We wake at 4:45a and go about our morning routine without much talk. Coffee is made, toast consumed, a checklist of items to carry out to the car reviewed: the cash drawer primed with ones, fives, tens and quarters, a big baggie of kibble for the dog’s breakfast and lunch, freshly laundered aprons, the mobile phone credit card reader.
The dog sleeps through all of this and must be coaxed out of his warm bed to venture into the chilly pre-dawn. He moves slowly, clearly hoping we will change our minds and all pile back into bed to sleep another two hours but such is not to be.
On the drive to the bakery we review the tasks in front of us to ready for the market; pastries to be boxed up in bins, the tent and folding tables to pack. We pause our talk to admire the sunrise, all roseate gold light reflected in the bay to our left. We will each move constantly over the next three hours, careening around the bakery in our separate, efficient orbits, someone calling out a time check every fifteen minutes or so.
Did you wash the trays?
Where is the sample cutter?
We’re out of stickers to seal boxes, are there more?
Are there any more zip ties to hold the signs onto the tent?
Did you load the sandbags?
Don’t forget the hand washing station!
At eight o’clock sharp we roll out of the bakery. It’s a short drive, and in twenty minutes we are at the market and unloading. A market employee is there with a clipboard, ensuring that the vendors are arriving in plenty of time to set up; although the market doesn’t officially start until 9a, vendors are expected to be set up at least twenty minutes before, and latecomers risk losing their weekly stall reservation.
Although we are more than a half hour early, customers have begun to queue, bags already stuffed with produce. We’ve been coming to this market for going on six months and have built a following of regulars, who line up with correct change (the farmers market friend). We scramble to wait on them even as we struggle to get the tent up and canelés out of their boxes and onto their covered display trays, which instantly fog with steam.
For the next four hours we will stand without a break, bagging and boxing customer purchases, answering questions and making change. There will be no time to eat, and we will drink water sparingly to avoid needing bathroom breaks.
The day starts chilly and overcast and customers are wearing jackets and long sleeves, but by ten the sun is shining with an intensity customary to the penninsula. The warmth is nice on my neck and the canelés glow gorgeously in the yellow California sunlight, seemingly a million miles (though geographically, only twelve) from our fog-swaddled house near the Presidio with it’s gloomy, soaring Lord of the Ring eucalyptus trees.
The stream of customers flowing by our tent grows from desultory to steady. The regulars push and pull all manner of conveyances for their market booty; baguettes and sunflower heads and lettuces of every shade of green imaginable poke from bags and totes and stroller pockets and red Radio Flyer wagons.
My iphone says the temperature is 72 but it feels much warmer, and the farmer’s market browsers seem to agree; men doff their fleeces and stroll about in short sleeves, moms tote babies in sun hats., teen girls sport tank tops and swirly sun dresses. Families herd children in baseball and soccer uniforms, their arms tanned a sunburnt brown.
Most of the people stopping at our stall have never heard of canelés, and, attracted by their glossy, inviting perfection, want to know about the origin (French) ingredients (simple), flavors (today: five) and how they’re made (a ridiculously complex 17 step process that takes 48 hours from start to finish). So many people stop by we talk, it seems, nonstop, and at the end of the day I’ll need Ricola lozenges and green tea to soothe my throat.
Most of the vendors here have another, ‘real’ job – the one that pays the bills and funds their aspiration to turn their market stall into a full-time flourishing business. The seller of scones is an HR executive; the ceramic artist owns a carpet cleaning business. They are boot-strapping entrepreneurs in the truest tradition, though few of their well-heeled customers see them that way — our market location is near the heart of Silicon Valley, where the word entrepreneur has come to be associated almost exclusively with software startups that will go on to become billion dollar businesses returning VC capital infusions by a factor of 100x.
During my own software startup years I would visit the farmer’s market of a Saturday, and allow myself to somewhat romantically think that the market vendors there with their singular focus on a single product they totally controlled had it easier than technology workers – less hours, more control, and an abundance of good food (starting with their own) so easily accessible.
As it happens, the hours I put in at my technology jobs, not to mention my training as an ultra runner, have been the perfect warmup for the grueling hours I put in as the founder and 85% of the workforce of my fledgling food start-up. In the first six months, eighteen hours days were so common that I routinely fell asleep at stop lights.
Those bleary nights seem far behind as we serve the eager customers crowding the front of the stand. It’s a beautiful spring day and somewhere in the market a high school marching band is putting on a spirited exhibition; during their break, two of the band members will appear at the booth and buy mini canelés, then amid cries of “Oh my God you guys these are UNBELIEVABLE!” return with the entire band to buy one of every flavor, size and package.
A Frenchman stops by to ask, “May I ask, why canelés?” We chat about all things canelés (he is from the Bordeaux region, as it turns out). They are the best thing, when they are made right, he enthuses. He calls us naughty Americans for adding flavors to the classic recipe. Sacré bleu! he exclaims in mock horror at my flavor listing….but in the end buys a classic vanilla (naturally)…….and pineapple cancan, which I consider a moral victory.
A woman walks up and says oooh, they are so pretty, what are they? The Frenchman winks conspiratorially as he answers her, They are the most incredible thing your mouth can ever imagine! He turns to leave, saying to me over his shoulder with a mouth full of canelé: These are just right. I sketch a curtsy with my apron, we all laugh.
A middle-aged woman with a somewhat stern and unsmiling countenance hands me exact change for her regular order, two boxes of classic vanilla. She is one of those people blessed with a commanding voice which is perhaps unsurprising given her occupation – she is a flight attendant, sometimes coming to our booth before or after her shift in the sky, her crisp blue uniform and sensible heels startling amid the crowd in its California casual fleece tops and sandals.
The flight attendant has appeared every Saturday since our first chaotic market day, but though I am grateful for her loyalty I find her a bit intimidating to talk to. Today I resolve to break through her reserve (and my own); handing over her pristine white boxes of canelés, I shyly offer a free pineapple cancan and am surprised how quickly her reserve cracks open. She gives me an unexpectedly lovely smile that warms her face. Why thanks, she says in her low, throaty voice. I really appreciate that!
We appreciate your loyalty, I tell her, and she says Well, you will have a lot of loyal customers like me, because these – she gestures with her box of canelés – are So. Good. Her authoritative contralto voice gives the statement the ring of an incantation, or a blessing, which I instantly take to heart.
One o’clock rolls around quickly and we pack up efficiently. The sounds of tables and tents breaking down always reminds me of that Jackson Browne song, The Load Out, the one about the roadies taking the stage, the one with the Frankie Valley falsetto asking the audience to stay a little bit longer:
Pack it up and tear it down
They’re the first to come and last to leave…..
….I can hear the sound
Of slamming doors and folding chairs
As we work, we amuse ourselves by guessing at the tally in the cash drawer. My daughter does the official count: we have tied with our biggest day, it turns out, and we are in a celebratory mood as we drive off. I like that lady, says my daughter abruptly out of the blue and I know without having to ask that she means the flight attendant with her omniscient sounding voice.
I do too, I say, and smile as we pull away, singing Jackson Brown under my breath
People you’ve got the power over what we do
You can sit there and wait
Or you can pull us through..
Oh won’t you staaaaaay,
just a little bit longer……