Two Customers

Two lunch customers. Late in the day. First one came in, and then the other. They didn’t know each other. They sat at adjacent tables. The dining room was otherwise empty.

One had a book. The other had a smartphone. They were prepared for solo dining.

And they could easily have remained in their personal bubbles, eaten their meals, left with no more than a passing acknowledgment of the other’s presence. And that would have been fine.

But they didn’t.

Instead, they started talking. I don’t know which one spoke first, but I know that within a few minutes they had each shared a bit of themselves with the stranger at the other table. Soon neither one was a stranger.

There is something about the space that facilitates this kind of interaction. Maybe it’s the way the tables are set up. Maybe it’s the help-yourself ethos: pour your own water, pick through the basket of teabags to find something you like, carry your mug back to your table. Whatever it is, the room itself offers the opportunity for a chance encounter, a moment of random connection free of agenda or expectation.

It’s kind of a little gift, isn’t it.

People come to have a meal. They leave feeling seen, heard. Fed.

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Data

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 the final post, #31.


All this time I thought I was writing about the café.

Well, I was.

But it turns out I was also writing about the meta stuff: right livelihood, and being in the flow of something you don’t quite understand and aren’t quite sure of, letting it guide you. Letting it seek its own level, express its own logic.

Also: I’ve been writing about finding a reason to get up and go to work every day, because for most of us, that’s our life.

Having a job you like is a rare thing. A job that suits you, that you look forward to returning to after some time away – not because you’re bored or otherwise at loose ends in your off hours, but because the work is one expression of who and what you are, and you need to spend time with all the whos and whats that you are in order to fully inhabit your life.

With respect to right livelihood, the question people like to ask is, “Would you do it if you didn’t get paid for it?” That’s has always seemed to me to be the wrong question, a fantasy question. Not without value as a thought experiment, but not very useful when it comes down to figuring out what we actually need from our jobs. Because pretty much all of us need to get paid.

So what is useful? Data.

The best comes in the form of lived experience. What does it feel like to actually do the thing?

Here’s a surprise: we don’t always like what we think we’re going to like. The idea of the thing is not the thing. Have we had this conversation already?

Anyway, I now have a bit of data. And it’s the end of the month. And tomorrow begins a new year. Let’s see what happens next.

Penultimate

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 #30.


Today I’ll finish up the last order of the year, party food for the 40th birthday of a friend of a friend. I’m thinking if it were my birthday, I’d want the food to look especially pretty, so I’m arranging it in my head as I prepare to go to the kitchen.

Making a pretty plate is one of my favorite parts of this job. On any given day I get two dozen tries to get it right. For a party platter, I just get one. So I’m giving it a lot of thought, scrolling around online, absorbing inspiration. Color, shape, juxtaposition.

There’s a reason people take pictures of their food, the Buddha bowl of colorful veggies, the latte art atop their cups. Pretty food delights. It’s a gift, and an invitation.

Plus it makes me happy to do it. And I think the happy comes through. It’s right there, wrapped up in the veggie rolls, tucked into the little taco cups.

It tastes good.

Which People? Which Options?

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 #29.


Sometimes people ask me for things I can’t deliver. They’re usually nice about it, like the person who wondered if I would continue my predecessors’ practice of including a raw-food day once a week. Or the ones who asked if I could offer a 100% oil-free meal option, or green smoothies. They were disappointed to hear that I didn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t.

I don’t like to disappoint. I like saying yes.

But sometimes it feels better — is better — to say no.

There’s a temptation, when you’re a very small business like we are, to try to please all the people. To do all the things, be all the things, offer all the options. But really, we can’t do or be all the things. We have constraints, there are limits. And we’re not good at all the things. So I have to choose: which people, which things, which options.

Certain food preferences are more suited to a home kitchen than to a pay-what-you-can café. Raw meals, green smoothies, these are expensive things to serve, and much as I would like that not to matter, it matters. It has to matter if we intend to be around six months from now, a year from now. Our predecessors did these things, and they’re no longer here. And while I have to be careful what conclusions I draw from their experience, I think it’s safe to say some choices don’t work. Some requests can’t be fulfilled.

Not today. Not this week. Not by us.

Defining ourselves is as much about what we aren’t as what we are. Yes, we grow, we evolve, things don’t stay constant. Today’s no might become next year’s yes. That said, I want to remain true to my purpose here, my why, even as it, too, evolves. The only way I know how to do that is to keep asking, again and again, which people, which things, which options?

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.

So How Are We Doing?

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 #27.


In previous posts I’ve touched on how this little enterprise got started and how I was able to take it over and keep it going with no capital and the smallest of startup budgets.

You can scroll back and read from the beginning if you like, but here’s a quick recap: the business I assumed had an existing customer base, not large, but loyal. The monthly operational costs were minimal. The equipment was in place, the kitchen already certified. I had all the tableware and linens I needed. The lease was a percent-of-gross with no deposits or up-front payments required.

All the cafe had to do was cover its own costs and our personal living expenses, which were — and are — low enough that I was fairly confident we could live on the small amount it was likely to generate in its first year.

It’s been a year now.

So how are we doing?

We’ve served nearly 4000 meals. We’ve built relationships with local farmers. We’ve had a couple articles written about us. We see new people every week, and our regulars keep coming back.

We hosted a Woody Guthrie Birthday Dinner in July and an Open House Party in October, both of which filled the dining room with people and music. We brought musicians together for a monthly Song Circle. We catered church events and meetings. We helped get an Organic Buying Club established in a little space right off the dining room.

And we earned enough to pay our household expenses each month.

Not bad for year one.

Challenges? Oh, yes. I’ll get to them tomorrow.

For today, let’s just let the good news have its moment.

Broccoli

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 #26.


Every Sunday I make the rounds of my local grocery stores and markets, gathering what I need for the week’s meals. It’s almost all supermarket food right now; only one of my regular local farms is growing for the cold season, keeping their greens going in long caterpillar tunnels.

This past fall they started offering broccoli greens. Big deep green leaves that I like so much more than the more familiar kale and collards. They’re very tender, unlike kale, which can be a little toothy. They cook up quickly, like spinach, without the massive spinach shrinkage. And they’re sweet like chard, without the crazy high price of chard. What’s not to love?

Have you ever seen a broccoli plant? It’s big. The leaves comprise most of it, and they’re impressive, dwarfing the clustered flower head that we think of as broccoli. They make up 75% of the plant, and yet we never see them in stores. Do they just get left in the field, plowed under after harvest? Maybe they end up as animal fodder, or as those bits of greens I see when I open a can of fancy “with greens and sauce” cat food for our trio of cats at home.

I read somewhere that broccoli greens are a trending food for 2018. Soon they’ll be all over Pinterest, replacing kale, which we’re all tired of anyway. For a minute, though, we’re trendy, right here at our little café in flyover country.

As a friend once said, out beyond the fringe, there lies the cutting edge.