All That It Takes Is Your All

do hard thingsI am reading “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” by Silicon Valley legend Ben Horowitz.  I picked it up because I knew I would learn something, but also because I just liked the title.  Horowitz is good at the pithy tautological truism (“The only thing that prepares you to run a company is running a company.” )

Also, it must be said, I rather enjoy hard things (ultramarathons;  climbing Shasta; hiking the AT; making French pastry).

Launching a business is most definitely one of life’s hard things.  It is not enough to have a good product.  In fact, a good product is what we social scientist researchers call “a necessary but not sufficient condition”.  You can have the greatest product in the world, but you have to bring all kinds of other competencies to the table in order to get it noticed, bought, liked, and bought again.  If these things don’t happen, you don’t have a business, no matter how wonderful your product is.

I hear people talk about entrepreneurs being their own bosses and I say that’s all well and good but you *also* have to be your own employee, and then you have to decide if you’re going to be a good one, or a great one.

You also  have to be your own accountant, marketer, saleswoman, IT support staff, shipping and receiving…. and of course, your own labor. Until you can afford to hire someone to clean the bathroom…someone has to clean the bathroom.  And you better be much much better than average at all of it, or you won’t have a business.

I called the garbage collection company because they didn’t come out two weeks out of four last month, and our garbage situation reached crisis levels.  I called them and we worked it out, but when the monthly bill came, I noted that it reflected four pickups when one – and nearly two – were missed.  When I called them, the service rep said, Oh we don’t take anything off the bill if we miss.  You just gotta let us know.

So you get paid as if you’re doing the job, and rely on us to tell you when you’re not? I asked, and the customer service rep agreed, yes, this is the way it’s done.

You always hear people talk about passion in business but the real thing that succeeds is perseverance. Last week it was trouble with the credit card account, which for some reason doesn’t show up on my online account activity. Also the dishwasher, which has been life changing (hours spent on cleaning can now be spent on sales, plus my fingernails no longer peel off like decals) but has come accompanied by the most amazing flurry of invoices with strange codes and impossible-to-decipher commercial dishwasher insider lingo (4 THX SPL for X800 Mod SP 60 OZ, for example, means “case of soap’).

This week it’s the blast chiller door which is not closing properly and though the box remains an icy 25, cold air seeps out in little vapor trails shaped like dollar signs.  The vents in the ceiling aren’t venting because the painters painted over the ceiling screens, so we had to crawl up to the roof and fix that because summer is here and by 11a every morning the place feels like the devil’s own furnace, especially when you are scalding milk to 180 degrees plus for the batter, or once we get the big rotating convection ovens fired up.

tr

Another guy who liked difficult things.

There are other things, too – things with the accounting software and the air compressor, and my first attempt at an income statement and a business plan. I tackle and retackle these tasks, feeling as if the ground is constantly slipping away underneath me.  (Everything is hard when you don’t actually know what you are doing, Horowitz writes understatedly).

On the other hand we have three new customers carrying our canelés so clearly freeing up time from washing dishes to sell more delicious is working.

People raise their eyebrows when I tell them the plan for Cafe Canelé.  Friends tease me.  “Baking, eh?” said one.  “Seven years of post-graduate education, shot down the drain!”  I tell him, baking is what I do…it is not what I *am*, but he just snorts.  You probably don’t even remember how to do a conjoint tradeoff analysis, he sneers.  I tell him I employ the principles of price elasticity modeling all the time, but he just stares pointedly at my apron, which has chocolate stains on it.

In other news the investor platform Circle Up tells us we are not a good fit at this time, but we are welcome to appeal the decision. I do, though I know it’s probably futile and will likely only earn me another opaquely worded rejection, which it does.  I keep reading how investors are all jumping on the Lean In bandwagon, but so far have yet to see any of that love result in actual women’s businesses actually getting funded.

“These guys are at home coding with no social life,” one VC was quoted as saying when explaining why hoodie-wearing twenty-somethings were the safest investment bet.  “You know what you’re getting with these guys.”

I can’t blame them for wanting only to invest in Zuckabees….most of us do what’s easy and safe and then build all kinds of complex ex post facto edifices to prop up the logical inevitability of our choices.   When in fact, people more often than not hire, invest and trust on their gut, their hunches, and their first impressions all the time.  I have been the beneficiary of such, myself, hoodie or not –   it’s how I got my coveted job at the most famous beer brand in the world, not because of my Ph.D. from a Big Ten school, not because of my SAS coding capability, and not because of my 3.96 GPA, but because I went to school on an athletic scholarship. The hiring managers at this famous beer company had a soft spot for jocks, and just like that I was in.

I tell my employees about the Circle Up rejection and have to fight only a little to keep the shine out of my eyes and the shake out of my voice. You can’t take no personally, I say. Especially not the impersonal form letter these guys tossed off, I think but don’t say.

The Starbucks guy pitched more than 200 times before he got a yes, one of my employees reminds me chirpily, and I briefly consider pelting her with canelés but decide that is ultimately too much like a reward.

Besides, she’s right – an entrepreneur has no choice but to look at the word no as just another stepping stone to yes. And anyway, it may not matter…with more and more customers coming on line, it looks like the bootstraps might, just might, get long enough and strong enough to hoist us up the ladder to positive revenue flow, no outside investment help needed.

Then the battle really starts, as King Arthur found once Camelot was built.  In The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Horowitz seems to agree, saying “by far the most difficult skill I learned as a CEO was the ability to manage my own psychology…it’s like the fight club of management: the first rule of the CEO psychological meltdown is don’t talk about the psychological meltdown.”

I laugh when I read this because talking about the meltdown isn’t necessary….all my employees have to do is wait for Cryday Friday, as I’ve come to call it.  The end of another Sisyphean week sometimes (well, often) finds me emotionally threadbare. I used to castigate myself fiercely for crying “like a girl” but I’ve found it’s surprisingly commonplace.  The two London School of Economics grads who pay me rent to incubate their business (they are launching a raw almond milk company) laugh merrily when they tell me about crying parked on the side of the highway on their way to JFK after an investor meeting in which the investor failed to even show up.

Building a multi-faceted human organization to compete and win in a dynamic, highly competitive market turns out to be really hard, says Horowitz, and though this seems incredibly elementary-my-Dear-Watson obvious it cheers me immensely to read it.

I am further cheered when I find it is not too late to register for the Vermont 50 ultra marathon race in the fall. I ran it once before, in pouring, icy, driving rain.  At one point in the race, officials told me, you need to make up 8 minutes between here and the next aid station, or we’ll have to take you off the course, we’re closing it because of weather.

muddy trailI hadj just completed mile 30 when I received this ultimatum – drenched and shivering, I’d already run one whole marathon and  here they were telling me (and smiling laconically while they did it) that I had to run *another* marathon, even faster, with wet shoes and socks to boot.

Eight minutes is a lot of time to make up in a five mile stretch, and this particular part of the course was mostly uphill and so muddy my shoes kept getting sucked off.  I figured I probably would end up getting taken off the course, but a funny thing happened as I hammered up the trail, warm tears mixing with the cold rain streaking my face: I found I *could* go faster, a little. And then, a little faster still.  Until I made up not just eight but a full ten minutes;  the bike escort with the walkie talkie that they’d sent to monitor my probable demise kept pounding his handlebars in excitement and hollering at me  “Now THAT is what an ulramarathoner LOOKS like!”

It was the strongest performance I’d ever turned in at a race, and it came just after the absolute worst performance.

I didn’t know I had that in me, I told one of the officials milling around after the race, and he smiled.  It’s amazing what can happen when you just keep going, and don’t quit, isn’t it?  he commented, and I agreed. Keeping on going is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for being a successful runner.  According to Horowitz, it’s the quality that separates great CEOs from the meh ones, as well.

“Whenever I meet a successful CEO,” he writes, “I ask them how they did it.  Mediocre CEOs point to their brilliant strategic moves or their intuitive business sense or a variety of other self-congratulatory explanations. The great CEOs tend to be remarkably consistent in their answers. They all say: “I didn’t quit.”

Keep going, friends.

The Business You’re Really In

caneles garden of flowers.pngDescribe your business in a few sentences, the application read.

As a business owner I am in the business of making decisions, but this one always flummoxes me.  Do I focus on where we’re at, or where we want to be?  Journey or destination?

We make a French pastry, I think about writing, then don’t.  I am in the business of trying to raise investor money which means being in the business of being clear and concise  while at the same time curiosity-provoking all whilst on a short elevator trip.  “We make a French pastry” is concise, though not very descriptive, for all its accuracy.  And although we do in fact make a French pastry, we are not in the French pastry business, any more than Uber is in the car business.

nun (3)

She’ll tell you what a canele is

I could go for cute and pithy: I’m in the business of delicious! But I’m in the marketing business and refuse to add to the burden of insipidity I see streaming before me every day on Twitter.

Don’t describe the product, tell a story about your customers!  the social media marketers suggest. The most common response when someone tries a sample is “oh my God” is what I want to write. One customer said “That’s so good it makes me feel like crying.”

I’m in the business of waking at 4a every morning, I could write.  I’m in the business of creating joyful mouths.  I’m in the business of farmer’s markets and regular customers that say where were you last week I missed you with a slightly accusing tone.

I’m in the business of addiction, I’m in the business of shock and awe and unrepentant and even self-righteous indulgence.   I’m in the business of so many other small artisan food businesses, all of us up early and driving through the dark to do what must be done.

Or maybe I’m in the business of something even bigger, something like brotherhood, which is the best word I can come up with to describe the happy fellow feeling of camaraderie that springs up around the sample tray as this Filipino grandmother and that Mexican agricultural worker and this Tesla driving VC cand that flight attendant in her  crisp navy American Airlines uniform moan and yell oh my God and furtively take two and even three samples.

18I am in the business of immediate gratification, I am in the business of giving your tongue a lesson in French cooking, where the ingredients are simple but put through a whole retinue of processes that cannot be skipped or rushed, which means I’m maybe most of all in the business of time.  To get to the oh my god takes eighteen precise steps taken over forty-eight hours, which is a lot of time indeed — it’s the same amount of time it takes to run 200 miles, the same amount of time it took me to drive from Austin Texas all the way to San Francisco fifteen years ago, it’s the average number of hours the average full time American employee works in an average week, according to Gallup.

People who work that hard typically don’t have time to learn the finer points of making a little known French pastry which suggests I am also in the convenience business.  And because canelé has an unapologetically French pronunciation, complete with funny little accent mark, one might say I’m in the ambassador business, bringing American customers an authentic taste of France, a place that many Americans resent on principle and rumor.

french flagMy French customers (of which there are a surprisingly steady supply in the south Bay) are unfailing (if a wee unflattering) in their expressions of amazement at finding something so authentically French in their mouths. Mais vous n’êtes pas français! they gasp, and then buy gratifyingly large quantities.  Some tell me mistily of their papa who made them canelés at breakfast Sundays in Bordeaux and then walk off having associated me, a very American-type American, with their French childhood as well as favorite pastry.

I’m in the business of subverting expectations, you could say.

Thanks to the universally appealing taste and texture profile of the canelé,  I am also in the business of weddings and twenty-fifth anniversaries and even three year old’s birthday parties. And after two years in business and the accrual of a large fanbase of regulars not to mention fellow farmer’s market vendors, I quite unexpectedly find myself in the friend-making business.

I am in the entrepreneur business, which means I am in the business of being uncomfortable.  The word ‘entrepreneur’ is (so I am told) Latin for “cashflow is now your number one concern”, which is something a lot of people don’t know, that even when you are not motivated by money, you are going to need it like a battery needs electrons, like a body needs water, like a baby needs touch.

And no matter what business it is that you think you are in – the piano moving business, the salad dressing business, the bridesmaids dresses business, the gluten free dog biscuit business – the business you are really in, is the numbers business.

You’ll also be in the growth business, and in the business of annoying everyone you know by finding in every single topic no matter how seemingly unrelated to your business, some potential opportunity for you business.

None of this will help you fill out the deceptively simple invitation to “describe your business in a few sentences”, though.

I am a writer  which means I am in the business of story-telling, so ultimately that is what I write on the application – the  story of how we are in the business of reimagining the cafe, sort of like The Moth meets Cafe du Monde.  It is the business of connecting people to each other, it is the business of bringing people together, it is the business of all of us, really, the business of the shared community of shared stories.

It only looks like a French pastry business.

 

 

 

 

French Pastry Sampling as Human Laboratory

3 amigosHow can you tell which one is which, your customers ask, looking at the rows of shining canelés, rows of vanilla with their yellow crowns, rows of deep chocolate with their semi-sweet dark coronas, rows of green tea with their dusting of imported matcha like dehydrated dragon’s breath, rows of shining hazelnut colored, cocoa-scented Nutella, rows of darkly caramelized pecans wobbling on their uneven base of knife-chopped toasted nuts.

You just know, after a while, you say with a grin and sooner or later they come back enough times they know their favorites by looking, too and everyone has a good laugh.

After two years in business there are all kinds of things you just know, in addition to the flavor of the canelé at a glance; there are so many things to know when you make the making of something your actual business.

2 yearsSome of your customers know this  – you know them by their sudden, warm smiles and sincere exclamations of congratulations when you tell them you’ve just celebrated your second year in business.

Most customers will not know anything about your business except the taste of your product, and that’s ok, because their choruses of mmmmms and ohmygods will more than make up for their blessed ignorance of the agony and the ecstasy of being an entrepreneur.

You know after two years of farmer’s markets what customers are likely to like; it’s not something you knew right away, but rather something you’ve learned from interaction after interaction, week in and week out, in rain, sunshine and  the damnable wind.

You know that the older your customer, the more the customer has been through, the more they are likely to, in one taste, recognize the effort, quality and value of what they just sampled and shoot you a sharp, considering, approving look that warms you right to the core, though no words are ever said, other than a brief “Good!” with maybe an even briefer nod.

You know that men over the age of 70 almost always prefer the Classic Vanilla; the flirty types, like the type that wears a homburg, will go for Caramelized Pecan.

men in hatsYou do not know why men stopped wearing hats but you wish they hadn’t. Those pictures from the 50s of men in hats in the street headed to Yankee Stadium are cool.

You know that almost all Asian women between the ages of 25 and 39 will probably like the pineapple because apparently it is similar in texture to a traditional Chinese dessert, and that very elderly Chinese men and women will stick with vanilla and maybe tea.

You know that the pretty Germanic-sounding woman with the dancer’s posture and the robust young son will never not get chocolate pecan, it’s been two years now.

You know that most people will want to buy the little ones, unable to resist the cutness, which you don’t mind because the little ones are 50% more profitable than the big ones though you know the big ones taste better.

You know that delivering by 5a Monday morning means catching the Wall Street crowd which means bigger orders from your wholesale customers which means less than 5 hours of sleep tonight and that’s only if you can get home from the bakery and packed up by midnight.  Which has never happened.

You know until you replace your driver, Monday deliveries will be an oddly contemplative part of the day, the streets not yet snarled with delivery trucks and Uber drivers. You know that while you drive, NPR droning int he backgrounded, you will be obsessed with thoughts on how to find wholesale customers  large enough to scale to your considerable production  capacity.

3 coffeesYou know that you will end the morning pleasantly jacked on caffeine, accepting all proffers of a beverage, it is good business to let your customers do  favors for you, and besides you love them all, the pour overs and almond milk chais and iced mocha lattes and cortados, even if you hands are trembling uncontrollably by the time you are finished with the sixth delivery.

france (1)You know you will get nervous when actual French customers from actual France taste a sample, even though you know, with the same certainty you know your bank balance at all times, that they will praise it and invariably ask you if you are French before ordering vanilla (and only vanilla, never any other flavor so help them God, or butter).

You know it’s hot and getting hotter and  you are staring down the oven-heated throat of a red-hot summer that is just weeks away.

You know that you have $4900 in outstanding invoices due to come in over the next 2 days. It’s nice to look forward to the mail.

You know summer is a time of big sales especially at the farmers market and you plan your pre-packaging strategies to boost sales by as much as 30%. People, you know, like and often even prefer to be told what to buy.  Especially if it’s delicious.

You know your electricity bill will be  60% lower this year than last year because you went to the Department of Energy website and learned to negotiate rates, because when every penny counts you learn to find savings in every facet of the business.  You feel a satisfaction in knowing this though no one you know will ever appreciate your penny-pinching ways.

You know when sampling that it is hit or miss with some kids, in the way that you know that the custard texture is not a common occurrence in a young American diet, in the same way you know that nearly all European and Chinese kids will love the texture and prefer chocolate, hands down

lemonis.pngYou know there will always be a dozen or so parents who buy their waddling toddler a single mini-canelé because the baby always holds the pastry triumphantly aloft, delighted at the perfect size for baby hands and generating many photographs and coos of isn’t-that-cute including from yours truly who sometimes manages to get our cancan girl stickers right on their chubby little arms, at the child’s own insistence and to the grinning proud delight of the parents.

You know there is no marketing like baby marketing and cheerfully hand out stickers to hundreds of kids, who toddle the market with your brand name adorably affixed to their noses, hats and sunglasses.

You know that after being up at 5 and working the market til 2p, a long evening of baking and cleaning at the bakery still lies ahead.  You know that your much-anticipated evening with your husband and your dog will include a perfect dinner of bartered farmer’s market food (crab cakes and artichoke hummus with snap peas in exchange for 8 vanilla canelés and 16 mini chocolate pecan cancans) and only 3 of the following: a nap, a walk, a run, an hour of writing, an hour of accounting, conjugal relations, yoga, meditation, closet cleaning, or desk cleaning.

no crying.pngYou know your lower back will start to ache by tomorrow afternoon but you’ll need to suck it up and get some sales calls in.  No crying in baseball – you know that too, because you actually played it (well, fast pitch softball) and you can’t remember a single instance of any player crying, ever, even injured teammates never cried.

And while you agree business is not the place for tears, you also know that crying every once in awhile because you care is not something to suppress, and being in touch with your emotions means you’re less likely to be ruled by them, and so you embrace crying when it happens though you know it shouldn’t, or at least not very much.
personallyYou know the cardinal rule of being an entrepreneur is  you can’t take No personally; you also know you don’t always have to take No seriously. Even and maybe especially when the No comes from a famous vc guy whose name is on the building and who the husband calls a friend, though he doesn’t seem much interested in being a friend, failing to interrupt his monologue about his acquisitions and club memberships even once to ask the husband a single question about his family or his life.

You know you should say something when the vc invariably mentions his wife and what a busy woman she is in that “aren’t you little ladies a hard working  bunch!” way some vcs have,  something that is polite and admiring and that certainly doesn’t mention that the vc’s wife doesn’t actually have a job, much less a business or a payroll or taxes or FDA inspections or a grease trap to clean every 3 months…but you keep quiet, because he isn’t really listening anyway, and because you know from experience the mention of the wife is merely the gambit of men who – even if they are surrounded by women –  do not actually work with women and have no intention of starting now.

You had low expectations but still you thought the vc would at least have some decent advice and could perhaps make an introduction or two but who instead delivers his no in his living room in a manner so droningly oblique that it actually isn’t til after the meeting  is over you realize the lack of a no was, in fact, the no.

Just as you know you shouldn’t take it personally when the vc makes odd, fragmented statements  that are so irrelevant to the details of the business you just outlined that you wonder for a split second if he has, in fact, been sleeping with his eyes open while you outlined your two year plan.

You know as you escape the stuffy manse into the bright spring air, that this no is one you will let go of as easily as a balloon, sending it sailing off into a bluebird sky.  You know this no is just another brick on the road to yes to your grand vision (something you see as clearly as the beauty of the day) and the thought makes you want to start running and get there, already!

But mostly you know that knowing all of this does not guarantee success, and that the most important thing to know is that which you don’t.  Which is why you better have fun….for after all,

what is the point if
when it is all said and done
you didn’t at the very least
have a lot of fun?

fun.png

 

 

 

 

Crashing and Burning and Hooking Up: Just Another Day at the Office

not the weekend hook-up of preference

Sales are way up and so are deliveries and therefore more driving is happening and so it was bound to happen – SMACK went the truck behind me right into the rear-end of my truck, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, there he stuck, hung up on my trailer hitch, for the better part of an hour while six lanes of rushing traffic flowed all around us.  The clack and roll of skateboards on concrete could be heard from the under-freeway skate park that sits on the corner at Division and Mission.

The two strong looking Latino men inhabiting the truck gone amok were polite and compliant but it must be said, not offering any insurance or license information until I  asked for it.  I can’t say as I blame them, I would be taking my cues from the rammee, too, if I were in the rammer shoes.   I snapped photos and saved to Evernote and we stood around watching as different configurations of men attempted to unhook our trucks from their unholy connection.

“You guys hit me pretty hard,” I said to the passenger. We watched as his companion, the errant driver, used the tire iron my husband keeps under the seat  to  do something that involved a lot of clanging but changed the hooked-together nature of our vehicles not a bit.   Personally I think he was avoiding dealing with me,  because he did know in fact that their truck hit me pretty hard indeed, as he was driving  – accelerating, even – at the time of impact.

“You sure did,” volunteered a skater boy who’d ventured over to watch the proceedings.  “Can I help?” he asked me, and I shrugged and indicated the hitch hitching the trucks together and he said “If you remove the hitch the bumper will be released?”

I looked and he was right and  both of the Latino men busied themselves removing the hitch and freeing the trucks and then very nicely restoring my trailer hitch (but upside down).

“Your truck looks ok – you’re lucky.  How about you, are you ok?” asked the skater boy. He is looking at my exposed right forearm with a frown.  I can’t blame him, the forearm in question is a hideous landscape of purple and peeling skin.

“That didn’t happen just now, did it?” he asked with some alarm.

We stare at the second degree burns on my arm, which actually look much better than they did earlier in the week, when a hose popped off a faucet and doused me with scalding water that instantly bubbled my skin into strange jellyfish-like shapes and colors.

Different accident, burned myself, I say to him with a smile.  He smacks his narrow fist into this palm with a meaty thwack and I jump a little at the sound.

“SMACK!  We all heard it. Thought sure someone would be hurt.  You were LUCKY!”

He drops  his skateboard onto the narrow median and slides away, a river of  traffic no more than twelves inches on each side of his bony tattooed arms.  To myself I think, huh, officially -literally – crashed and burned this week.  And survived to laugh with a skater boy over it.

The truck is not much damaged – at least, not in any obvious, see it with your eyeballs way, for which I am grateful.   As soon as the hitch is successfully removed we shook hands all around and off I went, figuring that was that.  I think no more of the incident other than to remind myself to turn a report in to the insurance company, not even the next day when I wake feeling as if I’d run an 18 miler the day before.

Man how far did I go yesterday, I think sleepily before realizing I haven’t run in more than a week (and I haven’t run long enough to make me sore the next morning in months) and I haven’t re-started yoga or weight lifting or rock-climbing or tennis or fast pitch softball but I *feel* as if I’ve done all of them, very recently, and with no rest.

When I try to pop out of bed and feel the weird new intractability of my lower back, I remember the crash.  The aches and pains follow a path from my lower back to my neck, with about twenty individual super achy points in between. But still, skater boy is right, I am lucky. I can walk, I can stretch, and most importantly… I can work.  No time to whinge!

crowds

Embarcadero crowded with SuperBowl visitors

herb steps helmetTraffic is insane in the city this Superbowl weekend  but with only 6 hours of nonwork in the past 72 hours I need to be out and about., so we mount the motorcycle and zoom down to check out the gladiatorial crowds which were claustrophobically dense, even spread all along the Embarcadero.  The motorcycle ride makes me exquisitely aware of my spine in a way that I wasn’t, pre-rear-ending.

The throngs of out-of-towners strolling the broad palm-lined boulevard remind me of the Italian tradition of the passeggiata, an easy going stroll that starts just after sunset, everyone strutting about in their finery and checking up on who needs to be gossiped about.

The men appear to be in uniform in their team hats and jerseys, but many of the women were dressed for a night out, in sparkly party dresses and sky high heels.   The sound of high heels clicking on concrete made my feet in their sensible motorcycle boots shiver with happiness. Some things about getting older are great, like not giving a rats ass how cool you look walking down the Embarcadero in a huge sweaty heaving mass of humanity.

flag and skyWandering the crowd I recall walking with my friend Sue one evening to a chorus of hissing, the charming flirtatious device of the men of Sicily when they see an unaccompanied woman they find attractive.   I sniff ten different kinds of perfume and am tempted to put my helmet on so I can flip the visor down but then I would have missed this awesome picture of the flag, backlit by the setting sun against the bluest sky in the world,  so I’m glad that I didn’t.

We think about stopping somewhere for a beer but it quickly becomes clear there will be no ‘just’ stopping anywhere and so we flee the madding crowds and twenty minutes later we are buzzing down Columbus Avenue which is equally throngy on this beautiful day.  cafe grecoWe decide to buy some coffee at the local roastery.  We chat with the owner Luigii for a bit and then head up the avenue to Cafe Greco, where we snag an outdoor table and share a pressed tomato and mozzarella sandwich, a beer and a Greco Grande and watch the crowds flow by.

In the coming weeks many things will happen, things that will make second degree burns feel secondary, things that will make crashing seem like a wake-up call.:  an employee will get word that her father has fallen ill and race to make his hospital bedside in time; a friend of my husband will take a freak fall on his snowboard, suffer stroke and a heart attack in rapid succession and  be removed from life support on his 50th birthday.  But all of this is still unknown to me.  There will be time for tears later, but on this day, the sun is warm and the breeze is mild and my husband sits smiling across from me.  Sometimes the small things are the big things.

The air cools noticeably and car headlights are coming on and the neons flicker to life as we start up the motorcycle and head home, yelling to each other in the slipstream for maybe the millionth time how it’s a shame we can’t find a good local stage and hear some music or a reading or comedy.   We’re not quite ready to go home yet, but nor do we want to hit a bar or go out to dinner.  BUT I’M FIXING THAT I shout to Herb, resting my helmeted chin on his shoulder.  And I am – I have made it my business, in fact, to fix it.  

DO IT HONEY! he yells over his shoulder and I give a whoop. We’re motoring up Broadway now, the part called Billionaire’s Row.  We pass the Getty house, the CEO of Oracele’s house, the house with a giant robot that gets a giant robot erection whenever the Oracle CEO is home (true story! I’d post a picture, but then deny you the pleasure of seeking it out  yourself on your next trip to San Francisco, which is akin to New Orleans visitors seeking out Anne Rice’s house in the Garden District). *

My whoop of enthusiasm startles an old couple walking a dog up Lyon Street.  They do not recognize us without our dog, Jake, but of course we recognize them – they do not approve of Jake, a chocolate lab who is affable to a fault and insists on approaching their dog for an enthusiastic greeting each time we see them. 

“He’s not friendly!” they invariably warn, yanking the leash of the nervous dog, who is meanwhile growling and frantically straining toward  Jake (who cares not one bit for showy displays of anxiety and wags in welcome).

The dog barks as the motorcycle sputters past and I give it the thumbs up and for a wonder, his master responds in kind, a smile splitting his face and making it look a million times kinder,  something my sweet husband must notice too because he beeps merrily as we sail up and over the hill, turn right, and head due west, the barking fading behind us as we head directly towards the ocean where the sun is setting in a fiery ball, suffusing the entire sky in such a beautiful pink and golden light I find myself  wishing like a child that the ride will go on forever.IMG_0097

 

*However if enough people leave a request in comments, I may post it after all.

 

 

The Accidental Francophile

When we have time for TV we like to pile on the couch with garlic popcorn and the dog and watch the cooking competitions.

It’s not how you start, our favorite chef is fond of saying, and we finish right along with him, “It’s how you finish!”

But really of course, it’s how you start *and* finish.

The week definitely got off to an interesting start, touched with a little French magic.  Before deliveries I go to meet Svetlana for coffee and a catch up and to review her second pass at the tattoo she is designing for me.

My drive to the cafe is  an obstacle course of  waiting Uber drivers, disembarking Lyft passengers,  a zillion meal delivery services  with their smugly flashing hazard lights and what seems like a billion cyclists pedaling nonchalantly through the hilly traffic, way way too trusting (if you ask me) that their fellow motorists are paying adequate attention to their small, vulnerable bodies whizzing through space just inches from tons of fast moving metal.

I am running a little late because my GPS has decided to be mysteriously silent and my knowledge of the neighborhood  is sketchy at best, and I am roundly cursing Siri when I turn a corner and I see a parking spot that I almost pass up, it is that too good to be true.

As I gather my purse etc. I notice the motorcycle in the spot in front of me.  It is a sexy black and orange street machine and as I get out of the car I ask the nearby owner if I can take a picture.

frenchman!“But of course!” he says, with a gallant little bow.  I do a countdown so he can be in the pic if he wants to, and to my surprise he wants to, and even with his helmet on you can see/feel his big smile.

“Here,” I give him a four pack of mini-canelés – the Dark Chocolate Chunk which are like little French kisses from someone maybe you oughtn’t be kissing – and he says

“What are zese?”  I tell him canelés de Bordeaux and he throws his arms out wide. “But I am French!” he says, then clasps his hands at his breast he says “Mademoiselle I love you!”

I reflect this is a good start to the week, when a man on a motorcycle declares his love  just on the strength of how my pastries look in the box.

bento menu.PNGDo three Frenchmen who love your French pastry= a trend? I am going to say yes.  Chef M is another Gallic fan of Dark Chocolate Chunk canelés – the full size for him, no fussy mini can-cans.

“Bring me some so we can take a picture for our smartphone app,” he texts me.  “Then I will EAT IT!”

I was hoping they’d advertise the canelés just that way on the app screen, –  maybe with huge stark words Eat It! superimposed on the shining, fluted sides of a canelé – but no such luck, it just says Chocolate Canelé.  Still it looks yummy and there is no validation in this business like a Frenchman’s (or Frenchwoman’s).

babelleIn other validating news, famous French restaurant person Pascal Rigo will be adding flavored canelés  at his new, rustic relaunch of La Boulangerie de San Francisco.  “You’re doing a good job here,” he told us when we brought him a tasting and trembled for the verdit. We’re betting he starts with pecan and bacon.

Across the pond, the sexy canulier team at  Babelle  are plying London with gorgeously flavored, richly decorated canelés, flirting with me on Twitter with that fizzy effervescent Frenchness that they have.  Her canelés look like bouquets of flowers (and sound like them too, with names such as Athena and Clea to denote flavors like lavendar and violet.)  We predict 2016 will be the year of the canelé.  Stay tuned.

Svetlana needs another week or two on the design which is fine, if there is one thing you don’t want to rush, it’s anything about the tattoo process.  She introduces me to the baristas and I wish I had a video of the time she ate four bacon canelés one-two-three-four at a party where she made and served us all borscht and we all  sat on her bed to eat it.  Somehow I left with a pair of her boots, and we’ve been friends ever since.

burl 1

We are at the market rain or shine, and Saturday is rainy while Sunday is, if not shiny, at least not wet.   Dave the salmon guy is back from knee surgery and the day is a a steady stream of customers asking him how he is recovering.

A woman I recognize as the Chocolate One (she always gets dark chocolate chunk and dark chocolate pecan) runs up to the table and dramatically announces that she ONLY comes to the market for our canelés and has been panicked! absolutely panicked! that I was no longer coming to the market. I tell her we just celebrated one year in business and anyway she can just order online and she actually claps.

Give me TWO boxes, she says, and adds THE BIG ONES, and she positively cackles and for a split second she reminds me, in her casual just-woke-up gray sweats and tousled hair, of Scrooge leaning out the window and shouting at the boy to got down and get the prize turkey in the window, “the one as big as I am!”.

All in all it is a slow day at the market what with the slanty rainy weather and the holidays just behind us. The till is down a few hundred from my usual take and on the way home I try to be philosophical about it.  After all I did get the chance to check on Dave after his knee, and talk acupuncture for back pain with Greg the sausage guy.  The scone guy now has not one but *two* bacon flavors and is thinking of ditching the HR thing and going full time on the scone thing.

How’d it go, my husband asks as my bedraggled self comes in.  Was it worth going?

I pause.  Our sales are down about 30% from average, but are already climbing, with the steady return of our regular customers.  There is Gail, who reports her husband is now pre-diabetic and we discuss the possibility of trying to make a canelé with Stevia. Hmmmm.  There is Ellen who is at the Saturday market instead of her usual Sunday appearance, appearing out of the umbrella crowd with a big grin and with a satisfying large order of classic vanilla.

There is the gluten free family – a very slender, nice mom and two daughters – one gets a mini chocolate, the older one with the mini-mom face gets a classic vanilla gluten free.  I always give the young one a sticker which she puts on her hand.  Thanks for advertising me! I tell her and she shyly looks away, then back at me, then bites the  chocolate top off her pastry.

It was  fine, I tell my husband, a little low. But good! As I speak my phone buzzes in my pocket. It is a notification from our online store, from the Chocolate One.

“Good to see you today!” it reads, where the space for “Messages” is on the order form. “p.s. I”m going to send these to ALL of my friends!”

My phone buzzes with each new notification of a new sale – boxes going to Pennsylvania and Texas, Ohio and Arizona and Missouri…..all of a sudden the weekend deposits are no longer anemic but positively robust.

And voila, just like that, the week has a magical finish equal to its romantic French start.

Try to start your week with a little French love, that’s my recommendation.  See where it takes you from there.

 

Between the Sausage Maker and the Salmon King

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

“Urgent!”

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.

row of caneles

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.

blondieWith 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.tasting tent

 

Nighttime at the Bakery

night time at the bakeryTonight we are baking with gluten free flour for the first time.  As I write this the canelés have 30 more minutes, and the aroma filling the bakery is as yummy vanilla-y as always, a good sign.  Canelé batter is notoriously finicky and we won’t really know for another two hours – the time it takes to complete baking, cooling, and removing the pastries from the molds –  if the gamble will pay off.  I hope so.

Patience may be a virtue but if I could speed things along I would.  Of course I can’t, so won’t, which is on reflection maybe a good thing, because hurrying through the baking process is the antithesis of what French cooking is all about, and canelés with their 17-step, takes-48-hours process are the epitome of all that is French about baking. Sighing, I resign myself to sniffing the delicious air, waiting and hoping.

I turn up the tunes and the lonesome hillbilly tones of Chris Isaac fill the bakery, and I reflect that blasting your music as loud as you want in ~5,000 square feet is a perk I never considered when first beginning this endeavor.

At first it scared me to be in the bakery at night. It was big and unfamiliar and shadowy, full of mysterious, looming equipment and strange noises. The metal loading doors in the shipping and receiving bays rattle incessantly with the wind, often sounding just like a person (or a horde of zombies) outside pounding to get in.   More than once my heart has frozen in my chest at the sound, but now I barely hear it and when I do, I figure if it’s zombies it’s more likely they will be of the slow shambling George Romero ilk than the speedy ragey  24-Hours-Later variety Danny Boyle has so helpfully envisioned.

I am not unduly worried because given the sheer size of the bakery, slow zombies I can easily evade – not to mention slice, dice and bake. I drive home past a graveyard with more than 137,000 gravestones so a zombie uprising is a matter I give frequent thought to.hansel and gretel

Like I said, the equipment was scary at first: oversized versions of household items that seemed sinister if not in their purpose, then their awful possibilities.

Take the ovens, large enough for me to stand up inside; they always make me  think, nervously, of Hansel and Gretel.  One can all too easily imagine the Witch burning up inside, casting spells furiously through the window as she cooked to an even, convection-perfect crisp.

My good friend Tricia for some reason thought it would be a fun way to spend her vacation, cleaning Hobart mixers and power washing bakery racks in 100 plus degree heat, so what could I do but indulge her.  So there we were sweating away in our tank tops and baseball hats with our ponytails sticking through that divot in the back.

Apparently the ovens have the same dark, imagination-stimulating effect on everyone because Tricia wasn’t in the place more than three hours before she was pretending to be stuck inside, screaming, like an actress on the set of one of the Final Destination Sequels and I laughed but also made sure she got out of there pronto despite the door being unlatched and there being absolutely no power going to the oven or even that part of the building.

The sight of her in there made me wonder whatever happened to Gretel after she escaped the Witch.   Did she go on to be happy? Maybe own a bakery, where the ovens held a dark pull over her as she worked late into the night making delicious things for people from a secret recipe with a super special secret ingredient that a certain Witch might well recognize?

Despite their intimidating hulk that seems to promise complexity, the ovens are surprisingly easy to operate (which for some reason  makes the things that much more unnerving).  When the big oven door is swung open, the heat that wooshes out is an invisible, physical wave,  stirring your netted hair and fogging your glasses. e2

The giant mixers took some getting used to. – we have a 40 quart, a 60 quart and an 80 quart mixer, and their size is outlandish, with a someone-waved-a-wand quality that makes the work  we do – pouring milk or adding flour 15 gallons or pounds at a time – seem simultaneously serious and absurd.

Standing near the mixers always makes me feel out of scale, like I’m Alice after eating the cake, as if, should I wander outside, I might find the parking lot filled with seagulls the size of gorillas, patrolling the dumpsters and looking at me framed in my open yellow bakery door with intelligent, undue interest.

The scale is something you adjust to.  A few days ago the husband decided to bake muffins. This was at home, in our cozy kitchen with its suddenly strange, seemingly shrunken appliances.  He pulled out a baking sheet that looked about the size of a postage stamp.  We stared at it dubiously.

“It looks like a toy!” said the husband, and I agreed, normal kitchen-sized cookware looked decidedly unsubstantial, as if they couldn’t possibly hold enough food for normal-sized people.  The muffins turned out fine, though.

The blast chiller is another piece of equipment that seems almost Lovecraftian in its possibilities.   Within seconds, the supercooled air goes from refreshing to holy-god-that-is-COLD-I’-need-to-get-out-of-here-NOW.  It’s the kind of arctic cold that forcibly reminds you that no matter how immortal you might feel, you couldn’t survive the elements if they decided to get as radical as the temperature inside the mouth of a blast chiller (or, for that matter, mongo oven).  I have visions of the husband opening the door to find me inside like a human ice sculpture, icicles growing from my nose, ears and fingers all the way to the floor.

After moths of late nights where we worked until we fell asleep on the CostCo folding tables until it was light enough to rise zombie-like to work again, we were ready to pass our inspections. Months of baking have not  bred the contempt promised by familiarity, but time has definitely de-mystified the equipment, and today I no longer peer sideways into the ovens as I walk by…though I have been known, still, to flinch when the wind gusts  and shakes the loading doors in their aluminum frames.

Wishing you sweet dreams…..