From the moment you walk through the front door, Amanda Orso makes you feel right at home. There are refreshments offered right away, and everywhere you look, there are beautiful floral arrangements — all of which Amanda designed herself. But that’s just how Amanda, the High Low Hostess and creator of Barely Bread, lives her life. We spoke with her about creating a company based on her love of (healthy) bread, marrying into a big Italian family, and how hosting can be beautifully done on a budget.
Amanda, let’s talk about your beginnings.
I am a farm girl; I was born and raised on a dairy farm. I moved to New York right after 9/11, which I think in hindsight was a wonderful time to be in New York. The people were so warm and welcoming and friendly. I started out in fashion, which is why I came to NY.
Not too much fashion in Wisconsin?
No, not too much fashion in Wisconsin! [laughs] I didn’t love it as much as I thought I would. I thought it was going to be very glamorous, everything you see about fashion on TV and in movies, and it wasn’t that. I worked as a business analyst for a re-buyer for a Gen Y company. I was rebuying graphic tee shirts, so it wasn’t anything too exciting, and not very fashion-y, to be honest.
I had always wanted to go to law school, so I thought, “Okay, this is the time — go to law school. Through a series of random events, I met a very famous former NYC police detective who was now running a private investigations firm. They were looking for a research analyst and I thought it was a better preparation for law school. I ended up working for this firm, running their white collar division. I never wound up going to law school, because I worked there for 10 years. I really loved it; I loved the research element of it, which has now translated into other career paths and entrepreneurial roles.
I loved the work, but it came to a point that I was becoming pretty cynical. You realize that there are some people who really aren’t really honest and it started to wear on me. I had always been passionate about health and wellness. I started working with a trainer because I was getting in shape for something and in learning about better food choices, it basically led me to my first company, Barely Bread. It’s a grain-free, gluten-free bread product that happens to be high in protein, high in fiber, and it tastes good, too!
I think there is still that misconception that healthy doesn’t taste good.
Right, and that’s not the case. My husband is Italian, and bread is a staple in our house. So when I first created the bread, it was just for our family. But when I was making the bread, I did a lot of research, looking into ingredients that would taste good in a better-for-me bread. I spent a lot of time researching alternative flour sources, baking techniques because I didn’t have any training, and I found that using almond flour and coconut flour and sweet potato flour, truly nutrient-dense ingredients that ended up creating a bread that checked off a lot of good-for-you boxes.
How did Barely Bread go from being on your table to store shelves?
Eventually my trainer wanted some, other people at the gym wanted some, and I was baking bread all the time. It was my husband who said, “What are you doing here? You’re becoming The Crazy Bread Lady!”
Now when was this happening?
About eight years ago, right before I was pregnant with my daughter. Because there’s no better time to start a business than when you’re pregnant! [laughs] One day, I had bread wrapped in wax paper and my husband came home and basically ate the entire loaf because he was so happy that basically we were eating bread again! He was the one who told me that I should really consider doing something with this. And that’s how it really was born. People can find us on Gluten Free Mall, and we’re in select Whole Foods around the country as well as a lot of Mom & Pop health food stores nationwide.
So now do you have regular bread in the house?
I do! We came back from Paris a few weeks ago and I had bread and butter with every meal. I prefer my bread any day of the week, but if I’m in a gorgeous Italian or French restaurant and there’s freshly baked bread, I’m not passing on that. It tasted fabulous and I enjoyed every crumb.
As if running Barely Bread weren’t enough, you also are the creator of High Low Hostess.
It started very organically. I married into an Italian family, and the way my family celebrates is very different from how his family celebrates. Everything is: the more, the merrier. I love when everyone gets together, and even more so after Covid and being separated from people. In addition to my daughter, I have three stepsons, all in their 20s. It’s Three Men and a Little Lady! Family is huge to my husband and it’s one of his greatest qualities. His boys are around every weekend, and they’ll bring their friends. They have different and interesting careers, and so we were having professional basketball players here, musicians were here, actors were here. It’s an interesting mix of characters and a revolving door of people. It’s a little chaotic in the best way, and I absolutely love it.
We were entertaining pretty much every weekend for years. Unless we were out of town, we had anywhere from 16-30 people, every Saturday night. I realized that I loved setting the table; it was like downtime for me and a creative outlet. So a friend coined me The High Low Hostess, and she said, “I don’t know how you can pull this off every weekend; all the time and money you must spend.” And it occurred to me that I probably wasn’t spending as much time or money as she thought I was. That’s when I realized that I had a lot of tips and tricks of my own that I hadn’t shared because they were my secrets to pulling off these dinner parties without a lot of planning or money.
I was doing a tablescape and while there were some higher-end items on the table, I pointed out to my friend some of the more inexpensive items, like, “This is from Party City for a dollar” and she was blown away that I had all these budget items on the table. It’s like fashion; it’s wearing the inexpensive dress with the expensive handbag. So now I help other people style their tables, because of that research element, if it’s out there, I’m going to find it — and for a better price.
What are some tips for people who want to pull off Pinterest parties on a budget?
Grocery store flowers. Not to take away from florists, who are artists, and I use them all the time, but stores from your local store can be a great resource. But one of my top tips is to pick a theme and run with it. It keeps it cohesive. It keeps you on one path, and on budget. I’ll do a mood board on Canva to keep everything in one place. It might even just be a color theme, but it helps.
I also say to spend money wherever you need help. Sometimes it might be a sous chef or whomever it is to help you. Maybe the housekeeper will come and help set up, or help you after the party with clean up. Whatever it is, think about what would help you most, and spend the money there.
I think also if you’re going to cook, have a repertoire of at least 1-2 things that you know you can make well. I love anything that can be served at room temperature. I make a really good roast chicken that doesn’t have to be piping hot. And then I went to the deli and pre-bought the sides. I picked them up, put them in beautiful platters and served them. While I was there getting the sides, I picked up some grocery store flowers and made a pretty centerpiece. So basically I put a chicken in the oven and called it a day, and everyone had a beautiful meal.
And when it comes to flowers, you can stick with a certain color. So if it’s yellow, you can pick up yellow tulips or carnations and it makes arranging much easier. Or pick one flower, (like I picked up tulips) and put them in glasses and set them in like juice glasses in a mini arrangement down the table.
How do you balance it all, Amanda?
The biggest thing I did is I reframed my outlook. I have been the person who has said, “I have to do this for a client,” or “I have to take my daughter to ballet.” So now I say, “I don’t have to, I get to,” which turns things from an obligation to a real opportunity. How lucky am I that I have clients that I get to work for, and it’s been a big game changer. One thing that I do is help clients style their own events from afar. I’m doing so much of it anyway, and my husband, again, encouraged me to pursue it. I like to work with what the clients already has, and there’s a way to combine things that you already have in your home. I like the challenge of that, rather than starting from scratch.
I would think, too, that if everything is new, you’d lose that personal aspect of it.
You took the words right out of my mouth. The whole idea of High Low Hostess is that idea of a home hostess. It feels so much like your own and you feel more comfortable when it’s your own things and you can maybe combine them with something else to elevate them to make it all beautiful.