What’s Hard

At the beginning of 2017 I took over the operation of a pay-what-you-can vegan lunch café here in the heart of meat-and-potatoes Midwest America. On December first, I gave myself a daily blogging challenge to write about this café, to tell its story, and maybe figure out a little of my own story in the process. This is Post #28.

The lighting in the kitchen is bad. Old fluorescent tubes that flicker and go out. On winter mornings and late afternoons it can be pretty shadowy in there. And cold. It’s a big old building. The basement — where we are — heats last.

Two of the four ovens below the cooktop don’t work properly. One won’t light at all, the other will only heat to full temp — 500 degrees, give or take. Okay for pizza, but otherwise not useful. Not to worry, the two that work are sufficient. Plus there is a tall double oven, but for weeks we couldn’t figure out how to light them, and when we did figure it out, we realized they, too, seem to perform only at full temp, so we don’t use them much.

When one of the two reliable ovens went out, we made do with a single oven for several weeks, until the pastor tracked down the necessary part to repair the one that went out. Did I mention these ovens were installed sometime in the 1940s? Finding that part was no small miracle, but the pastor is resourceful.

There were recipe fails. The jonny cakes. The tian. Flatbread that hardened like a piece of sheetrock. A broccoli rice soup that turned grey in the pot. A forgotten sheet of kofta that turned to cinders in the oven — and not the 500 degree oven, so I couldn’t even blame the equipment. Rice that congealed in the pot until I learned I could bake it and it would stay nice and fluffy throughout an entire lunch.

I wrestled for a while with pay-what-you-can, until I realized that $7 was what people were comfortable paying, so I should make a nice $7 lunch and not make a $12 lunch and get all irritable because people would only pay $7 for it.

There were days when 11 people showed up, and I would stand at the deep sink at the end of the day and wail, “Why am I doing this?” There were days when 40 people came and I scrambled to feed them all.

These days would often come back-to-back.

We ran out of food at least once a week. The voice in my head tells me I should always make more than I think I need, but if I always make more than I need the business will not survive. Sometimes people grumble about the fact that we sell out before our 2:30 close. I think — but do not say — that on the days we do not sell out, I’m often left with enough food to feed myself for the remainder of the week. I put up a “sold out” post on Facebook, but I do not post “We still have 20 meals! Come eat!”

Maybe I should.

I’ve considered having a fixed menu, so there will always be something on offer. I can’t figure out how to pull it off, though, when it’s only me in the kitchen.

Logistics are hard. There’s so much that is beyond my control. Like most restaurants, we operate on very slim margins. One slow day is not the end of the world, but a slow week can cripple us. A snowstorm? We might as well stay home and feed our bills into the wood stove.

As we go into our second year it seems clear that we need to diversify. The options are many; the hours available to pursue them are limited. I have to choose carefully, feel my way toward the ones that are most likely to add satisfaction as well as stability, that will be met with enthusiasm by my customers, that will not leave me exhausted at the end of the week. Not knowing is hard. C’est la vie.