Unusual Jobs in Chattanooga

Offbeat Occupations

Chattanooga is a city brimming with professional opportunities – some of which are far off the beaten path. To learn more about these unusual occupational offerings, we spoke with six locals who have chosen curious careers here in the Scenic City – from puppet artists to sheep ranchers.  

By Catherine Smith

Photography by Rich Smith

Photo by Kevin Spicer

 

Snigdha Sewlikar

Food Scientist

Growing up in India with parents who were both doctors, Snigdha Sewlikar had always planned to follow in their footsteps. When she came across food engineering and technology in a college admissions brochure, however, she changed her mind. “As I thought about packaged food products, the science that makes them possible, and the impact they have on our day-to-day lives, I decided to pursue it as my field of study,” she says. “I joke that food is my favorite hobby. It’s true though – I don’t eat to live, I live to eat!” 

After studying food engineering and technology at the Institute of Chemical Technology in Mumbai, India, Sewlikar got her first job as a quality assurance executive. “That experience furthered my passion for food science, and I obtained my master’s in food science from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville,” she recalls. Moving to Tennessee was a smart choice for a food scientist, as Collegedale is home to McKee Foods – the corporation behind the ever-popular Little Debbie brand.

Sewlikar started working at McKee Foods in 2015, and seven years later, she is as passionate about food science as ever. In her current role as a product development manager, she manages a team that creates new products and brings them to the marketplace. “My work, of course, also involves frequently sampling new product prototypes – not such a bad part of the job!” Sewlikar laughs.

For Sewlikar, however, innovation is the best part of the job. “People are surprised by the time and due diligence that goes into developing a new product that is delicious, safe, affordable, and convenient,” she says. Sewlikar works closely with her team to make this happen. “I am proud to be part of a team that works tirelessly to develop products that unwrap smiles,” she adds.

While some may not realize the amount of work food scientists do behind the scenes, they certainly recognize the quality of the end products. Little Debbie, for instance, is well known for baking sweet treats that many people have enjoyed since childhood. “Our brands and products evoke nostalgia; it’s really fun to see people light up as they talk about their favorite Little Debbie snack. We bake, and the world smiles!” Sewlikar says. “This is what motivates me every day. It gives me immense satisfaction to see the results of our efforts on market shelves.”

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Parker Hudson 

Artisanal Butcher

It’s been said that everyone likes sausage, but nobody likes to see how it’s made. For Parker Hudson, an artisanal butcher at Main Street Meats in Southside Chattanooga, that same sentiment often applies to his work. “We’re like a middle man. We work with the government, farmers, and consumers. People enjoy the product, but nobody wants to see behind the scenes,” Hudson says. 

These days, consumers don’t have to think about how meat gets on their table. According to Hudson, “People look at a display of filets and assume it all came from one cow. They don’t realize how many animals it takes to get enough of those cuts, and they don’t want to think about it.” Hudson is a bit of an outlier in this regard – he wanted to know more. “I started as a line cook, but I got into butchery because I was interested in where my meat was coming from,” he shares. Standing in the middle of an ice-cold meat locker, he laughs and adds, “I also hate the heat, so this works for me.” 

In the six years that he’s worked as a butcher, Hudson has put a lot of effort into perfecting a craft that he says is dying out. “Slaughterhouses focus on working quickly and safely. It’s ‘turn and burn’ – they don’t have time to get everything they can out of an animal. We’ve gotten away from that as a society because our survival no longer depends on it – we have the luxury of choosing what we eat,” he explains. Artisanal butchers, on the other hand, avoid waste as much as possible. “We utilize every part of an animal – bones become stock, fat is rendered for the fryer, even pig heads get turned into porchetta di testa, a traditional Italian dish,” Hudson explains.

For Hudson, butchery is about more than just great cuts of meat. “We take a 1,200-pound animal and use whatever we can. It’s all about respect for the animal and the farmer who raised it, and it’s also for the sake of our customers who want to enjoy great meat.”

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TJ Hanretta

Puppet Artist

A theater kid at heart, TJ Hanretta grew up with a love for the art of performance. It seemed only natural that she would pursue a theatrical career, but that wasn’t always the case. “I declared theater as my major when I went to college, but by my junior year, I let myself be convinced it was impractical and gave up on that dream,” Hanretta recalls. 

Several years later, Hanretta moved to Hong Kong, where her children attended an international school that allowed students to focus on an area of interest. When her daughter chose to focus on theater, Hanretta was fully supportive. “At first, I was a volunteer parent helping with costumes and props, but when a position came open in the school’s theatre department, I stepped into that role,” she tells us. “I had several opportunities to create or work with puppets, and I became obsessed.” 

Hanretta ended up finding the perfect outlet for her creative energy in puppetry. “My husband and I always encouraged our kids to follow their dreams – I felt like it was time for me to walk the talk and follow my own dreams again. So, after our daughter graduated, I quit my job at the school and began working with schools and theater programs to build puppets and props,” Hanretta explains. 

In 2019, her husband’s work brought them back to the United States, and the family settled in Chattanooga, where Hanretta’s love of puppetry has grown into a successful business. “I entered the entrepreneurial program offered by LAUNCH Chattanooga and incorporated Playful Evolving Monsters LLC in August of 2020,” she shares. Hanretta and her team have taught online classes on puppet-making and other theatrical topics, and Playful Evolving Monsters has since become increasingly involved in Chattanooga’s performance art scene. “Our giant puppets are hired around Chattanooga for various festivals, receptions, fundraisers, and the like,” says Hanretta.

It truly is never too late to follow your dreams, and Hanretta is the proof. “People think that play and art are frivolous and impractical. The truth is, if we’re not fully employing and enjoying our creativity, regardless of our profession, we’re not living to our full potential,” she says.

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Shawn Brim 

Community Engagement Educator

For Shawn Brim, a community engagement educator at the Tennessee Aquarium, animals make the best coworkers. Though he can’t exactly chat with them at the water cooler, he does enjoy the relationships he has been able to build with these animals. “People sometimes think of animals in aquariums or zoos as our pets, but that’s far from the case,” Brim says. “They are here to teach us how to better treat our world, so ‘coworkers’ is a far better term. There is a level of trust needed between staff and the animals we work with.”

Brim’s job is to educate guests and community members about the importance of aquatic animals and what we can do to lessen our impact on their environments. “I enjoy seeing the faces on guests when they learn something new or get to encounter one of their favorite animals,” he says. As much as people enjoy learning about their favorite animals, Brim makes a point to teach them about less popular animals as well. “Tackling misconceptions over certain animals can sometimes be a challenge,” he shares. “Critters that we may find gross or aggressive are still beneficial to their habitats, and many are also beneficial to human life.”

From river otters to sandbar sharks, there is a wide variety of animals that call the aquarium home, and this certainly keeps Brim’s job interesting. “With animals as coworkers, no two days are alike,” he laughs. “I love working with turtles, especially our Eastern box turtles. Reptiles are great at posing at an angle to bask in the sun – the box turtles will sort of sit up to show off in front of guests.”

Brim has always had a passion for marine life, and this job allows him to share that passion with others. “I wanted to bridge the gap between the scientific community and the public,” he explains. “I love the idea that each one of us can have an impact on our waterways, big or small. It doesn’t take a 30-day venture on a research vessel to make a change; something as simple as taking a shorter shower can help the world, too.”

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Tyler Menne

Sheep Rancher

Sheep ranching might sound like an old-school profession, but what Tyler Menne does – combining solar energy production with sheep ranching – is actually quite innovative. “When you tell people that you are a sheep rancher, you can see the wheels turning in their head,” he laughs. Sometimes, the best way to move forward is to go back to how things were done in the past, and this green initiative is a great example. 

Menne has been involved with the landscaping industry for around 25 years now, though the sheep are a more recent addition to his practice. “I worked in the environmental business for a few years before starting Appalachian Land Design, and some of that has carried over into our various eco-friendly projects,” he says. One of those projects is the VW Solar Farm, which is a 33-acre site with 33,600 solar modules that can provide up to 12.5% of the necessary energy for Volkswagen’s Chattanooga manufacturing plant during full production. 

The connection between sheep and solar panels might not be obvious to most people, but it makes perfect sense to Menne. “Holistic practices like this allow you to get back to the basics of the circle of life. By using sheep instead of mowing and broadcast synthetic herbicides, we reduce fuel and labor costs and limit pollution,” he explains. “There are so many benefits to people, animals, the environment, and the economy from using sheep for landscaping, especially when you manage their grazing with an intentional, holistic approach like we do.”

Sheep make for great coworkers too, according to Menne. “I have to say that it’s pretty neat to see a flock of sheep and two donkeys run up when you arrive at the farm each day. They watch my every move and follow me around while I work,” he laughs. “It is very peaceful to spend the evenings watching the sunset with Lookout Mountain in the background as the day nears its end.” Talk about an office with a view!

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Photo by Emily Pérez Long

 

Timothy Gaudin

Pangolin Fossil Expert

Timothy Gaudin is a professor and researcher at UTC who also happens to be one of the world’s leading pangolin experts. Gaudin describes the pangolin as “a scaly mammal from the tropical forests of Africa and Asia that has no teeth and a ridiculously long tongue.” His status as a pangolin expert is made all the more interesting by the simple fact that most people, especially outside of Africa and Asia, know very little about these animals. 

Pangolins are exceedingly rare and critically endangered due to poaching for the supposed medicinal benefits of their scales. However, Gaudin clarifies, “Their scales are made of keratin, like human fingernails, and thus have approximately the same medicinal benefits as chewing your nails.” 

The path to this career, though it is not frequently traveled, was a clear choice for Gaudin. “I have wanted to be a biologist since I was in grade school. I always loved nature and nature shows on TV, and my parents took me regularly to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History as a child,” he says. “In college, I became fascinated with the question of why there are so many different kinds of mammals in the world, and how we can use the fossil record and the biological discipline of systematics to understand the origin of this diversity.” He continues to pursue that fascination today.

Recently, Gaudin made international headlines when he was called in by a research team to help identify a confusing fossil. As the world’s top expert on pangolin fossils, his contributions were critical to the discovery and identification of this fossil, which turned out to belong to a brand-new species of pangolin. 

Gaudin is incredibly passionate about his work. “I love working with fossils. Nothing matches the thrill of holding something in your hand that was alive millions of years ago, and being able to use that fossil to understand something new about the history of the earth,” he says. “I also love working with students and with the researchers around the world who have become my collaborators and my friends.”

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