Betting the Grocery Money

This is Day 4 in a month of posts about how I became the owner of a pay-what-you-can vegan lunch café in the middle of meat-and-potatoes Midwest America. If you’d like to learn more about the café, I invite you to visit the website or find us on Facebook

So how does someone launch — or in this case, take over the operation of — a business when they have no capital?

During the years I was working for other people, I read a lot of bootstrap guides and turn-your-passion-into-a-profit stories, and here’s what I learned from them: there is no template. Every single bootstrap business has its own row to hoe, its own set of unique circumstances and confluences that surround its coming into being. That’s why you can read a hundred of those guides and still not have a clue how to apply them to your own particular project.

Something else I learned: money is often not the most important thing.

Still, you need at least some, right? Well, yes. In this case, I needed what amounted to grocery money, enough cash on hand to buy the ingredients to cook my first week of meals. Had I not had enough for the first week, I could have started with the first day, and gone back to the grocery store after work with the money earned from that day’s sales to buy ingredients for the next day. Assuming there would be sales.

Sounds a little… iffy, doesn’t it.

It was. But I had six weeks to stash my tips from my barista job, and it was holiday season, so maybe I would sell a piece of artwork, and if all else failed, I had a credit card.

Fortunately, what I didn’t need to buy was kitchen equipment. Or serving ware. Or table linens. Those were already on hand, the latter stacked on tall shelves in the storage room, a mismatched assemblage of placemats and tablecloths and napkins accumulated through years of donations to the church.

The kitchen was fully equipped. Churchfolk had been cooking in there for most of the previous century, and there were stockpots and skillets and baking sheets and every utensil imaginable. There was a large commercial refrigerator. There were drawers of flatware, cupboards full of plates and bowls and coffee cups (Inca Shenango, classic 40s tan with burgandy stripe. Totally dated but tough as nails. I’ve yet to break one.) There was a food processor, a Hobart mixer, roasters and generations-worth of tin pie pans. A drawer full of knives of all sizes, some of them obviously hand-made. Mixing bowls, measuring cups.

I didn’t have to buy a single utensil or baking pan.

I also walked into a percent-of-gross lease with no upfront deposit, no utility deposit. The kitchen was already certified for the year, and Wendy would continue on the books as kitchen manager for the first few months, which satisfied the health department. I would need to re-certify within six months, but I could start cooking and serving right away.

These were all unique circumstances.

The only other expense I had out of the gate was my retail tax certificate, issued by the county. It cost $25.

And one last thing I had that was more important than money: I had relationships with many of the people who, with any luck, would be my customers. I knew them from my years at the co-op, from my prior ownership of a local coffeehouse, from community engagements and previous projects, concerts  and poetry readings I’d organized or attended. Art shows. Volunteer work. There was considerable overlap between this circle of friends and acquaintances, and Wendy and Matt’s circle of customers, particularly the folks who had followed them from the co-op to the church.

I was pretty sure they would come when we re-opened the doors in mid-January.

I was betting the grocery money on it.