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.





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!


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.




Guess who came to dinner?

You land three new customers in one week, one of them an illustrious name in Bay Area catering, and you want to be happy except that all of your employees are on vacation, in the hospital, or on a plane, which means you have to do the prep, baking, packaging, delivering, and clean-up on your own, in between sales calls and accounting and pitching to investors and the occasional cat nap.   You’re not one to complain but the fact that you’re only halfway to break even is like hearing “You’re more than halfway there!” at mile 13.2 while running a marathon with the first half downhill.  You are not cheered by such realizations, but at least you no longer cry.  Much.

You make your delivery and are cheered a bit when the executive chef hustles out to meet you, all smiles though he is typically kind of assholey.  He opens the big white bakery box and beams, “Beautiful!” he says, and you feel bad for thinking the word assholey, when in reality he is probably just socially awkward in which case, you realize, you are the one that is kind of assholey. Two purchasing managers crowd around and tell you how they are just flying off the shelves, and you feel like a rock star and the feeling holds until you get back into your car and catch a glimpse of yourself in the rearview mirror: ponytail half undone, sleepless eyes red as a ferret, smudged mascara, a streak of flour on one cheek.  You bare your teeth and at least there is no kale waving at you, so there’s that.

At the end of the day you circle the bakery with your checklist: refrigerators in the green zone, oven breakers flipped, dishwasher powered off, pest traps uninhabited, bathroom clean, trash receptacles empty, shades drawn, lights off, alarm on. Your phone is dead which makes the BART ride home about rest instead of email catchup and you’re not sure whether to curse the loss of efficiency or be grateful for the chance to lean your head against the cool plastic window and close your eyes.


Not the Civic Center

You jolt awake sticky and disoriented when the recorded voice announces “Civic Center”.   The escalator is broken so you haul your tired legs up the 73 steps.  It is your favorite time of night, what the poets call the gloaming, a word that always makes you think of misty castles. The Civic Center is bustling with junkies, homeless, and the mentally ill; they huddle and mill about, hundreds of them, many of them talking to themselves in loud voices.   You try to steer clear of the ones that look the most dangerous but this is an exercise in futility, so you just plow a straight line through the unkempt mob. There are a few remarks about your ass and a few requests for a dollar, and you are followed twice, both followers melting away at the appearance of a uniformed police man strolling the plaza.

You start walking while looking for a taxi and twenty minutes later you are still walking, sweating and swearing, wondering where all the taxis are, aren’t they supposed to be mad about Uber and Sidecar and Lyft taking away all their business?  Finally you spy one at the light, headed the wrong way, and wave dispiritedly, and for a wonder the driver rolls down his window and yells  “Hold on, I am coming! Wait for me, miss!”  In the indigo twilight, his musical accent, the grand scale government buildings all around, his words sound like something out of a rom-com starring Kate Hudson (if Kate Hudson was a sweat-stained baker with purple streaked hair, tattoos, and flour on her face).

Home, you discover there are visitors that are waiting for you to join them for dinner.  There is no time to change clothes so you wash your face and wish you didn’t look so tired or your hair so scraggly and then it’s a quick walk to the sushi restaurant that is only five blocks away but due to close in half an hour, so it is literally a race against time to eat.  There is a small crowd at the door and you put our name in and head next door to the burger place for a beer where you figure the owner is happy to get your cash but probably also pissed that your party is using his place as a way station rather than a destination.

Your party is called and you happily sit at a table whose top is crowded with miso, wakame, garlic edamame.  You order everything spicy that the menu has to offer; one dish actually arrives at the table on fire.   It’s going on an eighteen hour day but you are mellow from beer and feeling pretty good, the sushi is spectacular as usual and you don’t pay any attention to the nudge on your foot; the tables here are tiny and crammed in, you figure it’s someone’s shoe and move your own.  The nudge comes again and you shift again and forget about it until the nudge comes a whole lot higher up, not your shoe but your lap, and now you can feel distinct little claws even as you look down in time to see the rounded ears and long tail that belong to the rat that has just crawled up your leg and onto the white expanse of your napkin.

You feel the blood not so much drain as drop from your face as you shove the napkin blindly away and luckily (if that word can be used in this situation) the rat dives down to the floor and not up to your face or over to your daughter.  What’s wrong, everyone at the table asks you at your sudden movement and pale face and you don’t have to answer because the people at the only other occupied table in the establishment all do it for you when they see the escape artist scampering past them and scream “RAT!!!!.”

beerThe waiter gives your table lots of free beer and half off the not-inconsiderable bill which is good but on reflection maybe not enough to make up for a RAT IN YOUR LAP.  You tell your friends because how can you not, the story is just too shuddery good, and everyone vows if they were you they’d take to social media at once and take the restaurant out, take it down.  You are shocked at how quick the torches came out, how quickly these nice liberal progressives have become a social media mob.

You do not log onto Yelp, in fact you are inclined to be sympathetic to the restaurant because you know, like other non-food-business-operators apparently do not, that a rat doesn’t mean the place is dirty, a rat doesn’t mean the food is contaminated. There are three restaurants adjacent to the sushi place and if one of them gets a rat, they all get a rat, as a kitchen operator your place is only as rat-free as all of the places around your place.

Home again, you stand in the darkened kitchen looking at the bright sliver of moon framed in the window over the sink while drinking a glass of water. The dog is at your feet hoping even at this late hour for a rawhide chew when a mouse strolls out from under the stove, glances at the dog, and continues on its way to the laundry room.  You (and the dog) watch this little tableau with no reaction whatsoever.  You finish your water, put the glass in the dishwasher, and head to bed and you do not dream of Ratatouille which is as good of an end to the day as you could expect.

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…..