something, then do it. There’s not many restaurant owners of 18. … You have to be willing to work.”
Andrew Wigdor is a junior majoring in journalism at Middle Tennessee State University.
Studio M, a project of the College of Media and Entertainment at MTSU, allows student journalists to be published statewide and nationwide. It’s made possible through grants and donations from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Tennessean and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.
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