Growing up, Adair Mueller, ’11, had a strong identity. She would frequently find herself at the front of the line without trying – she just seemed to have a natural instinct for leadership.
That changed in middle and high school. The influence of social media was growing – she felt challenged socially and somehow lost that strong sense of self.
But at Meredith, she found herself remembering her earlier identity.
“When I walked on Meredith’s campus, I remembered ‘this is who I am and these are all the incredible things I can do and be.’”
Mueller thrived in the intimate classroom atmosphere and loved the individual attention from professors. She found the high expectations for learning among her faculty and classmates exciting and productive.
“At Meredith, I felt people respected the sanctity of the classroom. That’s how I was brought up, and the students at Meredith were on board with those values.”
Mueller also appreciated learning in a women’s college setting, located in a thriving capital city. And she loved participating in traditions like crook hunt; she remembers thinking that women had done them for years and years before her, and felt a sense of connection to her predecessors.
For Mueller, that women’s college experience has paid off.
“As a woman in the business world, I have experienced a lot of sexism,” said Mueller. “Meredith gave me the voice of empowerment and the foundational sense that women can do anything.”
Her newest and most formidable project to date, launching Durham Food Hall, is putting all of that experience and chutzpah to good use.
Building an entrepreneurial foundation
It is not surprising that Mueller’s career path has taken an entrepreneurial turn. Her parents and grandfather were entrepreneurs, and while at Meredith she researched the topic, exploring whether big businesses or entrepreneurs fare better in times of recession.
She found that small businesses do better because they are more nimble.
“It was a great learning experience. I interviewed a range of entrepreneurs, from a woman who sold scented oils at a kiosk in the mall to a woman who sold gourmet teas that she shipped out of her home,” said Mueller. “It was so valuable to see different revenue models and how people make their businesses work.”
While still at Meredith, Mueller was also invited to help launch a product after it won a national new product idea competition. She conducted research and development to assess viability and market entry, investigated sales and marketing channels, and led creation of the name, brand strategy, and logo.
Mueller said her degree in business administration developed important skills she uses daily, from business accounting classes where she learned to develop Excel sheets she uses when approaching investors for funding, to understanding how to negotiate contracts. Her ceramics professor pushed her creative boundaries, and introduced her to another set of entrepreneurs.
“He took us to Seagrove, where we learned about and met artists whose families had been running their businesses for generations.”
Finally, Mueller’s passion for sustainability was nurtured at Meredith, where she served as president of Angels for the Environment and lobbied on Capitol Hill while attending a national summit on climate change. Those experiences have guided the development of Durham Food Hall, where vendors will be composting on site and local designers and builders are using reclaimed materials in building the space.
Developing a vision
After graduating from Meredith, Mueller spent a number of years climbing the corporate ladder, working for a startup that was purchased by Citrix, and then moving to Manhattan where she worked for LinkedIn. Those were heady years for Mueller, who was interacting with C-level executives at highly successful companies. She found the energy of the city inspiring.
“Everyone is hustling, from the hot dog guy on the street to executives. You start to push yourself,” said Mueller. “I am so thankful that I was in New York when I was early in my career and could take advantage of all those opportunities.”
While working for LinkedIn, she met Vember Conner, a colleague, and now close friend. They were part of a group who met monthly to discuss the challenges and benefits of being women in business who were focused on creating dynamic career paths.
“Adair was a top performer at LinkedIn in her sales role, and was a powerful addition to the LinkedIn for Good team,” said Conner. “She is never one to stop at what is expected of her and always goes the distance to create positive impact in any community she is a part of.”
Conner, who now works for Pendo.io, is a fellow entrepreneur. Conner is not surprised by Mueller’s success.
“Adair is one of those people; she can do anything she puts her mind to. She has such a pleasant demeanor, but don’t be fooled; she is a seasoned and determined business professional who has always gotten it done,” said Conner.
It was in New York that the seed for the Durham Food Hall was planted. Mueller noticed that she and her friends would travel 40 blocks to get to a food hall. She was drawn to their chef-driven meals at an affordable price and the unique atmosphere that provided a natural gathering place.
As much as she was thriving, she knew she didn’t want to be in New York City forever. She missed the natural beauty where she had grown up and at times found it difficult to be surrounded by so many people.
Taking the leap
Finding a quiet place where she was able to reflect and dream became essential as her plans to open the Food Hall took shape. Her favorite such spot, the Minerva Café, became the namesake for the company she formed when she returned to Durham.
When Mueller decided to take the plunge, she spent months doing in-depth research. She traveled through Europe and Canada, exploring food halls that are abundant there and taking notes.
She was equally thoughtful in choosing the location for her business. “I didn’t want to come back to Durham just because it seemed easy.”
Instead, she relied on pure data, developing endless spreadsheets to help identify the right spot. Out of 30 possible locations, she narrowed it down to three: Nashville, Austin, and Durham. All had a strong food culture and similar arts scenes that would welcome such a venture.
In the end, she said, something just kept pulling her back to Durham. Now that she’s here she is happy to be home, and recognizes the advantages of having an existing network of support. And, she notes, it all worked out for the best, because since then food halls have opened in both Nashville and Austin. In Durham, hers will be the first.
The dream comes to life
Although the Durham Food Hall naturally centers around food, the space itself is just as important to Mueller’s concept. She thinks part of the reason food halls are having a moment is in reaction to the ever-present distractions of technology.
“Gathering used to happen more naturally, but now everyone is on their phones. I think that’s why my generation is craving direct social interaction.”
Mueller feels fortunate to have found two ideal partners with whom to launch the Food Hall. Kristin Bedinger, hall director, has extensive experience opening restaurants, most recently at The Durham Hotel. Brad Farran, beverage director, worked extensively in New York and has published cocktail recipes in magazines and books. Mueller said this is a unique opportunity for Farran.
“Usually in a bar you’re focused only on the spirit, or in a restaurant with a single food genre. He’s excited to play off the genres of 10 different vendors.”
Mueller said their shared values of sustainability are shaping the project in significant ways, from the curation of their vendors to the locally-built furniture. Choosing the vendors was a project in itself, and she drew on her background in sales to encourage sought-after chefs to come on board.
The Hall, which offers two bars and event space as well as food, will house a variety of spaces for gathering, from a large Z-shaped table by Bull City Designs that seats 30 people, to smaller, more intimate nooks.
“Many restaurants need the turnover, but
we can allow our customers to stay for a while,” said Mueller. “It will be fun to see how the different types of spaces are used by our community.”
Since returning to the Triangle area, Mueller has intentionally reconnected with her alma mater. She has focused on the Office of Career Planning (OCP) because of its impact on her own experience, especially Dana Sumner, director of OCP.
“When you’re finding a career path after college sometimes it feels like you’re picking a path forever,” said Mueller. “At this time when you could be so frantic, she was a voice of reason for me. I still help people with their resumes using what she showed me.”
Mueller is one of five founding members of the Alumnae Advisory Council on Career Readiness. They have focused on internships, working to make them fruitful for both students and employers. She has also participated in mock interviews with students.
Reflecting on her path, she said she thinks the key is to be sure you’re paying attention to what resonates with you, because it will change over time.
“There’s no one right way to be fulfilled and successful. I had incredible experiences in big companies before leaving to start my own,” said Mueller. “Listen to your heart – whatever your path, you have to find your own way.”