And now, for something completely different: Since I’ve been a bit short on words lately, I wanted to share a few pieces previously written for an English composition class. We were tasked with writing a number of essays, all loosely related in theme. Read on for my memoir submission if you please, or skip away for this week. Bear in mind that this was written in the summer, and turned out to be foreshadowing later events… Your regularly programed recipes and reviews shall resume shortly!
Death of a Dream
Warning signs were everywhere; loud, obnoxiously glaring, aggressively bold, and unavoidable. Yet for weeks upon months, I simply clamped my eyes shut and rammed my fingers in my ears. Operating on the theory that if I don’t acknowledge the problem, then it didn’t exist, I was able to lull myself to sleep at night in a cocoon of ignorance. If only it were so simple.
Scheduled to speak at an organic food festival in NYC on one warm weekend in July, I arrived with too few hours of meaningful rest under my belt and no plan at all. Cookies and cake were baked, and free food is never a hard sell, so I strode blindly into the spotlight, banking on having a hungry audience and not much else. Mercifully, the crowd was abundant and ravenous for information as well as desserts, which led the way to a question and answer session far better than any lecture I could have prepared. The openness and genuine compassion was palpable; things moved right along at a steady clip, without a hitch. So when one innocent, unassuming question caught me off guard, even I was stunned at my response.
“Would you ever think of opening your own bakery?” The words floated out from nowhere at all, the speaker lost in a sea of faces. Final syllables lingered like a steadily growing fog in the air as I paused for an extra beat, deliberating how best to begin. Suddenly, without warning, I had to address the elephant in the kitchen.
From a place far away, seemingly removed from my own body, I heard myself begin to speak. “In some tiny, very quiet corner of my mind, I have this idea that it would be a really fun adventure…” I rambled as I tried to sort out the situation hastily, but the tone changed, my voice began to quake and shiver. I thought of Health in a Hurry, the restaurant that I considered a second home, of Sue Cadwell, my boss, mentor, and inspiration of six years running, and the tidal wave of all the red flags hit me full-force, sweeping me away in the undertow. The truth is, I could never open my own business after witnessing the struggle first hand.
Following the mental trail of breadcrumbs, I pieced together that gruesome puzzle to assess the damages. Months had passed since my last paycheck, and still I showed up for work when called upon. I may make minimum wage, and I may not work more than a day a week during slow times, but certainly I had earned more than the $50 I netted for the previous year of service. Then, there were those slow times themselves to take into consideration: How many business models can survive based on anticipating a total of three customers a day? How do a handful of $1 cookies, made with maple syrup and organic flours pay the electric bills, let alone turn a profit? Then there was the ambiguous threat of unspecified debt that periodically floated into conversations. Whether it was hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands, only Sue knew for sure, but I didn’t get the sense that it was a minor sum, even in the most optimistic of mindsets.
Barring some incredible, unbelievable miracle, it was hard to imagine that the business could continue clinging to life, just barely scraping by, long enough to see another birthday. I saw my dreams in Sue’s dreams, my own imaginary bakery in her shop. A lovingly tended container garden decorated the scant outdoor space which blended with the parking lot beyond. Inspirational quotes adorned the bright green walls. Every inch of usable space was maximized and used to the fullest; some might call it cluttered, but to us, it was perfectly organized. The passion that went into crafting such an establishment was clear to anyone who ventured in for a meal.
Built on a foundation of organic, local produce, expenses were undeniably higher than most start-ups, and to make those wholesome meals accessible to all, it would be generous to describe the profit margins as slim. Slim to none is more like it. Hidden behind a whole building complex, without money to advertise, who was to even know our humble kitchen even existed? Perhaps the miracle here was that Health in a Hurry survived for so long in this hostile, viciously competitive marketplace.
Sue was far too optimistic to let on the true severity of the situation, but when it all became crystal clear when I caught sight of a long overdue bill. Abandoned on the prep counter and waving periodically in the gentle midday breeze, the temptation to peek was irresistible, and curiosity soon won out over any notions of privacy. I lay down my knife, stalks of celery neatly lined up and ready to be diced, and quickly darted over that mysterious paper. Numbers of unimaginable quantities, all printed in red, burned angrily before my eyes. Each one a tiny fire, together they threatened to engulf the shop in one giant blaze. As if the paper might somehow scald my open palms, I quickly set it back down where I found it, busying myself with work once again as if nothing had happened. I never mentioned the paper to Sue, and she never reported any financial problems to me.
It was immensely painful to sit idly by, watching as this place that is so close to my heart suffered. Like watching a terminally ill friend grow more sick, slowly being drained of life, it was destroying me from the inside out to see the warning signs pile up. Each one pointed to an end of the dream, to Sue’s grand mission to share her food philosophy, and possibly soon. I was deathly afraid to utter such words in front of this eagerly listening crowd, for fear of bringing that resolution even closer to a reality, but this was the harsh truth. Health in a Hurry was in grave danger. There can be great romanticism about the restaurant industry as imagined by the outsider, an idyllic vision of cooking up the dishes you dream about to regulars who love your palate and presentation. The truth is, it’s more than just a fun hobby, and it’s certainly not a game; it’s a business. When the number of dollars going in and out don’t add up, things may just get ugly, rotting from the bottom up until there’s no foundation left to build upon.
Snapping back to the question at hand and the curious faces in the crowd, I could only wonder how much of this I said aloud. The simple fact of the matter is, I was very scared. Scared to death that the only real job I had ever held may soon cease to exist, and that Sue’s dream may in fact fail, after fighting the good fight all this time. No, I could never open my own bakery, or restaurant, or any small business at all.