In Living

Troy Withington shares the fine art of sushi making.

Brave mid-lifers make rewarding career changes

The ability to reinvent ourselves is important, arguably a necessity, in this lightning fast-changing world, but even though we're all capable of it, many of us are too fearful or comfortable in our ways to actually do it.

Recently, OnMilwaukee.com tracked down a few local folks who made major career changes at the age of 40 or older. Their stories are definitely courageous and, hopefully, inspiring.

Troy Withington owns Sushi-A-Go-Go in the Milwaukee Public Market, 400 N. Water St. However, Withington, 51, wasn't always a sushi master. He started his adult life in the Air Force and later spent time gold mining in the foothills of California and the Canadian Yukon.

After studying at the now-defunct Milwaukee Center of Photography, Withington opened a studio in the Third Ward called Withington Photography and worked as commercial photographer for 15 years, serving clients like Harley Davidson, Microsoft, Taco Bell, McDonald's, Snap-On Tools and more. However, the industry started to change in the '90s, and stock photography became more available, and Withington felt his business start to wane.

"The economy was changing, my clients were folding," says Withington. "And my money was disappearing."

In 2000, Withington decided to throw a studio party to network with photography clients. He invited 50 people to the barbeque, but the weather didn't cooperate and it poured rain on the day of the event.

"I quickly decided on a sushi bar inside instead," says Withington. "I gave it a go. And everyone loved it. I got call after call from people after the party telling me how much they enjoyed the food, and something clicked."

Withington decided it was time to move in another direction and start making sushi professionally.

"I literally decided overnight. It just made sense. Sushi is a lot like art, and the economy was changing and I had always been good at cooking," he says.

The next day, Withington started to convert his home prop room into a small kitchen. A month later, he was licensed and giving away sushi from coolers at Jazz In The Park. After handing out sushi four or five weeks in a row, he was invited to be a vendor at Jazz in the Park and then, the same week, to be a vendor at the Summer Sizzle Jazz Festival.

But something wasn't quite right, and Withington decided to really succeed, he needed to increase his skills and knowledge. So he socked away money for a year and moved to Los Angeles to attend a six-month training program at the California Sushi Academy. Withington was clearly an advanced student with talent, so he became the first person to complete the program in just three months.

Withington returned to Milwaukee, planning to open a sushi restaurant on 33rd and Greenfield.

"We had 90 percent of it done. We were going to finish the bathrooms and open the doors. But when I heard about the Public Market, I stopped everything," he says. "I wanted to return to the Third Ward. My father, grandfather and I had all worked in the same building there."

Sushi-A-Go-Go is one of the six vendors that opened with the Public Market in October of 2005 and is still there today. The first year, Withington says, was a struggle, but it has been on the up and up ever since.

"That first year I sold just about everything I owned on eBay. But I wasn't going to fail. No matter what I do in life, I will do whatever it takes to do it," he says. "And it always helps to have someone who believes in you."

And although sushi making and selling is Withington's fourth career, it's not his last.

"I'm not done. I'm not going to be a sushi man forever. My hands are shot. And I want to live in Europe and get back to art and do some writing," he says.

Mary O'Connell, who is 47, earned a degree in business administration from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and started her career in retail, but quickly realized it just wasn't a good fit for her. After she had her children, she found a lack of childcare options in the area, and decided to take the LifeWays training course to start her own childcare / preschool.

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