From an early age, Olivia Colt showed signs of a fighter’s mentality.
Whether it was explaining that her Dominican culture was as legitimate as the dominant Mexican culture in her hometown of San Diego, or filling out an application to get into a Catholic high school so she could be the first in her family to graduate college, Colt was not going to take no for an answer.
It’s not surprising — the matriarchs in her family are all driven people. After her grandmother immigrated to New York in the 1960s, she didn’t rest until almost all of her family members were here.
“They really wanted us to have the American dream,” said Colt. “When my mom was divorcing my dad, she figured out how to buy a house on her own. She grew up adjacent to the projects in the Bronx, and wanted her kids to have a better life than she had. [She and my grandmother] instilled in me a drive and work ethic like no other, where failure is not an option. Any success, you celebrate it.”
It’s that mentality that has allowed Colt, 33, to operate Salt & Honey, a thriving catering business in Berkeley, despite the fact that she has a life-threatening illness, one that requires her to receive all-day treatments at the UC San Francisco hospital twice a month and often requires her to be at home for days afterward.
Ever since she can remember, Colt loved being in the kitchen. When she was 8 or 9, she was inspired by a Martha Stewart cooking show to make aioli, even though she had no idea what it was.
While her further experimentation sometimes yielded some pretty awful results, Colt realized early on cooking for her family was her favorite way of expressing her feelings. “Food is love and so intimate,” she said. “You get the opportunity to nourish someone and touch them, in a way. It’s a privilege to be able to cook for someone. That’s how I won everyone over.”
Nevertheless, Colt didn’t consider cooking a profession — at first. After graduating from the University of San Francisco, she entered the non-profit world, working on behalf of the homeless and homeless veterans, and later the Red Cross, while continuing to cook and bake as a hobby. At the time, she wanted to become a foreign diplomat.
However, one day at work, she met the man who would become her life partner. They decided that one of them should leave the job so as not to work together, and Colt decided to experiment with cooking. She began catering parties, but still wasn’t sure whether she was ready to abandon her dreams just yet.
And then she had her first stroke. “When God shuts the door,” she said, “he opens a window.”
Falling into a fog
Colt has a huge personality, and most of the time she is quick to laugh and joke. But when she describes the day her life changed, she tears up.
On Dec. 27, 2010, she was on the escalator at the San Francisco Airport, headed down to baggage claim, when she experienced confusion and blind spots. She was alone, except for the dog her brother had just given her as a Christmas present. Colt managed to take a shuttle home, but when she got to the block where she had lived for years, everything looked different. She felt as if she was in a foggy, dreamlike state.
Not wanting to call in sick right after vacation, Colt went to work the next day, where she and a colleague began trying to diagnose her symptoms on WebMD. Later, she went to a doctor’s office, where an ophthalmologist confirmed she had had a stroke and sent her to the hospital. While she was there, she had a second one.
“I was presenting with a stroke,” she said. “I had been having migraines a month prior to all this happening.” Yet her test results came out inconclusive.
Her family all rallied around her. In a rare visit with her father, Colt told him that if she could cook every day for the rest of her life, she would.
“The next day, my dad came back to hospital and had incorporated my company, [Salt & Honey], telling me, ‘I have all the confidence in the world in you,’” she said.
(The company’s moniker, by the way, comes from a caramel venture she and a friend started. The candy business was short-lived, but the name stuck.)
When she left the hospital, her doctors told her the strokes were an anomaly.
Growth, and then another setback
With vacation, paid recovery time off, and her parents around to help, Colt started holding dinner parties in her apartment. Her father worked the front of the house and her mother was her sous chef. These parties led to her first two clients, both tech companies, for whom she catered staff meals.
Slowly, Colt started growing her business, learning everything by doing.
“I had $2,000 in my savings account that I started my business with, and I’ve been bootstrapping it the entire time,” she said. “Part of that has been great, all the experiences are new and you’re learning and growing and seeing how far you can stretch yourself.”
Over the course of two years, her company grew, and Colt was able to hire her first few employees and rent commercial kitchen space. (Salt & Honey now operates out of its own kitchen on Fifth Street in West Berkeley.) But in Sept of 2012, she had a third stroke, and this time, her whole left side was temporarily paralyzed.
For a week, Colt remained in the hospital, where her case remained a medical mystery. “All the interns and residents were on it.” she said. “My symptoms didn’t add up.”
While she doesn’t remember the name of the resident who figured it out, she is thankful that the doctor had just attended a lecture by Dr. Bradley Lewis, director of the hematology department at San Francisco General Hospital and an expert in a disease so rare that only one in a million people get it. Called Paroxysmal Nocturnal Hemoglobinuria, or PNH, it’s blood disease closely related to aplastic anemia.
Colt prefers a shorter name. On the advice of her therapist, she refers to the disease as “Steve” whenever she needs to vent about how much it has impacted her life.
While a diagnosis of PNH used to be a death sentence, those who have it can now have a normal life expectancy by taking a drug called Soliris (or eculizumab), which is given intravenously every other week. This was good news for Colt.
The medicine puts a protein back into her system that helps fortify her blood cells. “Without the medication, I would have another stroke,” said Colt. “The fact that I’ve had 3 at 33, I won’t walk out of the next one.”
But Solaris comes with a hefty price tag. In 2010, it was named the most expensive drug in the world, with estimated costs over $400,000 per year. For a woman with no health insurance, the figures she saw on her medical bills were staggering.
“I didn’t have insurance because I had already had pre-existing conditions and my COBRA had run out,” she said. “If the stroke didn’t kill me, the bills will.”
With the help of a nurse, she learned that her only way to get access to the drug was to get on Medi-Cal. To do so, she would need to liquidate her small 401K and stop taking a salary. President Barack Obama’s health care law, she said, also helped save her life, as it made it impossible for insurance companies to reject coverage based on preexisting conditions.
Because her illness did not leave her with a disability, she would also have to prove she was worthy of getting the only medication that would save her life. “I wouldn’t recommend this experience to anyone,” said Colt. “You’re sick on top of all [these financial issues], and there’s no compassion for that. The system is cruel and doesn’t set you up for success. It shouldn’t be such a struggle and you shouldn’t have to justify being a sick person.”
The one place Colt doesn’t have to justify being sick is at work.
A ‘saving grace’
Colt’s medical regimen requires her not only to be at UCSF for around eight hours, but also to take six or seven pre-medication steroids so she doesn’t have too many negative side effects from the drug, which is administered through a port in her chest like chemotherapy drugs. Sometimes she needs a day or more to recover from the treatment itself.
She admits she’s gone through all the stages of grief about losing her former healthy self, including some extreme lows. “The business became my saving grace,” Colt said. “It allowed me to focus on something that didn’t make me feel weak or sick or less-than, and allowed me to put positive energy … something that made me feel good about myself. [My business] gave me purpose.”
The non-profit Opportunity Fund, which gives loans to small business owners generally considered too risky to take chances on, was also a great help. And Colt has managed to surround herself with employees who are incredibly loyal and understanding. While she comes to work as much as she can, she pretty much leaves all of the cooking to her 20 employees.
Leo Giron, who is Mexican-born but classically trained in French and Italian cuisine, is her executive chef. “He’s so loyal, and loves what he does,” said Colt. “He’s also the most positive person I’ve ever met.”
Since Colt’s family now lives in Washington State, it’s important that her workplace feel like family.
Her sister-in-law is her office manager. “We also have two sisters who started as dishwashers and are now a sous chef and a kitchen manager,” she said. “Everyone has each other’s back. We also have this almost unhinged belief that we’re going to make it.”
Colt describes Salt & Honey’s food as “California rustic.” She makes use of as much local, seasonal and sustainable products as she can — and clients will pay for. Her team makes everything from scratch. While its client list includes tech giants like Facebook and Google, Salt & Honey also does weddings and smaller events.
“Part of what I want my clients feel to is that we’re an extension of their hospitality,” she said. “They’re part of our family and we’re part of theirs, and we’ll take care of all of the details. The best compliment I can get from anyone is them saying ‘I got to be a guest at my own party.’”
Given what she’s been up against, Colt’s optimism about her future is infectious, and when listening to her talk, one can’t help but feel that if catering doesn’t work out, she could easily become a motivational speaker.
“The financial system isn’t set up for folks like me, and before Obama, the medical system wasn’t set up for folks like me,” she said. “But I feel no reason to be super negative about anything. Life is about finding the work-around, saying, ‘This will be difficult, but how will we overcome it and what will we learn from it?’ There isn’t any reason for you not to believe in yourself and be grateful for your life experience. You get one shot at this — that’s it. You don’t get this to do this over, so I will live my life to the best of my ability. On my death bed, I will be so happy that I lived life authentic to me, and that allowed me to pursue my dreams and goals and be happy.”