More tales from the restaurant industry
I'm thrilled that this series on my restaurant-owning adventure gets shared quite bit on the internet. (Thanks for sharing!) But sometimes I'm distressed by the words used to describe it.
"Warning to all who want to open a restaurant," people say, or "Why I would never want to start my own business." After risking everything on my dream, I'd be hypocritical to not encourage others to do the same. But I can't deny that plenty of folks have read my stories and decided that small business ownership isn't for them. So the question remains: Who in her right mind would want to put herself through all this hassle?
The question is a fair one. I haven't been charitable about my experiences. Dealing with contractors alone should be considered a Geneva Convention human rights violation. And what sane, rational person wants to work in an industry more regulated by local government than your average arms dealer, and where your labor pool is 75% drug and alcohol addicts and general undesirables you wish you never met?
You've read about my long hours and my frustrations, the almost paralyzing anxiety of starting a food business in New York. Here's why it's all worth it.
It Hurts So Good
The truth of the matter is that pain and sacrifice are factored into my workday. I've developed an appreciation for the correlation between living your dream and dealing with pain. The greater your ambitions, the more pain they require.
Take an Olympic athlete. Now that is some serious freakin' misery right there. Athletes are constantly in pain from bruised joints, often hungry because they have compete in specific weight classes, and frequently lonely because they have to work investment banker hours—many times in solitude—just to stay competitive. Fatigue is their only regular companion.
Yet how many people make athletes their heroes? We rarely question athletes' sacrifices because we see the goal, however quixotic and far away it may be, as completely worth it. To be the best in the world. To represent the unfettered potential of the human spirit. To be part of history.
Even without going to extremes, every glorious dream job has an equally nightmarish counterpart. Right now there's a long-suffering editor watching me crucify the English language, trying to prune and shape my words into something intelligible. On the flip side, he gets to spend each and every day thinking and writing about food, which beats most 9 to 5 grinds I know. Or take academics, who have to put up with the poor pay, life-altering uncertainty, and office politics of university life, all to spend years working on a single paper or book, but God bless anyone who decides that all the pain is worth it to spend five to seven years writing a dissertation about William Faulkner.
I get to pour beers and cook pigs for a living. Every single day, there are folks walking into the Swine and paying me money so I can practice my craft. I get first dibs on the most exclusive beers on the market. I get to sample small-batch whiskies every other week. I get to create new recipes whenever time allows. Tinkering in the kitchen and feeding others doesn't steal moments from my "real" life—it is my real life.
The price for this privilege is taxing and expensive. But very few people have as much fun at work as I do.
Here's something I wish more people understood off the bat: Despite working in the food business, my team members and I are, first and foremost, entrepreneurs. We're building a business. I'm no different than someone setting up a shop to sell socks or a musician starting his own label. I have more in common with my neighbor Max Hoat, a co-founder and CEO of the tech start-up firm Livestream, than with some corporate head chef over at the Hilton. We have to meet with investors, hire and ensure our crew gets paid, strategize to pay the bills, and deal with every little thing that goes awry.
When we talk about "building a business," we think of money. And yes, I need to make money. But the day to day reality is less cold and capitalism-driven than you'd imagine. That chef at the Hilton might see a six-figure salary depending on the size of her operation. I probably won't see that kind of money for a long, long time, and I'm okay with that. The operative word in "build a business" is "build."
Building a business is about more than maximizing your bottom line. It's about continually raising up our people and operations so we can eventually make good money. I love growing out our bourbon and beer selection so it's the envy of other bars. I love that we are taking on employees who only have a passing interest in craft beers, and developing their palates so they could work at any craft beer bar in the city. I love that we can nurture an employee whose youth, background, and homeless status would send his resume to the trashcan—and make him the single most important member of my team.
As an entrepreneur, happiness is building a business that's the envy of my peers and competitors. I don't have to measure success in dollars; I get to do so on the growth of my organization. Success means pointing at something and saying, "that wasn't there before, and it's there now." It's a heady feeling.
The 10,000-Hour Myth
There's a folk belief, popularized by people like Malcolm Gladwell, that it takes 10,000 hours of doing any particular task to become a master at it. The best part about owning your own shop is having an outlet to get your practice hours in—but you won't need 10,000 hours to do it.
You've probably heard some romantic notions about what it takes to master a craft, be it sushi-shaping, bread-baking, chocolate-making, or hog-cooking. But the fact of the matter is the pathway to operating at a high level doesn't take that much time. In the restaurant world, you can always get better, but you learn a lot very quickly.
When I left college I started working as a baker making natural starters, sourdoughs, poolish doughs, and lye-dipped pretzels. Was I a world-class baker? Maybe not. But in two months or so I had learned all the basics—and well—from mixing, shaping loaves, and operating ovens the size of mini-vans.
That rapid skill acquisition is less about time and more about repetition. I worked six days a week baking thousands of loaves a day—over 24,000 loaves in a month. My specialty was making challah, and I was particularly fast at braiding the loaves, so every week I'd sit at the table braiding hundreds of challahs for the large Jewish community of Tucson, AZ. I was able to condense an entire Jewish grandmother's life of challah-baking into a single Friday.
Anyone who practices a singular cooking craft knows that the key to taking your game to the next level is finding an environment where you can do something over and over again, whether you're making pizza, barbecue, or sushi. General chefs and pastry chefs take so long to master their crafts because they have to learn so many skills and techniques: sauces, doughs, creams, terrines, fondants, and hundreds more.
Me? I cook hogs and pour beer. And many of the people who quit corporate life to work in the food world follow similar single-craft paths. I cook better hogs today than last year, or even since we opened our doors. The Swine allows me to practice my craft.
Anyone who thinks that it takes decades to master the craft of barbecue best take heed the advice of Charles Stamey, the head of Stamey's, the largest and oldest restaurant in North Carolina practicing Piedmont-style barbecue. After chatting with him for a good two and half hours in the Stamey's pits, I asked him how long it took him to learn how to barbecue.
His answer? "Took me one day to learn everything. I then spent the next 50 years trying not to fuck it up."
The Soundtrack of Life
There are a plenty of reasons why anyone shouldn't open up a restaurant. The margins are miniscule, the hours are brutal, the prospects of failure are almost certain. At every turn people question your intentions—they think you're too expensive even though you're breaking even, or they call you a fraud who's not doing justice to the food you're trying to represent.
Plenty of people have left the hospitality world for this very reason. Why kill yourself day in and day out to make very little money and not be appreciated for it? Why hoist yourself into the stocks so the public can throw rotten fruit at you? Why risk financial ruin—and public disgrace—just to make a goddamn plate of food?
As children we idolize rock stars. They provide rhythms to our steps as we walk to school. We play their lyrics as we mature and navigate our way through the world. They boom from speakers in our triumphs. They mourn our tragedies with us. We love them because they provide a soundtrack to our lives. They're not the most important part of our lives, but they're always there.
One fall evening, we were hosting a birthday party at the Swine. It was my client's 40th birthday and he wanted a pig for himself and his 75 guests. It was a jolly time. Lots of pictures posed with the 80-pound pig. Bourbon flowed free. Two cakes were cut. A cross-dressing singing telegram was delivered.
Late into the evening, as the party dwindled and I was heading home, I saw a group from the party hanging out by the bar. I could tell it was nostalgic, the laughter of long-separated friends catching up.
As I bid my good nights, I realized who I was in that equation. I was the soundtrack. I got to bring those people together.
And that's why I opened the Swine. The next day, those people all went back to their neighborhoods, families, and jobs. But for that night they were college roommates again.
I took one last look at their group before walking out into the cold evening, and I could just make out some Josh Ritter lyrics from the restaurant:
I'm inside With my friends We build fires And pretend That the night could just bend On forever