A two day break and the answering machine light is flashing desperately.
“You have one minute left on your message tape” the prerecorded voice warns me as I press “Play.” I gulp, but there are no real emergencies, just anxious customers looking for me to provide *their* anxious customers with their fix. It can be fun to make a product so regularly pronounced ‘addictive’.
But with great fun comes with great responsibility, naturally.
“We are totally out!” shouts a thickly accented voice I recognize as one of my customers, Ken. Ken always shouts on the phone, which is funny because in person he is so quiet and polite you have to lean in to catch is words. Listening to his recorded bellowing, you get the sense he is trying to talk not in or through the phone, but around it or even despite it, to make sure you hear him over all that distance.
Logging onto email a message from another customer is at the top of the queue…the subject line makes me bark a startled laugh. It says
We’re out of the vanilla, writes hipster coffee shop owner Wilson J. Can I deliver more yesterday?
“You guys are starting to get a reputation,” he grins over the pristine white box with its daily delivery of two dozen nestled inside. “I told you it would take off!”
He is right. Our biggest challenge has been the anonymity of the product.
Ooooh, what is it? The question from a customer at the Saturday market is typical. She gazes delightedly at the trays of shellacked canelés that a friend once likened to “pretty little soldiers all in a row”.
By way of answer I give her a sample. Trust me, says one of my regulars as he tucks his white box securely under his arm. This will be your new addiction.
He gives me a conspiratorial wink. I don’t know his name but I consider him a friend, and would call out to him in any crowd (though I don’t know his name and would have to yell something like Hey Canelé Man! (which would probably work)).
The Canelé Man and I have chitchatted every week for more than a year now, though sometimes our weekly transaction is only 30 seconds: he stumps up with this cane, waving a ten spot, I hand him his oblong box of four grande classic vanilla canelé.
He grunts a gruff thanks! and stumps off, and somehow with this interaction I feel magically closer to my dad two thousand miles away, a man I have spoken to only a handful of times in the past ten years. At the market, you sometimes receive as well as give.
I’ve never seen them before! the woman exclaims. I explain how canelés are made, a story she listens to less and less as she chews more and more. I wait for it, and she delivers:
Ohmygodmmmoholyshit! she moans.
I nod. I’ve learned my customers can speak far more eloquently for our canelés than I ever could, even – especially – with their mouths full. A small crowd gathers and a flurry of sampling and selling ensues. When the crowd abates, Dave the salmon guy from two stalls over calls out “Hey Sandra, send some of those customers my way!”
It is generous of him, knowing as all market vendors do that nothing begets a crowd like a crowd. Dave hardly needs my help – he has worked the market as a sort of second job for 20 years, sending three kids to college selling crab and salmon shipped fresh from Alaska each week. Later I will bring him a canelé I have saved back – mindful of his diabetes, it will be a mini size, but his favorite (pineapple).
The stall between Dave the Salmon King and me the Canelé Queen is run by a sausage maker whose heavy accent and woolen workman’s cap always make me think of men sitting around a table drinking vodka shots in Russia. Valuable products like his are rarely available for barter but once, after I gave him a box of mini caramelized pecan canelés, he gifted me with a mysteriously shaped hunk of pork so smoky and delicious our dog lay in the kitchen for hours after it had been consumed and the dishes washed, hoping.
Each vendor has a different way of selling. For me, it’s all about the sample, since almost no one except the occasional French tourist passing by knows what a canelé is. The fourteen year old Mexican boy calls out “tamales!” in a surprisingly deep voice. His full apple cheeks turn bright red when I offer him a canelé. It’s really good, he whispers. “I got the gift of gab, ” Dave says from his perch, as if selling is only a matter of being willing to chat people up (this may actually be true). The sausage man yells out “Samples” in his straight-from-the-Russian-steppes accent (he is in fact, Lithuanian).
The sausage maker’s products are all cooked or smoked with the exception of his pride and joy, an uncooked lamb sausage. This causes no end of confusion among customers woefully uninformed about the difference. YES IT’S COOKED, he’ll say in a scolding voice when someone asks about the sample they are about to try. NOW BE SURE TO COOK IT, he will say as he hands over the lamb links (causing everyone at the stand eating a sample to look doubtfully at it).
During lulls we chat back and forth across our stalls, mostly about the Brotherhood of Back Pain. It is an odd club to find oneself admitted to, these craggy faced old men, a life of hard work readable in the lines of their faces.
When friends ask me how is the business is going, I often pause, contemplating if there is a way to consolidate all the stories – the month of agony after a popped disk, the nights sleeping on the bakery floor, the relentless 18 hours days – into a palatable 30 second sound bite that adequately conveys all of the agony and ecstasy of starting your own business. I usually give up and just say “Great!” because it IS, despite of and even because of the difficult parts, it’s been a wild and wonderful ride so far……thanks in no small part to a growing Greek chorus of addicted customers.
With the sausage maker and the salmon king, I can tell it all, and not worry about sounding negative. They see my customers, they know things are going well, so I can tell them about the popped disk, show them the back brace, laugh with them about the customer reaction to my sudden squatting to alleviate sciatic pain. I even relish the telling, a bit, and they laugh and egg me on so that as I relate how I filled an order of 5,000 canelés alone, filling the molds standing in a ‘tree’ pose, yell-singing at the top of my lungs to ACDC in order not to scream in pain, I stop feeling the incipient panic (my business cannot afford me to be injured) and start thinking instead maybe I’m a bit of a badass
When one of them misses a market and doesn’t tell me that they are planning to miss a market, I worry. When the sausage maker’s son manned the stand one week, I kept quiet but the second week I finally blurted Hey, Your dad’s ok, right? The son laughed in exactly the way you’d expect a sausage maker’s son to laugh and said sure, he’s on his annual vacation. I was relieved and maybe a tiny bit indignant that no one had thought to tell me he was taking time off, didn’t he know I’d be worried?
Then I have to laugh because of course he doesn’t know that, we don’t speak all that much, after all; mostly we communicate in the language of food. I shower the sausage maker’s zaftig son with free samples and he happily accepts them all, in marked contrast to his dad whose predictable “Oh no Zank you” forces me to sneak canelés into his stall when he is not looking.
When I take a rare Saturday off, I come back and there are the usual Good Mornings and the occasional wisecrack floating overhead as we go about the efficient business of setting up our stands. Dave’s stand being mostly a cooler he sits on, it isn’t long before he bellows out “Howzit going Sandra we missed you last week! The rest of us finally got some customers!!” I laugh, knowing he’ll sell out well before noon and bug out, leaving the rest of us to tell the disappointed latecomers they are out of luck.
I tell him about the husband’s surgery and they being veterans of the maladies of age focus on the good news (benign) and not the drama (oh no, surgery!) which I find comforting. The conversation is quickly curtailed by the early morning shoppers, almost exclusively regulars (like the Canelé Man) who will ask after your family and your business as you package up their regular order. They will not see the back brace under my chef jacket, nor will they see the four pack of crabcakes and a handsome salmon filet bagged in ice, neatly tucked away at the back of my stand, next to it, a large meat necklace of lamb sausage links wrapped in plain paper with the stern word COOK! written in Sharpie.