How I Built a Barbecue Restaurant in Brooklyn: The Toll of Owning Your Business

Hey Tyson!

[Photograph: Clay Williams]

Clay Williams

Note: Last week, the Arrogant Swine finally opened for business. I'm still collecting my thoughts to let you know how it went, but in the meantime, here's another topic I've had on my mind about being a first-time restaurant owner.

My buddy's brother Bill (not his real name) was a military sniper. A sniper is one of the more frighteningly tough human beings in the world, ranking up there between bomb defusion experts and mothers who give birth to 11-pound babies. I was under the impression that snipers were simply called in when a high profile problem needed to be "handled." But it turns out that shooting people constitutes only about 20% of what snipers actually do. They actually spend most of their time stalking their targets and gathering intelligence.

Apparently drug lords and the heads of terrorist groups don't just conveniently stroll out into the open. On his assignments, Bill would wait for days for his target to reveal himself. Since wifi isn't readily available in Latin American jungles, he was basically staring at dirt for days on end.

After a while, in between ending the lives of some of the world's most violent people, Bill started asking questions about that dirt. He began to read books and articles about it, and he became so obsessed that by the time he finished his tour of duty, he graduated with a PhD on the subject of dirt, and now spends his time traveling the country to collect soil samples.

Compared to Bill, my career pivot isn't all that dramatic. From working in an office on Wall Street to smoking hogs in a Bushwick warehouse, it's not the greatest shift on earth. But there's one question about the change people keep asking me: how does it feel to be your own boss and run your own business?

That's something of a psychological question, so if you indulge me I'm going to talk about my inner life for a bit, and you get to be the shrink. If anyone can prescribe some pills, it would be greatly appreciated.

You're Famous Now!

What's on the menu?
My opening day menu: hog, outside brown, slaw, turkey legs, sausage, ribs, sweet potato waffles, and mac and cheese waffles. Clay Williams

That's true, but it's not peachy. Let me explain.

A while back, my pal Kristen got me an invite to a multi-course pork tasting dinner at Louro, a spiffy restaurant in the West Village. Starting your own restaurant is kinda like being back in college—any free food is a boon because you're too busy and poor to eat.

Because Kristen is a sweetheart, she sat me right next to the chef and author Sara Moulton. Really? Sara freakin' Moulton?!! I darn near passed out. Sara was part of the OGs on the Food Network along with Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, and Emeril Lagasse, and others. I used to watch her after school! I'm easily starstruck by my food heros. If Martin Yan or Emeril ever shook my hand, I'd probably giggle like a little kid. It's an otherworldly experience to share a meal with your childhood idol.

Apparently Sara she had come across some article on me. "You're famous!" she joked. "Yeah, there's nothing sadder than being famous and poor," I lamented.

"I know the feeling," she responded.

What? You're Sara Moulton! A professional badass. The author of an entire library of cookbooks, a former executive chef at Gourmet magazine, someone who's filmed thousands of television episodes and is a beloved titan of the industry!

Now, Sara isn't poor by any means, but her choice to devote more of her time to raising her kids and supporting her husband meant she wasn't making as much as someone of her stature could. She was just like the rest of us: doing it for the love of the game, hustling to pay the bills, a regular Jane dealing with the turbulence of life one step at a time. People forget that being "famous" means you still have plenty of regular-ass problems to deal with. And they forget that fame means wearing a target on your back in response to slights you never committed.

You don't have to look hard to find comments on articles and blog posts about me, comments dismissing me as some rich asshole who knows nothing about barbecue. But I'm not rich, really. Yes, I'm in charge of a quarter-million dollar budget for my restaurant. But that's not money for me. Since starting on this project, I've yet to draw a salary. I long ago exhausted my 401K savings.

Now in the media, I'm looking pretty good. Being featured in Brooklyn Magazine's "Brooklyn 20 Summer," an annual snapshot of the 20 coolest things happening this year, should have been a major highlight of my summer. Who wouldn't want an entire magazine profile on them? I've been in New York Magazine as well as Garden & Gun, a publication I've long loved because of John T. Edge's arrestingly brilliant articles.

But it was hard to feel on top of the world when I stood alone at my site, my [now former] partners completely neglecting the project. It's hard to be puffed up when you have only two days' worth of work left on plumbing, and your plumber doesn't answer your calls for three weeks.

This is my reality as I sit front of my computer screen munching on the $5 Doritos special from Taco Bell, because at 11 p.m. there aren't many healthy cheap options around. On Facebook, another chef has just sent me an article with someone declaring, "he's believing his own hype. I can't wait until reality kicks in and this schmuck gets knocked back down to earth!!"

What, Me Worry?

Hey Tyson!
[Photograph: Clay Williams]. Clay Williams

In high school, word came that my grandmother, who lived in Malaysia, was dying. I rushed to get a flight, but direct flights were limited and a flight could take 24 hours. By the time I finally secured a ticket, she had passed away surrounded by family. I never got to say goodbye.

Building my restaurant sends me right back to that frame of mind, racing to see my grandmother before time runs out. Getting the place open colored everything I did. It hung over my head.

Everything weighs on me. A procrastinating plumber. The ticking clock until my next rent check is due while I have no revenue. I don't get days off—a day off would just be spent worrying about what I still have to do. I have to charge forward, because not only is failure a possible option, it's the single most readily available option.

No Balance Here

Clay Williams

People always ask me: how do you balance everything? Work? Life? Family? The simple answer is I don't. I'm a horrible father, a lackluster husband, and a mediocre friend at best. I no longer have time for hobbies, intellectual pursuits, or even silly time-wasters.

There's a reason why big accomplishments always come with effusive thanks to family and friends. It's not just about giving thanks—it's about publicly apologizing to the people who've sacrificed so much so you can realize a dream.

How do I live with it? By showing those close to me why I care about this so much. My kid is only seven years old, but she gets why I love what I do. She had her first bite of whole hog at age two and rubbed her first brisket before she could read. I don't expect her to be like me, or love what I love, but I do feel it's important for kids to see their parents passionate about something.

If there's any consolation prize to all of this, great leaders have emerged from the failures of their fathers. Danny Meyer started a restaurant empire out of the ashes of his father's collapsed business. Aaron Franklin, the nation's most well known barbecue guy, was inspired by his father's busted work. Who knows? Perhaps my girl's next.

Taking the Good With the Bad

Clay Williams

It might seem that everything is doom and gloom for Uncle Ho, but I promise you there are bright spots. For years, my life was all middle ground: highs that weren't very high and lows that weren't very low. But at my own restaurant, my highs are very high indeed. It's a high that only creative work can give you. When over 250 people file into a landscaping inventory lot because you're throwing a party, that's heady stuff. Transforming a busted, leaky warehouse into a welcoming and beautiful gathering space is more exciting than I could have imagined.

For years, none of my friends really knew what I did for a living. "Something with finance," they'd say. Today they don't just know, but they're excited about it, too. At my old job, I'd throw hours of my life at an investment bank and never got a thank you. Now, any time I throw a party for one of my corporate clients, I get smiles, thanks, and a nice fat tip.

I have helped couples celebrate their weddings. I helped a gentleman mark his tenth year of surviving cancer. My work has allowed me to meet famous artists, tech CEOs, cookbook authors, and musicians. I get to make commentary on several major food sites. I got to show up in an Arby's commercial. I get to talk with all of you Serious Eaters! Life is pretty freakin' cool.

Therapy Through Binge Eating

Clay Williams

How else do I cope? Like all of you, I spend an exorbitant amount of time thinking about food. Especially now that time and budget limitations keep me from eating what I'd want. I dream of Argentinean parrilladas, creamy blood sausages, and chewy short ribs—all dramatic contrasts to the processed chopped beef I eat daily in patty or taco form. I dream of slow simmered hen pot-au-feu overflowing with clean boiled vegetables. A grand saffron-tinged bowl of aioli to balance out my current diet, which is largely deep fried.

And there's one meal I think about when things get really tough.

I'd do anything to eat with my grandmother one last time. I'd love to show her around my space and feed her like she fed me. I'd love to unburden my struggles, stress, and frustrations to her.

My last meal with my grandmother was on a muggy evening in Malaysia. She took a not-quite-ripe mango down from one of her trees because her impatient grandson spent the week asking if the mangoes were ready yet.

"You're going back to America tomorrow," she said.

"I'll miss you, Grandma. Will you come visit me?" I asked.

"The flights are too long for an old woman like me."

"Well when I grow up I'll be able to fly anytime I want and I'll always come visit you!"

"Good," she nodded, and peeled a plate of green, stiff, unripened mangoes for us to eat. It was the best meal I've ever had.