If the broader definition of an entrepreneur includes “someone who knows what their passions are, and perfects them through their work and their way of life”, Ryan LaFoley could be a poster child.
Ryan grew up in an active family in Acton, Massachusetts and developed a love of skiing early on. Driven by his love for the sport, he trained hard and earned a spot on Holderness Academy’s alpine racing team. After graduation, he took a year off to devote himself full-time to skiing before enrolling at Denver University in Colorado to compete on their Division 1 team.
“and I feel very incredibly lucky to live in a place with such a strong sense of community”
That’s when Ryan was given a hard lesson in one of the cardinal rules of entrepreneurship: matching your passion with commitment and responsibility. He showed up for practice in December and was told the rest of the team had been training together since September…he had missed his chance to try out.
With the ski team out of the picture, Ryan quickly realized living in a city wasn’t for him - and turned his hard lesson into a great opportunity.
“I realized all I wanted to do was work on a ranch…to have that space to roam and some hard work to clear my head.”
Ryan called a childhood friend who had a spare room in his house in Bozeman, and made the move to Montana. Upon arriving in Bozeman, he enrolled in the business program at Montana State University and managed the irrigation at a ranch a few miles out of town between classes. He also got a job cooking at a local cafe. It was during this time that Ryan re-discovered another of his passions: making exquisite food for people. After earning his business degree from MSU, Ryan moved to Vermont to study at the New England Culinary Institute, and graduated at the top of his class. An internship studying the fine details of European culinary arts and unique food combinations in northern Italy followed:
“My time in Italy totally opened my eyes to the possibilities of how food can be an art form…how it brings people together.”
Ryan’s achievements in culinary school and the experience he gained in his internship could have earned him a spot running the kitchen in some of the most famous restaurants on the east or west coasts - but he didn’t want to completely sacrifice the outdoor adventures he loves or time with his family to the demands of cooking in a high-pressure, high-stress restaurant environment. So, he and his wife moved back to Bozeman, and Ryan put his business and culinary backgrounds to great use forging a career as a personal chef for an incredibly impressive client roster. These days Ryan provides his personal chef services for events ranging from huge parties to intimate dinners at Montana hot spots like the Yellowstone Club.
For a lot of entrepreneurs, a busy, fulfilling personal chef career might be enough to call it good. But, Ryan saw a wood-fired oven being transported on a trailer one day and was inspired to design his own improved model. He bought the oven components, and enlisted a friend to help him put together a custom build on a truck specialized by Dark Horse Customs in Bozeman.
Within months Ryan was selling wood-fired pizzas at farmers’ markets and booking private events around southwest Montana. He continuously re-invested any money he made back into the business, and expanded his new venture, LaFoley Wood Fired Ovens to four custom-built ovens on customized trucks or trailers. He also began selling the Italian-made Mugnaini oven components he uses in his own ovens to culinary enthusiasts across the state. To say the business model was successful would be an understatement; after two years in business his venture was completely debt-free.
Today Ryan employs five full-time team members between his private chef and wood-fired oven businesses, and is looking to add two more team members in the coming months. In the short off-season he has, he donates his cooking services and equipment to Bozeman community groups like Thrive and to the Bozeman public schools his three children attend.
For Ryan, the measure of his success isn’t how fast his businesses have grown or how much revenue they’re generating - it’s how much he loves his work, and how grateful he feels to be building these ventures in Montana:
“What I see around me every day is so inspiring. I get to work in places I honestly never could have imagined existed. And, the value of relationships here is awesome…my family is everything to me, and I feel very incredibly lucky to live in a place with such a strong sense of community.