The Writing on the Wall

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.

17 thoughts on “The Writing on the Wall

  1. Magnificent writing, as always, Hannah. I really enjoy your metaphors, silly as that may sound. Thank you for sharing this honest and vulnerable piece. (Oh, jeez… I just did a Google search of HiaH—I’d no idea that it closed and that you no longer work there. I’m so very sorry.) <3

  2. So glad you decided to post this, love. I miss Health in a Hurry, and working in the kitchen with you and Sue and the rest…Well done, and wow…talk about timing.

    1. I too miss you girls and working together at HIAH , but with every death there is birth . Hannah , you are a creator …… if it is your desire to open up a shop, dont let fear guide you , let love , and the journey be your guide .

      1. I miss you two lovely ladies so much! So thrilled to see your comments here and to get the same encouragement and support as before. I really hope we can all get together sometime soon!

  3. I’ve always been a fan of your writing Hannah but this is exemplary. Thank you for sharing somehthing so close to your heart and I hope you never completely give up on the idea of owning your own bakery. As they say, Never Say Never.

  4. Remember that sometimes a new dream is born as one passes on. Both you and Sue are among the most talented women I know. I am confident that Sue will find a new and viable path. As for your dream, never give it up, just allow it to grow.

  5. <3 you.

    I was just interviewing a bakery owner yesterday for a magazine piece and she talked about a lot of those tensions you brought up. Except for her, she went in 100% to cater to the customer and has built an incredibly successful business out of it. Cupcakes of all things. I mean, who still buys those? But she's flooded with orders and is really making it. Put a lot of things into perspective, talking with her.

    Not that it's not depressing that it's almost impossible to make a personal dream work ,that it's all market driven.

    Anyways. Your essay is great–I bet the series reads well!

    1. Thank you, it’s good to be reminded that there are some out there beating the odds, succeeding in such a difficult field. I’m inspired by anyone who even attempts it. It takes a very strong, wise, and dedicated person, that much I know…

  6. Unfortunately for every one restaurant or bakery that makes it there are ten that don’t, and often they’ve done all the right things. I know more than a few people who have gone from “maybe someday” to “no way, no how, no thank you,” usually under similar circumstances to what you’ve described. Creating the market – convincing the customer to share that dream to a sufficient extent in just the right economic climate to make it viable and get it off the ground – takes a lot of luck as well as work, sacrifice and talent.

  7. This was fun to read! In an informative way I mean, the content is pretty sad. But yeah, restaurants are extremely risky, and costly, which is all part of the reasons I won’t aspire to such things either. That said, it’s not all doomed to fail, just because most do. It’s the same with being a musician in a way. It can be very difficult to earn money as a musician, and most don’t, but that’s not to say it’s impossible. Just some perspective. Take care!

  8. I have always admired your writing Hannah. and now even more. So raw and written from the heart. I havent seen anything behind the doors of restaurant or a bakery but the faces and stories that float out, the churn of the place being there one month and a new one opening the next., all point to similar problems. As a family, we try to choose local options more than the cheap mass produced ones, and hope that the favorites stick around.

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