Chucking law for chocolate? Sweet move

Dream Job, A monthly feature on people who change courses to pursue the career they really want.

Meet Mary Jones, criminal defense attorney turned coffeehouse and fudge-factory owner.

Talk about a career change.

Seven months ago, she hung up her blue suit and said goodbye to the courtroom drama to bake muffins and scones, wait on customers, and learn how to make the perfect latt.

She's still waiting to write herself her first paycheck, but she loves being her own boss and meeting new people. (All that fudge isn't bad either.)

"It's challenging, it's fun, it's positive. And even though I'm here all the time, it offers freedom because I'm in charge," says Ms. Jones, who, with her fianc, opened Kelly's Coffee and Fudge Factory in downtown Ventura, Calif., late last year.

She's hardly exaggerating when she calls her career switch "humongous."

Jones, now in her thirties, jumped onto the law track back in college. After graduating she worked for a solo practitioner for a year doing personal-injury law. Then she took a job in the public defender's office as a defense attorney.

The hours were long, the work was intense. And after almost five years in the courtroom, she began to grow disenchanted with the legal system.

"I lost faith in the system," Jones concedes. "I saw where it didn't help people. It was more, 'Let's herd people through and do the best we can, which isn't a lot, and move on to the next case.'

"I didn't know if I could do this for the rest of my life, and I didn't want to end up feeling stuck," Jones says.

She worked with a career counselor for almost six weeks. It became quickly evident, she says, that she was "in all the wrong atmosphere."

She loved being with people and has strong communication and marketing skills - but she also likes to work hard.

During this time she and her fianc checked out an entrepreneurs' expo.

"I'd go up one aisle and he'd go up the other aisle collecting information for me," she recalls.

Kelly's, a franchise based in Beverly Hills, had a booth at the expo. After grabbing some literature, the couple investigated and liked what the company offered. Better yet, Kelly's had just secured a lease for a franchise in their home town of Ventura - and was looking for an owner. It was the perfect fit.

Jones and her fianc put up $225,000 to secure the franchise and build the coffeehouse - some of it came from their savings, most from small-business loans.

Jones was anxious to make the break from law, but it was going to be a while before they could build, since the lot had to be cleared. So she continued to work at the PD's office, working on the side at getting the business up and running and designing the building.

"I was desperately looking for a career change. I wanted to do something different," she says. "But I knew I had to be patient and wait until the timing was right."

It wasn't until they were ready to start building that she approached her supervisor and asked for a year off. By now, almost two years had passed since she originally started contemplating a career change. Her leave was approved and she hit the ground running. She opened the day before Christmas of last year.

"You have to have the attitude when you go into business that you'll do whatever it takes - even if that means getting up at 3:30 in the morning because a baker didn't show up," she says.

Not only does she make fudge, Jones occasionally waits on customers, and even cleans the bathroom. "In the beginning, I was a nut. I was here all the time, and I'd pull 26-hour shifts on occasion," she confesses. Now she's slowed down a bit - taking Wednesdays off.

Kelly's is open seven days a week and has a staff of more than 20. Still, money has been tight. To get by, she recently went back to the public defender's office 20 hours a week. In the fall, when her leave expires, she'll have to decide whether she can make it without that paycheck.

"I'm getting to the point where I may be able to pay myself a little bit of money. Everybody has told me I can already consider [the business] successful," she says, because she's been able to cover most of the overhead costs with the money the business brings in.

"I'll consider it successful," she quips, "when it pays me."

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