Culinary entrepreneur weathers setbacks, keeps on cooking

Posted at 12:01 PM, Feb 28, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-28 12:03:16-05

CINCINNATI -- Catrina Mills is a picture of congeniality, calm and grace. You wouldn’t suspect that not long ago, she lost everything in a failed restaurant and, until recently, was homeless. She also is a cancer survivor.

Somehow, though, Mills soldiers on with a smile.

“I just get up every day and do what I need to do,” she said.

This Air Force veteran is a fireball of an entrepreneur: She has multiple food businesses ranging from meal prep to catering to selling spice blends. She’s also a sous chef instructor at Jungle Jim’s International Market in Fairfield and occasionally teaches at the Midwest Culinary Institute at Cincinnati State.

Mills has had her hands in the food business since she was a kid. Born and raised in Chicago, Mills lived an unconventional childhood: In the morning, she put on her uniform and attended Catholic school; at night, she headed for the club.

“My mom had a restaurant inside a nightclub,” she said, laughing. “I literally grew up in a nightclub.”

She started helping her mother run her restaurant when she was 7 years old. Mills said her father wasn’t around much and her mother was constantly hustling around food – running the restaurant and even catering.

“By the time I was 9, I could run that whole restaurant by myself,” she said. “She was busy working, and I was right there with her.” 

Taking a leap of faith

After high school, Mills joined the Air Force and soon was shipped off to the first Gulf War. She worked in the intelligence community. The Pentagon would have been Mills’ next career move, but she left the military to start a family.

“I got out before 9/11 happened,” she said. “So there was a little bit of divine intervention there.”

Mills landed in Cincinnati and got a job at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center. She has since also earned an associate’s degree in culinary arts at Cincinnati State and subsequently a bachelor’s degree in culinary arts and science at the University of Cincinnati.

In 2014, Mills took a leap of faith and left the VA to open her own restaurant. She used all of her savings to open Taste the World, a 35-seat restaurant in Colerain that offered traditional American fare alongside international specials.

“I never got to the point where I could hire staff,” Mills said. “I was doing it all by myself.”

She got a lot of business by word of mouth, Mills said, but ultimately startup costs sank her. The restaurant lasted a year.

“With that, I literally lost everything,” she said.

For about eight months afterward, Mills was homeless and slept on any couch that was offered. She continued to work, slowly clawing her way out of homelessness and into a trailer without heat; she couldn’t afford the heating costs.

“I’ve been trying to pay off the debt and get back on my feet,” she said.

Turning the corner 

Mills may have turned the corner in the new year. She brought healthy but tasty food samples to Boot Camp Cincinnati’s grand opening and immediately won new clients.

“That was Jan. 2 and I have not stopped since,” she said.

Mills prepares and delivers weekly meals to her health-conscious clients to help them achieve their goals.

“I meet with my clients and discuss their needs,” she said. “Some of my clients are into body-building and others are just looking to lose weight or maintain a healthy lifestyle.”

Mills also does event catering, specializing in food with an international flair. Her spice blend business is also taking off, with her no-sodium, all-purpose blend leading the pack.

“It’s got a lot of aromatics like garlic, onion, toasted shallot and lemongrass,” she said.

Her customer base is growing so fast, she’s seriously considering opening another restaurant.

“I’d do it differently, of course,” she said, referring to how she would structure it financially. 

The next stop for Mills is finding a better place to live. It has been an emotional struggle but she’s determined to get herself to a better station in life.

“I don’t know how I do it, but I get things done,” she said.

Editor's note: Catrina Mills was Grace Yek’s student at the University of Cincinnati from 2006-2008.

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Grace Yek writes about food for WCPO Digital. She is a certified chef-de-cuisine with the American Culinary Federation, and a former chemical engineer. Questions or comments? Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek.