Edible Austin - John Hoberman

Zen and the Art of Junk Maintenance: John Ogdenby David Ansel

Deep within the belly of the weed-choked, unmarked commercial kitchen equipment junkyard, through a narrow canyon of stainless-steel vent hoods, teetering piles of walk-in refrigerator panels, grease-encrusted fryers, battleship ten-burners and the occasional dough-sheeter, beyond the crossroads of the valley of shattered two-door merchandisers and the field of rusted metro shelving and steam jackets, an enigmatic hero clutching a cordless phone and a receipt pad appears at the gate of a cavernous warehouse.. This is the inner sanctum of Ogden Restaurant Supply, where John Hoberman holds court. (nice paragraph, David)

Hoberman, actually known to customers as “Ogden,” is Austin's Rain Man of restaurant equipment. He maintains a scarily accurate mental map of tens of thousands of unorganized pieces of equipment and spare parts, and knows the current price on every single piece of equipment advertised in industry catalogs. For those in search of anything from a dicing grid for a mid-70s Robot Coupe to a replacement tread for a Sherman tank, he’s your man.

“A used two-door mega-top runs $795,” he recites to a customer, as if stating an immutable truth. “The one over there is a standard ten-pan unit. $775 for a two-door ten-pan.” (nice!)

It’s a business model that would drop the jaws of MBA candidates to the floor: Hoberman buys decades-old equipment for pennies on the dollar at auction, fixes it up and sells it for nearly the price of brand-new equipment. Oh, and he takes a 50% deposit before touching the equipment. The secret is that restaurant equipment is generally built for no-frills, single-purpose functions: make stuff hot, make stuff cold, chop stuff. Properly maintained and/or occasionally rebuilt, much of it can essentially work forever. And with a never-ending glut of equipment from failed, ill-advised endeavors into the people-feeding business, you have the makings of a millionaire who happens to drive a beater pickup, wear grease-stained jeans and spend his days neck-deep in junk.

How did it all begin?

“This whole thing started with me deciding in college that I was going to tune my logical thought process to figure out through various investigations, meditations, concentration activities and lots of study, how the universe got created,” (HAHAHAHAHAHAHA best to start small, yes?) states Hoberman, matter-of-factly. “To make a long story short, I had a visionary experience and found what I was looking for.”

That experience led him to phone an Omaha radio call-in show to describe his vision of creating matter from mind stuff to a touring minister named Stephen Gaskin. Yes, the Stephen Gaskin, co-founder of The Farm. Yes, The Farm of Summerville, Tennessee—the famous spiritual intentional community. Upon hearing Hoberman’s vision (aren’t you the least bit curious what the experience was???), Gaskin exclaimed to the bible-belt listenership, “I want all you people to realize THAT WAS A TRUE TRIP!” (not sure I get what he means by a “true trip”… like a hippy would say-dude it was such a trip? Yes, like a hippie Or as in it was a legitimate journey?) Hoberman and his wife Susan soon packed their bags and moved to The Farm, where they turned in their bucket of silver bullion to the collective and stayed for nine years.

The Farm used machinery extensively—from combines and tractors for agriculture, to a solar construction company—and all of that equipment needed maintenance. Hoberman had found his niche. He paired his early experience working in his father’s copper-recycling factory with The Farm’s shoestring budget constraints to spearhead a project that built a laundry and bathhouse for the residents by trading scrap metal for broken-down Swedish washing machines.

Soon he was then bumped up into food service, which was primarily concerned with freezing and canning produce for winter sustenance. Hoberman’s guts had never agreed with the pressure-cooked soy beans—the protein staple for the collective—so he set up a tofu manufacturing operation. At the same time, a group from Vanderbilt University did a study on the vegetarian diet of the collective and found it to be balanced but lacking in calories. They recommended the addition of white flour and sugar. (Give them a break. It was the 70s.) Combining the results of the study, the huge surplus of soy milk from the tofu operation and the reconditioned Dairy Queen soft-serve machine that Hoberman had serendipitously acquired, a soy ice cream dream was born for The Farm, making Hoberman one of the first innovators in the field.

Hoberman’s family and several others were packed into a refurbished Greyhound Scenicruiser and shipped off to San Francisco to create a soy ice cream factory with the generous startup budget of $5,000. Ultimately the mission was doomed to failure, but their “Farm Foods Soy Ice Bean” eventually became part of the Hain Foods conglomerate through a series of acquisitions.

Finally Hoberman and family arrived in Austin and landed at a collective located at Chicon and Cesar Chavez. His romance with collective living, however, was waning . “Some people thought I was too interested in making money and I felt others weren’t interested enough in making money,” Hoberman says. “A collective lifestyle has the generalized effect of de-motivating the most highly motivated people. Your efforts are diluted by the combined effort, or lack thereof, of everyone else.” So he threw himself into being a successful capitalist.

Enter John Ogden. The real Ogden, according to the ersatz Ogden, owned a small used restaurant equipment business but was content—thanks to his wife’s wealth—to use it primarily as a napping locale instead of a place of business. Hoberman, who had by now become a master refrigeration technician, made a deal with Ogden: instead of just selling the equipment as-is, he would repair and warranty the equipment and they’d split the profits. Deal. Then Hoberman suggested they get into the icemaker-leasing business, providing a solid revenue stream. The business snowballed from there.

Hoberman’s departure from philosophic ideals was only partial, however. He carries his college studies of Zen into his art of maintenance work life. “It’s very relevant to the work here,” he says. “I use the work as a discipline to focus my intention by. I assume that each situation in which I find myself is posed as a test of my ingenuity and resolve. I’ll find myself out in some boony location trying to move an 800 pound oven by myself and all that is there is a broomstick, a pack of matches and a crowbar. The job for me is to figure out the answer which was already laid out for me to find. By doing that, you open your mind to possibilities that most people would not discover because they presuppose a negative outcome. It makes you look like a magician because you do things that people don’t think can be done. People don’t realize the extent to which outcomes are shaped by negative versus positive thinking. It’s kind of a teleology thing, where your presupposition closes or opens whole sets of possibilities. It’s analogous to sending a missile off—if you get the trajectory off by a tiny little percentage on the ground then the outcome can be half a solar system away at the other end.”

Not exactly a Fred Sanford monologue.

As far as a business ethos, Hoberman says the key to being a successful capitalist is to “find a technique for time-binding. Money is symbolic of energy as a medium of exchange between people. So if you can figure out a way to make your past energy pay you today, you’ll find success.” He goes on to relay the tall tale of George Westinghouse charging Ford $10,000 dollars for a seemingly easy repair. “The part cost $10 dollars,” says Hoberman. ”Knowing where to look cost the other $9,990.”

Hoberman is a riddle to be sure. He runs a highly profitable business out of a place that inspired Daily Juice owner Matt Shook to wonder aloud if he was going to get attacked by some insane axe murderer by simply walking onto the lot. He quotes Gurdjieff and Roshi with the same nonchalance as listing the amperage specifications for a 100 quart mixer. He looks like he walked out of a Ford truck commercial yet he’s been a vegetarian for 39 years. He earns devotion from clients yet treats them in a manner not consistent with most accepted customer service theories (“Will it take a long time to get it ready?” “Well, it takes a long time to do anything except ask stupid questions.”). He’s a delightful combination of crustiness and eloquence.

His domain is the back of the house for the back of the house. What looks like a junkyard to the untrained eye can inspire an air of reverence or even awe among the food service professional. It’s a graveyard swirling with stories. How many sorry saps stood in front of that charbroiler sweating night after night? Whose dreams were built on the purchase of that convection oven? It’s a place of resurrection as much as repair; phoenix as much as vulture—where the energy of Austin’s past failures is recycled into its next successes.