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Small business spotlight: Justin Harrison ’96

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Posted on Thursday, April 27, 2023

Justin Harrison ’96, entrepreneur and owner of Just In Thyme Catering & Events in Gibsonia, Pa., used lessons learned from his time at Westminster throughout his life, including persisting through the storm of the pandemic to sustain his food business. In the Q&A below, learn more about his life following his time at Westminster, his leaps of faith, and the experiences gained along the way.

Please share a bit about your time after graduating from Westminster.

After graduating from Westminster, I spent some time pursuing a teaching degree from LaRoche College. I went on to become a professional photographer for five years, working for a studio in Pittsburgh for three years, and then opening my own business for two years. In the early 2000s, I came across an advertisement on a bulletin board in the Hoyt Science Center for a non-profit organization that did development work in Africa. The program I was looking into was a 20-month volunteer program that included six months training in the U.S., 12 months in Botswana and two months in Moscow, Russia, working with a program combatting the AIDS epidemic. Ultimately, I was asked to join the staff of the Institute, and I traveled to colleges throughout the US recruiting volunteers. In 2006, I was granted the opportunity to be part of a leadership team to oversee an AIDS education program in Northern Namibia where we oversaw the education of 400,000 citizens of Namibia. In the summer of 2007, I met Christine who three years later would become my wife. In 2008, I met John Vallese, who at the time became our caterer for our wedding, and is now my business partner at Just In Thyme Catering & Events. I spent seven years working for First Commonwealth bank as the manager of the Gibsonia office. May 4, 2018 was my last day in banking, and Just In Thyme Catering began the very next day.

What was your greatest life lesson from your time at Westminster?

I think my greatest life lesson from Westminster was learning persistence and hard work pay off. My degree program was challenging, and my professors challenged me and my fellow students on a regular basis. While their expectations were high for all of us, their dedication to the classroom, the labs and the students was unmatched. My professors genuinely seemed to care about me both while I was a student at Westminster as well as for several years after I graduated.

Do you have a class or a person who impacted you the most?

Dr. Fawley's anatomy and physiology class stands out as one of my most challenging classes. Dr. Fawley pushed me and demanded more from me and the other students than I thought I could give. His tenacity to strive for something better both in and out of his class has always stuck with me. The amazing bonds I had with Dr. Clarence Harms, Dr. Patrick McCarthy and Dr. Monica Becker were absolutely incredible. Even after I graduated and changed direction with what I was pursuing, I could always come back to these professors for advice and encouragement. I think that is rare in higher education and is part of what makes Westminster such a special institution of learning.

What was your first step in realizing that you wanted to become an entrepreneur, particularly in your industry?

The banking world was changing a lot during the several years that I was part of it. Like many "corporate" environments, the goals continued to increase while the resources continually decreased and I wasn't happy. I wanted more. I wanted to be able to be part of people's lives and make a difference for them. I have always had a passion for food since I was young. I grew up cooking with my mother and my grandmother. I realized that I could do more than just want more, I could create more. Together with John Vallese and the blessing and support of my wife and kids, we set out to do just that.

What’s been the greatest and most challenging aspects of owning your own business?

We opened our commercial kitchen and first event room the Monday before Thanksgiving of 2018, a year and four months before COVID hit. Of course, this was something we could not and did not see coming. In early 2020, we were really starting to grow and develop a following and create a successful business. On March 13, when the state closed all restaurants and event spaces, we were forced to shut down all of our onsite and offsite events. We lost April, May and June of that year. At the time of the shutdown, we had 53 events on our schedule for those three months. The two years that followed were incredibly challenging as we faced COVID restrictions, lack of supplies and resources, and a changing workforce and economy. Despite all of those challenges, we discovered ways to recreate ourselves and continue to persevere. This year has been hard and almost equivalent to starting over, but we are continuing to grow and survive.

Who and what has been your greatest inspiration?

My father had his own business that he started when I was a senior in high school. I watched the sacrifices that he and my mother made and went through during the early years of the business so that my brothers and I were provided for. I have always admired my father's commitment to getting things done for his clients even when it was a totally new direction for his company and its employees. He knew how to trust the people who worked for him and thus be able to trust the results for his clients. John and I are blessed to have the staff that we have working with us. They truly allow us to shine in our industry.

Our company name, Just In Thyme Catering and Events, can be attributed to my paternal grandmother. She was always the consummate hostess. You could arrive at her home early in the morning or late at night and often be greeted by, "you're just in time..." Whether it was offering a piece of toast, or a cup a coffee or a chocolate chip cookie, you were always just in time for her to serve you. Her love of food and willingness to provide for others made naming the company quite easy.

Lastly, and certainly not least, I admire the support and understanding my wife has shown throughout this journey. I could not have made it this far without her love and support. Anyone who is thinking of making the leap into the entrepreneurial world must do so with the knowledge that this is going to be hard on you and your family. I am blessed to have an amazing wife and two great daughters who help support the dreams and realities of owning my own business.

What’s been your greatest accomplishment?

To date, I would say I am most proud of us making it through the trials of the global pandemic. We are still recovering, but I feel we are headed on the right direction. I am also incredibly proud of the team of workers and vendors who have supported us along this journey. Lastly, I am proud of the business we are creating and the service we provide our clients. Our motto is "savor the moment," and we are blessed to be able to savor life's moments with our clients.

Why should other Titans reflect on their passions and take steps to follow them?

My degree path at Westminster was Molecular Biology and Chemistry. While I do not use that knowledge on a daily basis, I do utilize the tenacity and drive that Westminster helped create in me. I learned from my years at Westminster that I was capable of things far greater than I could imagine, and it is that foundation that will help any fellow Titan be able to follow their dreams and passion. It just takes the faith to step out and try.

To learn more about how you can support Titan-owned businesses, visit our Alumni Owned Businesses Page.