When pandemic left pilot grounded, the food-truck life beckoned

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When Erin Popoff took a leave of absence as a WestJet pilot last spring, little did she know she’d be laid off indefinitely within a matter of weeks.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 03/07/2021 (413 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

When Erin Popoff took a leave of absence as a WestJet pilot last spring, little did she know she’d be laid off indefinitely within a matter of weeks.

Sure, the 39-year-old Winnipegger always wanted to spend more time with her family. But after working nearly two decades in the aviation industry, flying from city to city, the last thing she expected was to be grounded without any other career to fall back on.

Yet, such has been the case for her and thousands upon thousands of others since 2020. As the COVID-19 pandemic swiftly ravaged one business sector to the next, WestJet Airlines laid off more than half its entire staff.

Erin Popoff, with her children Kodiak, 5, Makeiff, 7, and Olive, 9, in Popoff’s new food truck trailer, Poacht. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

About a year ago, the Canadian company had more than 14,000 employees. Now, only 4,800 people remain on staff and almost 10,000 WestJet careers “remain in limbo,” the Air Line Pilots Association says. Just in April, another 415 pilots were let go indefinitely by the corporation.

So, after life gave her lemons, did Popoff make lemonade? Well, not exactly.

“You see, it did start off as an idea for a lemonade stand,” Popoff told the Free Press. “It was actually my nine-year-old daughter Olive’s idea, but I wasn’t sure a lemonade stand would work in our very quiet, suburban neighbourhood. I thought why not take it a step further — maybe selling food could be more fun?”

Popoff was a WestJet pilot before being laid off in 2020. (Supplied)

At first, Popoff’s partner Kevin Hiebert helped her with setting up a make-shift stand out of their garage, while she accessed emergency support programs.

Fairly quickly, the pet project turned into investing years of savings into a food truck and trailer, when she realized the government aid wasn’t going to last much longer.

“The response to the food was incredible from the get-go, even before we truly started,” said Popoff. “Though, finding a trailer at our price point was a struggle. And even once we got it in February, we had to spend so much money and time getting upgrades done to make it usable. Then came the inspections in June, and now we can finally launch.”

Popoff's invested years of savings into a food truck and trailer when she realized government aid wasn’t going to last much longer. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

Enter PoachT, a new eatery on wheels and catering business that sells delicious made-to-order creations, with the hero of most dishes, and also the business’s namesake, being perfectly poached eggs to top everything off.

The wide-ranging menu includes open sandwiches with items like barbecued chicken, prime rib, parmesan-basil pork sausage and even strawberry compote. Alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks are also up for grabs.

“Getting here wasn’t easy at all and the whole thing is still a work in progress,” said Popoff. After all, her three “kiddies” under the ages of 10, “require a village to take care of, because I can’t afford a caretaker or nanny type of thing anymore.”

PoachT is an eatery on wheels and catering business that sells made-to-order creations, with poached eggs acting as the hero of most dishe. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

On top of that, the mental drain of her pivot has been quite hard to handle.

“When they laid me off, it was as if I was expected to turn off this switch — like somehow, my entire mindset and years and years of work was supposed to stop all at once,” said Popoff. “It was all just so sudden and I felt so lonely and honestly, quite depressed.”

There were many days last year when Popoff waited by her doorstep, “staring through the windows like a dog,” for her partner to come back home. She’d fold laundry, clean all the toilets and take care of the dishes.

Poacht’s The Gord includes grilled chicken thighs, lemon-dill aioli, red cabbage-carrot slaw, avocado and sprouts. (Instagram)

“I did everything I could to make myself feel like I was doing something worthwhile with my time,” she said.

Still, things just felt “off.” The worries would cloud over Popoff’s head about whether she could ever find a job that offered a similar salary to what she was used to and had centred her life around.

“That’s why PoachT became my life’s mission and it’s why, as terrifying as it is, I’ve put in all my savings into this,” she said. “I wanted to show and teach my kids that when anything unexpected in life happens to you, sure, you can have a few days to be blue about it. But then, you need to pick yourself up, dig your heels in and just get it done.”

She might not be making nearly as much money as she used to and, of course, she misses the “silent gaze of flying deep above the skies,” but Popoff loves being able to kiss and tuck her kids to bed every night.

“It’s something I definitely missed in all my years before,” she said. “Now, I get to actually answer my kids when they ask, ‘What are you going to dream about tonight, mommy?’”

And as Popoff wakes up every morning, sipping her coffee and looking over at her truck, she thinks quietly to herself with tears in her eyes: “It’s all been a beautiful journey.”

 

Twitter: @temurdur

History

Updated on Friday, July 23, 2021 9:57 AM CDT: Removes duplicate text

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