Jason Hilton at Eastman House

Little did I know this was not a cartoon. 

Pulling Back The Curtain

I wanted to take the time and put in the effort to get people updated on where we are but also pull back the curtain a little and let you in on our journey. 

The reason I’m doing this is to step up and help others as well as myself to process trauma and share our healing journey. Hopefully it will help others to seek help and not feel isolated or alone.

Childhood Trauma

To start, my life as early back as I can remember has alway been filled with traumatic events. My sister and I spent the majority of our childhood in and out of foster care. I was under non-stop stress and remember having terrible anxiety attacks as early as age 6. I lived in constant fear and there was no safe space for me. I felt abandoned by my family and worthless to the world. 

For many years as I entered “adulthood” I would make excuses and try to “look on the bright side”. But I never got the therapy I needed. I found myself self medicating and continuing to cultivate bad relationships. That went on for more than 20 years. 

Thankfully by the grace of God and a program like Celebrate Recovery I was freed from my self abuse almost 5 years ago. I’m still working the program and now entering an intense year long study to help me address the root of the problem and hopefully, finally, get the help I need to live a normal life. Yesterday I turned 43 and I’m so excited (and scared) to work through this. To get help for the PTSD, low self worth and harmful negative self talk. 

The reason I shared that is because I think having some insight into my past gives some clarity to the rest of the story.

Entrepreneurial Journey

I became an “entrepreneur” early in life. At 15 I would set up at the Avon Flea Market. My father would sell flea market stuff and I would pay him a small fee to set up in the corner and sell trading cards. I loved it. I was hooked. I realized very quickly that a poor kid from the RCSD wasn’t going to go to college or get a job that excited me like doing my own thing. So I did my own thing. I would take various jobs along the way to supplement my path. Mostly restaurants or sales jobs. 2 things I seemed to be able to excel at. 

For many of those years I would continue to buy, sell and trade cards, comics and collectibles. I would set up at toy shows & comic-cons to make extra money. I also just loved that world. It brought me so much joy.

Jason Hilton at the Village Gate Toy Show

2016 Village Gate Toy Show

I experienced many ups and downs in my entrepreneurial journey. By 2016 I was in a groove and had carved out a decent niche for myself. I had an office in a cool part of town. People started to take notice. It’s then when I got involved in the local pro wrestling scene. I liked it and it helped with my anxiety of speaking publicly. I mean if I could run around in some speedos in front of a group of strangers, I could talk about the advantages of conversion tactics in your marketing approach. It was hard work preparing for a show but I was no stranger to hard work. Plus it kept me away from my home life that wasn’t going well. Imagine that.

POP ROC Was Born

In 2017 after I got sick and tired of paying rent to basically wait for the UPS person to show up with another collectible I bought online and stored on my work shelf, I had the idea for a multi use food & entertainment venue. It’s where I could work out of it and get my 2 cups of coffee, 2 monster drinks, breakfast and lunch while selling my collectibles, put on shows and get paid for it. It was just all the things I loved and lived. It was a big place. Arcade, bookstore, stage, movie theater and lots of other fun stuff. Think of it like a Gillians or something close to Radio Social. Well, that idea really needed to get boiled down to be realistic. So POP ROC was born. The comic book and caffeine/coffee shop. 

At that time I promoted one of my employees into my assistant. He was a “friend” and I saw a lot of potential in him. He and I drove all over looking for the right place and doing research about places that were similar. We spent a year on that alone. I paid him to “assist” me but I was really just paying for his “friendship”. It was a manifestation of my inability to form real relationships. I pushed him to pursue his dreams and gave him all the support and guidance he needed including money. I “gifted” him so much over that time. I also put my wife and family through hell to maintain unhealthy relationships. It’s embarrassing looking back. 

In 2018, we opened POP ROC over on East Ave. I poured everything I had into it. My personal collection, tens of thousands of dollars and everything was in my name. Meaning I had a lot on the line. I set up everything wrong but despite that we made it work. Let’s just say that I paid a lot to learn some important lessons. 

I spent almost every waking hour on that business. I believed in it and the joy it brought our community. From the beginning when I wanted the stadium size fun house I also had another idea. Super City.

Super City Takes Flight

Super City was my answer to a problem I had personally when I took my family to the biggest comic con on the east coast. It broke down the barriers to entry and made sure to include everyone. I built a team of some of the best and brightest. We met regularly and pulled it all together. My favorite part is when I watched a dad with his 2 kids riding their bikes down the side street we set up on. As they slowly peddled by with their heads turned to the side checking out the action I said “hey dad. Everything over there is meant for you and your kids. It’s all free and you’re welcome to go enjoy”. I didn’t blink before those kids dropped their bikes literally in the middle of the street and they disappeared into the fun. It’s a shame that I was told by some at POP ROC that they wanted nothing to do with it and that it was going to be a failure. On the day of Super City, POP ROC had the single biggest day we have ever had. It was one of my proudest moments.

Part of team Super City

However, during the few months leading up to Super City I was not taking any pay from POP ROC. The others involved did not share the vision for growth with my wife and I. We tried several options including meetings and I even brought in mentors to help guide us back on track. Nothing worked and our relationship deteriorated. As a result of not taking pay and not being paid back for the investments I put in, my family was in a tough place. My wife was standing in line with our kids for hours at the food cupboards. We continued to feed our community but couldn’t feed ourselves. Add in that there was now another cereal bar opening.

Ethics Lesson

This cereal bar would undoubtedly put an additional strain on our business. I kept seeing flyers on the cars on our street and thought that it was kind of crappy to solicit our guests. I noticed they used the same marketing collateral we used when we opened. They were being very secretive of where they were opening. I was disappointed to say the least. But then to find out they were opening directly across the street was a shock and challenged my beliefs about ethics in business. I was stunned and hurt to say the least. I gave so much to build that place in that neighborhood. I wrote an email and asked how we could create dialogue to discuss the frustration they were causing. My attempts were dismissed for a while and then we were gaslighted for it. The mayor even showed up to their opening and praised them for taking a risk, and I quote opening “of the 1st cereal bar in Rochester”, two years after we opened right across the street. It was awful. That lesson taught me a lot about ethics in business and now I won’t even use a vendor who is ok with servicing unethical businesses. If you align yourself with that kind of business, we are not a good fit for you.

Transition 

At this point I was just hanging on. I was on the verge of losing everything unless I took action and made some changes. So I did. Some things forced my hand and others were transitional. I was threatened, lied about, harassed and challenged. I live with that trauma daily like I have for so many other things in my life. I still can’t go to public events without fear of seeing someone who thinks they “know the story”. 

On the other hand, once the transition was finalized, and things began to settle down, we flourished. Everything was really starting to come together. My wife came in and played an active role in getting us to turn it around. The menu opened up and we were on an upward trajectory. Firing on all cylinders in every aspect of our business. Finally we had the right people, in the right seats, all rowing in the same direction. The chart was like a hockey stick. It was magical. 

Then COVID 19 hit. I’m not sure what to say. It was devastating. We tried a couple of things including giving away Easter baskets to families in need. There was a lot that went into our next decision. We decided to pivot again. We moved all our retail online and decided to keep the doors closed to the public until it was safe. In the meantime, we lost our apartment and became homeless. We prayed a lot. What we came up with was that we would pack up our van and go out into the world to see what we could do to be helpful and see what others were doing and bring that back to Rochester. We looked for opportunity and innovation. But we also didn’t have much. There was a lot of uncertainty and fear. Tears, anxiety attacks and depression daily. We had to keep it together for our kids.

Our Home

“Home” 1 year ago

I Just Wanted To Die

Back in February of 2021 I was still traumatized and never addressed it. I fell into the most horrible depression. We were facing mounting debt, homeless and it seemed like all hope was lost. We heard about the RRF and saw a glimmer of hope. But we couldn’t hang onto a glimmer any longer. We started exploring other options as bill collectors demanded payment and lawsuits started rolling in. I worked and persevered through so much but I was breaking. I just wanted to die.

I reached out to get help. I met with a counselor and in our first session I talked about the trauma and of course she knew POP ROC. It made me uncomfortable. What did she “know”? Who does she know? I continued but never really felt comfortable and eventually couldn’t. It wasn’t her fault. 

I started to think about things that brought me joy. I thought if I could connect with something in my life that brought me joy, I could start pointing in that direction and eventually see some light. I kept up on my toy hunting mostly to try and keep moving. I started reading comics again. Before the pandemic I was given an opportunity to be one of the very few comic shops able to sell an exclusive comic line. So I started to meet up with a handful of other comic enthusiasts to get them their comics. I also realized how much I loved cooking for others. How much I loved feeding people. When at East Ave you would find me feeding the community daily. Since I was also the recipient of soup kitchens and food cupboards, I wanted to give back even more.

Back To The Soup Kitchen

I heard about The Father’s Heart Ministry during a time when I was volunteering to cook for my church. It’s technically a food truck. But it’s so much more than that. They cook and serve hundreds of meals a week in several city neighborhoods. Where there is a need, you will find them. Pulling up with hot food, groceries, clothes and supplies. Then they give it all away. They also give a fantastic teaching to make sure the stomach, heart and soul is served. So I decided to reach out and see if there was anything I could do. I have the experience on both sides and the certifications to serve food so I should put that all to use if I can. I was welcomed in to help where I could. The kitchen was calling me. While I have been on several outreaches, I spend most of my time in the kitchen preparing hundreds of meals a week. I’ve been doing it for 6 months now and it’s non negotiable in my book. Every week I get so much from my time with them. I’m thankful for their work and I’m honestly awestruck. They are an example of what I want my life to look like here on earth.

Serving Meals With Our Son

Serving Meals With Our Son

Coming Up For Air

When the RRF was introduced, it provided us an opportunity. Because there was a transition in the business I wasn’t sure I could even apply. However, there was an option that aligned with my unique position. I applied and of course we prayed a lot. Finally after a thorough review from our assigned case worker with a lot of back and forth, we were approved. We have been able to get a good chunk of our business’s bills paid off and give us a little wiggle room to revitalize. In our personal lives we still remain without our own place to call a home and have a long way to go to get on stable ground but we are working on it daily. We decided not to renew our lease on East Ave. There is way too much trauma, hurt and pain in those walls for us. There are also several safety concerns that we cannot overlook as we are still all dealing with this devastatingly deadly pandemic. We wouldn’t be good stewards of the grant if we didn’t make some serious changes to our physical location and business model. Thankfully we have 2 years to expend those funds. We are being cautious and optimistic about the future. I’m also protecting the business, myself, family and our community as we move with purpose not pride. 

We have become members at The Commissary and we are building out a new hybrid model with our other new venture called SPACE. We are serving our community and have catered and hosted several events now. We are advocating for change and ethical review of the industry as a whole. We are taking the things we learned and sharing it with others. We are standing up in face of adversity and fighting the good fight. We are sharing and listening. We know we will get criticism and we are learning to be ok with that. We are loving on the folks who need and deserve love. We are moving with purpose and passion.

I’m finally starting to feel like I have self worth that isn’t dependent on what others think of me. I’m done “people pleasing”. I’m learning about trauma and how to address it. How to set boundaries and enforce them respectfully. I’m learning that you can’t force a round peg into a square hole, because even if you get it in, it’s still in the wrong place. I’m putting in the work and getting better. I’m surrounded by people I love and respect. More importantly, I’m surrounded by people who love me. I’m open to the love and working on those relationships first.

Healing

It’s not easy for me to share this. In many ways it goes against everything I know. We are conditioned as men to not share these things. It’s also a double whammy when you’re an entrepreneur. We post all these beautiful pictures and witty content to show we are so with it and together. That we have no weaknesses. That way, no one can exploit them. But why? Maybe if I’m honest about my weakness I can find the right people to build me up and encourage me to be better. Maybe I can fill a need. Maybe I can encourage someone else to get the help they need. Maybe another entrepreneur will see this and take the next step to heal and by doing that will change the landscape of entrepreneurship forever. Maybe I can finally break off the iniquities for my kids and family. I’m hopeful for the future. I know POP ROC will continue to grow & flourish. Maybe now I can too. Who knows, maybe this can even help you.

Thanks for letting me share. 

Jason Hilton in front of happy face mural