City Of Austin Small Business Week Article

A lot has been written about “product” and I’m afraid I may not have any great wisdom to share on the matter. I have a point of view shaped by my particular experience and observations, but I certainly am not a scholar on the subject. The main challenge with The Soup Peddler, in terms of product, has been the seasonality of my core offering. Let’s be honest, unless you work in an over-air-conditioned office, you probably don’t think too much about soup for much of the year. While the climatic challenge has oddly protected me from competition (hordes of soup entrepreneurs are NOT pounding at the gates of Austin), I have struggled with the conundrum for years. I finally discovered a good solution, a complementary product line of juices, smoothies, and light healthy fare that resonates with our existing brand.

Even if your product or service doesn’t have such an obvious seasonality aspect, you need to consider the “when” in addition to the “what” during your business planning. It’s tempting to simply draw an ever-ascending line of revenues across your pro forma, but it’s just not going to be like that. There are holidays, there are summer vacations, there are slow days of the week. You need to model that reality. How many people are going to come through that door per day? Really? Every day? On rainy days?

In addition to the “when,” you ought to give a good long think about the “who” and “why” with respect to your product. A lot of times we have an overly self-centered perception of the desirability of our product or service. A friend opened a food truck that offered “pre-prepped meal kits.” I asked her how many people: (a) had the free time to cook up one of her kits, but not so much free time that they can shop/prep for themselves, but not so little free time that they wanted completely cooked prepared foods, and (b) lived close enough to her location to make that convenience make sense, and (c) valued the premium ingredients she used so much that they would pay the equivalent of actual finished food. The answer was about five people per day. She thought it was the perfect solution for someone like her. Unfortunately there weren’t so many someones like her.

I will leave the “where” to a future article in this series, but the “how” is a really important part of your product offering. “How”—the packaging, service aspect, ordering process, delivery mechanism—is often as important as the “what” itself. Is a Birds’ Barbershop haircut itself better than anywhere else in that market segment? Maybe, maybe not… but what makes them rule is the feel of being there, the smooth operations, the video games, the free beer. Is a Chipotle burrito better than Taqueria Arandas #5? The answer is no, absolutely not… but what makes them rule is that you can pick your ingredients, get it super-quick, and you know, it’s completely bereft of soul, but it’s perfectly edible. That’s the “how” at work in combination with the “what.”

And finally, I slipped in that word, “soul.” To paraphrase Doug Sahm, “You just can’t be an entrepreneur in Austin if you don’t have a lot of soul.” So, without being indulgent (I’ve been guilty of this), you ought to imbue your offering with some measure of your passion… this is the means to differentiating from competitors and having an authentic brand story.

New Beginnings At The Soup Peddler

It's a brand new day here, very exciting news to share. We are very proud to unveil our new, expanded delivery service. Go ahead, look! You'll notice that the core of our menu, the rotating soups and entrees, are now listed on the menu page as weekly specials. Those are the only items that will be listed in the weekly email, but be sure, there is much, much more inside the store.

The rest of the menu is now tucked away into those clever little categories. Many of the items on the site now are provided by some of Austin's premiere artisans/vendors, and I'll highlight them in weeks to come. But several of our Soup Peddler-made "usual suspects" have been tucked into those sub-menus. For example, we will offer our most popular two quiches and three salads every week. Our daily soups are now tucked into their own little category. Our super-baked cookies are now just part of the "baked goods" section of the site. Our marinara sauce and chicken stock are now permanent fixtures on the menu. We have a brand new incredible big chunk maple almond granola that will always be available.

This is just the beginning, we have many plans for new in-house products like kitchen essentials such as caramelized onions, roasted garlic, and quick-pickled veggies. Plus plans for lots of other things like local eggs and dairy.

For now, I'd like to highlight one of our new vendors, Rockstar Bagels. Only three short years ago, Joe Humel was an out-of-work Austin drummer (you can't swing a dead cat without hitting one around here) with an unquenchable hankering for a decent bagel (insert opposite of "can't swing a dead cat" phrase here), so he took it upon himself to create the perfect New York bagel, and crazier still, set about making a living doing it. I'm happy to tell you he's done a darn good job of fulfilling both of those goals, and am very honored to be able to bring them to you. In weeks to come, we will add chive and house-made lox cream cheese spreads to the menu to accompany them.

Edible Austin - Larry McGuire

Chefs at Home: Larry McGuire by David Ansel

When conjuring a mental image of a chef’s home kitchen, one might envision small pots of fresh herbs sunbathing on a windowsill, a pegboard rack lined with naughty pans facing a wall or a magnetic knife strip stocked with varied shapes, sizes and patinas of blade. A peek in the refrigerator might reveal a cornucopia of fresh produce and proteins, rare condiments, preserved lemons, homemade Worcestershire, perhaps a bit of hazelnut confiture picked up on a recent research trip to the south of France.

But upon entering the home kitchen of Larry McGuire—the boy genius behind monumentally successful Lambert’s and Perla’s restaurants—none of these things are present. Rather, one is confronted with an austere sort of Dwell-magazine-meets-Travis-Heights sense of low-fidelity minimalism—no hint of any recent activity; no pots, no pans; the refrigerator is empty save for some fizzy water and butter. In fact, the most commanding element of the kitchen—the open shelving that lines the entire north wall, where any reasonable human being would place some dishware, maybe a small sampling of cookbooks or even a few tchotchkes—cradles only numerous, neatly stacked ranks of manila accordion files.

“Those are my end-of-month financial statements,” McGuire says proudly when asked if the files are full of recipes.

It takes a bit of background to understand why a chef’s home would be quite so… foodless. First, McGuire, at 28, is quite properly a bachelor, yet without the usual pitiable gastronomic detritus of bachelorhood: the coffee grinds on the floor, the forlorn take-out containers in the fridge, the bag of limp carrots solitary-confined to the crisper. Why? McGuire simply doesn’t eat at home.

“I wake up and go to Jo’s for coffee,” he says. “Then there’s usually eggs going on at one of the restaurants. I’m in the restaurant all day, and then, since my friends are chefs, I eat out at a great restaurant every night… Parkside, Uchi, Vespaio.”

What might sound like an extravagant lifestyle is really, in a sense, just work. McGuire has graduated from the ranks of the struggling chef to the echelon of restaurateur/creator—one who travels to New York and Los Angeles just to eat and stay current; one who religiously consumes cookbooks and The New York Times’ food section. His immersion into restaurant culture—both locally and nationally—is part and parcel of his career.

“A lot of people ask me,” McGuire says with a genuinely humble pause, “‘How do you do things that people… like so much?’ My answer is that I just grew up here; I am the customer. I see what holes there are in the offerings here.”

He also credits much of his success to what he refers to as the Lambert aesthetic—a distinct mix of comfort and smart design that is the hallmark of Lou and Liz Lambert’s hospitality projects. “Everything I’ve done is their design; their aesthetic. Working with Lambert’s, doing Steak Night at the [hotel] San Jose and having contact with this whole up-and-coming creative crowd and seeing South Congress really evolve was a lucky break for me.”

Breaks aside, McGuire worked hard beforehand to acquire his business degree from the University of Texas while pulling night shifts on the line at the old Lambert’s. From both experiences, he was able to craft the business plans and investor packages for the new Lambert’s, Perla’s and his two current projects (which are?). Now, firmly ensconced on the other side, McGuire’s bootstrap, dues-paying days may be over.

“I started cooking around town when I was 16, and I’m 28 now, so holidays and weekends for that big chunk of my early life are gone,” he says. “I have weekends off for the first time in ten years.”

To fill some of this new free time, McGuire’s has infrequently hosted small outdoor gatherings at his home, around the oversized grill that once served as the centerpiece of so many of those Steak Nights at the San Jose. Guests are usually chefs and their hangers-on, and the sausages were, of course, ground, seasoned and encased at one of McGuire’s professional kitchens.

Still though, the image of the financial statements lining the walls of his home kitchen seems most telling. At the end of the day it’s sill the food service business, after all, and McGuire is as proud of those spreadsheets as he is his bouillabaisse (I like the word “bouillabaisse,” but don’t you think we should name some kind of sausage to align with the previous paragraph?). Truth be told, the spreadsheets may even hold more promise as they describe a near future where McGuire can reliably take weekends, holidays and nights off; where he can find a girl, settle down… maybe even cook a meal inside.


Edible Austin - Mike McKim

When one observes Mike McKim, founder of Cuvée Coffee, preparing his morning cup, one finds a professional who is exacting with his weights and measures, like a scientist, pharmacist, or drug dealer. This is an accurate observation. McKim is equal parts all of these. He heats filtered water to 200 degrees, then uses it to rinse a paper filter that is set into a the inverse conical top of a Chemex, a sort of Erlenmeyer flask. He discards the rinse water.  He slides a small digital scale to the center of his workspace, places a metal cup on it, and zeroes the scale. He measures out 2 grams of coffee beans for each fluid ounce of water. He grinds the beans to a specific fineness appropriate to that bean and pours the ground coffee into the filter, then slowly trickles water through the grinds. The entire process, when executed at a leisurely pace, takes about three minutes.

For those mere coffee mortals amongst you, save your pshaws. Comparing your morning cup to McKim’s is akin to putting Ernest and/or Julio Gallo up against M. Perrier-Jouët. In fact, that comparison is apropos to the name Cuvée Coffee. Many wine drinkers are familiar with the term “cuvée” indicating that a wine is produced from a mixture of grape varieties, but the denotation which McKim had in mind when naming his company is the term’s application to champagne. “In champagne terms,” notes McKim, “They pick the grapes where the terroir is superior, and they only use the first press for cuvée. It’s the best of the best.”

The difficulty in this artisan stratosphere of the coffee world is finding ways to eke out a few extra points on the cupping scale. This 100-point scale is a means for quantifying the qualitative, a necessary but slippery endeavor, by ranking a coffee sample against a variety of metrics. “We shoot for 88 but it’s not always doable with every coffee. 86 is our absolute basement,” says McKim, “whereas most people fall in that 80 to 85 point category.”

The prime “differentiator,” as McKim puts it, is raw ingredient selection. “Every roaster rightfully thinks they’re buying the best coffee. There are varying levels of great coffee. It’s not as easy as calling your importer and saying, ‘Send me the best coffee you have from Colombia.’ It’s way more involved than that.”

This is where the difference between “fair trade” and “direct trade” come in. McKim’s business model is based on his extensive travels. “I know some roasters who travel and visit farms and that’s great. My experience with most people is they do it for photo-ops and marketing, not for the true substance of securing a long-term supply of amazing coffee, of building a sustainable relationship that involves commerce, social, and environmental aspects.”

Establishing these direct connections with farmers allows him to cut out the middleman (No offense to the middlepeople in our readership. We still love you.) and create a more advantageous deal for his farmers. The “fair trade basement,” that is, the lowest allowable price per pound of coffee which conforms to the Fair Trade standard, is $1.26. McKim showed me a sample bag of “yellow mondo novo” that he secured from a Brazilian farmer. He described it in hushed, measured tones as if it was a secret weapon he was waiting to unveil. This farmer had deigned to sell him this rare varietal because “I was the first roaster who had ever visited him twice.” McKim agreed to pay him $2.35 a pound.

But more importantly, in terms of quality control, he knows exactly which farm the beans are coming from, and what methods are being used. For example, one farmer may send pickers through a field only once, whereby berries of a wide variety of ripeness are picked. McKim notes, “Our guy in El Salvador does  five pickings a year. He pays the people to pick only the ripe cherries, and it makes a huge difference.”

The second differentiator is consistency in processing. This is where the individual talents of roasters come into play. McKim’s approach here is impressively methodical, betraying an engineering mindset. Log charts for each batch of coffee are kept with temperatures and transition points for various stages of roasting and are examined over each day’s 9:30 a.m. cupping routine. McKim’s original roaster is an aged Parisian Samiac, and he combed the globe looking for another one with which to expand his volume capability. When he found one in Switzerland, he had it shipped to his lair in the Hill Country, disassembled it, and enlisted the help of his father, a retired airline pilot and mechanic, to rebuild it with Venturi nozzles, servo-controlled motors, and an oddly 1970’s-looking control panel with big buttons. It is the Millenium Falcon of roasters—a  jalopy with guts that can crank up to hyperspace speeds.

“ We’ve kept all of these things that are great about these vintage roasters, all the cast iron, and then we’ve added modern technology. We’re able to take the craft of roasting, use measurables to define what’s happening during the roasting process, so we know what we can do to manipulate things to change the flavor of the coffee. Because we know what those measurables are for each variety, we can do it over and over.”

Rob Ovitt, co-owner of Once Over Coffee Bar in South Austin, is one of McKim’s key clients. He describes the symbiotic relationship between a boutique roaster and a high-end coffeeshop. “We’re big believers in the roaster/barrista relationship. We trust that Mike determines the optimal roast for a given coffee, and Mike trusts that we don’t screw it up on our end, and keep him in the best light.” When asked how important the direct trade ethos is in comparison to coffee quality when selecting a roaster, he said, “We’re most driven by what’s in the cup, but the reality is that what’s in the cup is determined by direct trade. It’s sought out and sourced in such a specific way, and that’s the only way it’s going to end up at such a level of quality.”

The Juicebox/Soup Peddler Project VI

I am terribly sorry for the long lapse between posts on this topic and any associated sense of loss, confusion, or meaninglessness that you may have experienced as a result. Let's pick up where we left off in the story. All is running along basically well. The architects are finished up, the engineers are doing their thing, the banker is finishing up our papers. We're kind of burning through a lot of money, but all is cruising. It's time to work on the design and branding a bit.

I have a complex relationship with branding and packaging. I generally just don't like them. Example:

I hate this in a bunch of different ways. I hate it because it commercializes and degrades hippies (please don't bring this up. It completely blows this argument.). I hate it because of its blithe assurance of "all natural," a term which seems to exclude no terrestrial substances. I hate it because it says "World's Greatest." I hate it because it says "Woodstock." I hate it because it says "For The Rocker In You." But do I hate it any more than this?

Tough call. It's easy to lambast the obvious enemies of sensibility such as chicken dinosaurs, but frankly the truth to lie ratio is about even on the two packages.

Here's the problem. As much as I can't stand brands and packaging, they're still something that we use to navigate our world of consumption, and when they're done right, they're not offensive at all. Of course you need a name, right? You can do punny, you can do old-fashioned self-descriptive, and you can do mod. I think those are the only choices. Punny is something like "Sew Much More" or "Sew Easy". In fact, over 85% of sewing stores have punny names. Old-fashioned is "The Ice Cream Man" or "The Flower Shoppe" or really any business that uses the word "Shoppe" or "Olde" or "Ye". Mod is probably the most common branding trend these days. The shorter the better. Baby store named "Waa". White tablecloth barbecue joint called "Rib". If you can exclude letters entirely, all the better... you get down to the bare basics, like a novelty shop called "?!" or a gastroenterology practice called ":".

Where was I? Right. I was about to defend the Great Truths behind The Soup Peddler brand. Like it or not, I'm the man behind a brand myself. The Soup Peddler conforms to both the old-fashioned and punny models of branding. Well. We all know that The Soup Peddler doesn't pedal soups to his little neighborhood of Soupies anymore. I probably could a little bit. Maybe I should. Okay, maybe I will. I do remember, though, long before most of you knew me or heard of me, deciding whether to spell it "peddler" or "pedaler" and I am sure glad I chose the former. I wisely thought, "There'll come a day..." The nice thing about my brand is that there is at least a real "brand story" behind the brand. A thin veneer, I'll admit, but there's a grain of truth.

Permit me a little flashback: Here's a peek at the first flyer that I designed for Soup Peddler.

Note the absence of the name Soup Peddler. It was only after a few weeks in business that I discovered the punny cleverness that is The Soup Peddler. I grabbed a .jpg of a pennyfarthing off the internet somewhere and utilized a particularly Olde Tyme sort of typeface and put together the logo we all know and love. Lots of folks have come along to try to update it. A Linux logo designer I stayed with in Italy tried to update the bicycle:

Which I kind of liked. When I asked the Soupies if I should change the logo to this, they shot it down. Another design firm tried to sell me on their services with a cartoonish logo of a bicyclist with a bowl of soup on his head and motion lines indicating the speed of my deliveries. I sadly don't have that file anymore.

When we set out to do this mashup business, Matt and I discovered that we would not be able to use the Daily Juice brand... a long story with a surprisingly complex corporate structure behind it. We needed to do what we were both kind of reluctant to do: invent a new brand for the juice portion of the store. We kicked around a bit of the old-fashioned self-explanatory: "Austin Juice Co." We tinkered a bit with the mod: "Slurp". "Ooze". None of this fit Matt's persona or style, really. But then we finally settled on something that came from our literally little architectural situation, our little box on the corner of Lamar and Manchaca, something with a half-measure of self-explanatory and half-measure of mod: "Juicebox".

Both Matt and I were fortunate to be acquainted with the lovely, the talented Jennifer Braham of Brink Creative. Jennifer is a design phenom whose work colors much of Austin... her work for Uchi (timeless), The Peacock (well-designed but doomed), Kick Pleat, Big Red Sun, etc., is unwaveringly excellent and sophisticated. We went to her with vague notions and rode on her magic carpet, witnessed her prodigious output, and basically followed her lead in a choose-your-own-adventure design process.

She interwove my input ("How about a little more serif?") with Matt's ("I need something kind of like a 21st Century tiki hut mixed with old-school hip hop and robots") with aplomb and grace. Each visit we would scan ten different options, choose one direction, and come back the next with to find ten different branches off that idea. It was stunning. She is a serious pixel-pusher and approaches the work with boundless whimsy. An honor to be part of her process. But still, it was strange to put the cart before the horse, to design a brand for a business that didn't exist. I guess that's how it's done.

Here was part of Round 1:

Fresh! Inviting! Simple! Combines the brands in a palatable way. We showed it to our respective wives and got a double (er, quadruple) thumbs-down. Too Mall Court. Too Chili's. In fact, Jennifer was having a very hard time with my brand because it's so elemental and complete and burned into her brain. She was reluctant to change it but tried her best. I was excited about a break with the past, a move into the future; it's something we all yearn for in one way or another. But after Meredith said "Chili's", I could never look at it without thinking Chili's. Like when an old girlfriend said that my favorite Joe Satriani song sounded like the theme from Top Gun, it was ruined forever.

We decided to let the Soup Peddler brand rest and focus on ways to develop Juicebox as similar but different, complementary but contrasty.

Jovial. Homemade. Pineapple-y. Matt walked around Jennifer's office trying it on, trying to feel the new brand and see if he could physically embody it. He understandably has a very, very strong affiliation with the Daily Juice brand, so this whole process has been fraught with weirdness for him. For the founder of a business, for these real, bootstrapped brands, there is such a strong identification that it becomes very personal. So there's a bit of an adulterous element here for Matt, there's a lot of hesitance and trepidation. Ultimately, he didn't feel it for this design. He gave Jennifer a raft of confusing, conflicting directives on where to go next. She gave it another shot.

This met with Matt's unadulterated enthusiasm. It took me a few minutes to get with him on it but his attitude was infectious. He sold me on Mr. Juicy by strutting robotically around the room. Mr. Juicy is, essentially, Matt Shook in avatar form. Fresh, enthusiastic, constantly on the move. There's also a kind of compatibility between this and Soup Peddler, that slightly asymmetrical off-kilterness. Contrasty in style, the typefaces are nice together. And Jennifer even made a little girlfriend for Mr. Juicy. Lucy Soupie:

(stay tuned for themes of impending disaster...)

The Juicebox/Soup Peddler Project V

When we last met, we were discussing my absolute joy with the architectural design process. The vision was beginning to focus, to cohere in my mind.

And then, The City.

The City gets a bad rap... it's very easy to complain about the dysfunction of bureaucracy. But I have to say that thus far, this has been a fairly wrinkle-free* process in terms of interfacing with the City.

But here's the thing: One wouldn't think, using basic analytical skills, that a takeout kiosk like the one we were planning would require a restroom for customers. After all, every mobile vendor and food trailer from here to East Pleasant Valley is free of that regulation. (For the record, I don't have the least problem with this.) You just apply a little

If a = b And b = c Then

a = c

End If

and you're good to go. Unfortunately, math only goes so far in the real world, so my excellent architect, Micah Land, received word that a restroom would be required for this concept. So we just lost 50 of our precious 213 square feet.

"It's definitely going to be a tight fit," said Micah.

In the first of a series of what is surely to be an oft-repeated joke, I said, "I think we should think outside the box here." If we have to put in a restroom, we might as well get a decent amount of seating out of it, and if we get a decent amount of seating, we're going to need all of that already scanty square footage to serve those folks. Micah went back to the drawing board with Michael et al and I began to walk away scratching my head.

"Oh, I also found out we're going to need a grease trap."

It was then that I realized that a new business venture is a lot like a new relationship. "This is going to be gangbusters! We're going to just be printing money!" is akin to "My new girl, you know, she's a supermodel. And she is absolutely crazy about me. But as various pesky little realities insinuate themselves upon the scene, it slowly morphs into: "Well, it turns out she's actually just a hand model, and she's also dating this other guy that she's pretty into."

It's not really that bad, and a grease trap requirement really isn't the kind of thing that ought to send someone to the medicine cabinet. But there is definitely an interesting psychological aspect to the whole entrepreneurship thing; an entrepreneur's cortex features a certain anti-negativity synaptic web structure that has to be cemented together with some very stout adhesive.

Entrepreneurs have to wake up each morning and write their own scripts. They write, act, direct, and produce. Some of us do the soundtrack and special effects too. It just takes a lot of gumption to wake up every morning and say, "Listen up, people. This is what we're going to do. I have no idea if any of this is going to work. Who's with me?" At its best, you're a ship captain. Grandeur, bravery. Slick uniform, epaulettes. At worst, you're Willy Loman. All noble artifice and a tired gray suit.

When I first began The Soup Peddler, I had a feeling of riding a conveyer, being constantly whooshed forward, and the ever-approaching series of doors would slam open in front of me. I hold that feeling close and always try to find if the world is being receptive and inviting to me or if it's blocking me at every turn. I'm not sure if that's very sound intuition, because some say the best things are worth the most fight. But who knows where the folks who say things like that actually end up? I do know that that sense is my weathervane. The winds may swirl, the readings change, but the weathervane generally gets it right.

Uh. Where was I?

I was rending my clothes in lamentation over the complexification of our little endeavor. I probably regained my composure with a little dip at Barton Springs. Soon enough, it was time to head back to the Hsu Studio and see what they had cooked up for me.

Oh. Okay. So you're saying... elegant, modern, simple, clean, breath of fresh air, bracing, stimulating, vital. Everything that screams soup and South Lamar. Everything that could scream soup and South Lamar.

I got my mojo back!

(to be continued)

The Juicebox/Soup Peddler Project (Zoso)

"Well, I figure... that is, I reckon... Well, let me look into that for you and try to get a number," I told my banker.

Over the previous few weeks, I had determined that the building in question, while incredibly located and laughably inexpensive, was essentially a glorified shed. Not even all that glorified. It's roughly 213 square feet, has no insulation, and has a roof drainage system that appears to be designed by someone who simultaneously had a lot of extra PVC and LSD on hand. An odd combination. And it has rounded corners. And it has these gawd-awful French doors. In fact, the Gauls and their descendents would shudder to have these doors even loosely associated with them. Bizarre vertical windows. No ADA compliance. No water.

You know, I dabble. I'm a pretty good little handyman. I can make stuff. I can handle a saw. I like a DIY challenge. But this, The Unglorified Shed, this was WAY beyond my capabilities. I called my friend Gregory Brooks, an architecture professor. I asked if he had any friends who could, you know, kind of on the cheap, help me with a nice little design.

He said, "You should call my friend Michael Hsu."

Pshaw. Michael Hsu. Uchi. Olivia. La Condesa. The Belmont. P. Terry's. Etcetera. Riiight.

I said, "I was kind of thinking someone more, like... I don't know, cheaper maybe?"

He said, "You should call him."

Like any good Lego-loving little engineerd, I am an architecture fan. When I was a kid, my folks took me to see Fallingwater.

I took architecture classes on Saturdays during middle school. I went to architecture camp during the summer. I used to carry a little pad and a hard pencil and a soft pencil and two triangles around with me. What ever happened to that childhood love of architecture? Well, I just figured I'd be able to pick up ever-more-desperate chicks in the engineering building at college, so I did that instead. Actually, that's not it. My parents advised me that architecture was a tough row to hoe and architects really didn't make much money, so I should go into engineering. I followed their sound parental advice. I do wonder what would've become of me had I chosen that path instead.

Eventually, once I had the space and time for it, I began to re-establish my love for architecture and design through little projects around the house.

So my first meeting at the Hsu Design Office was very exciting. The last time I had been in an architect's office, there were big tilted desks with those cool built-in T-squares. But the Hsu office, like I'm sure any modern-day architecture office, looks like an Apple commercial come to life. Neatly-groomed people pointing at things and discussing them together. The walls are covered with those inviting pastelly scribbly perspective renderings and everyone there has architect's handwriting.

Within moments of meeting Hsu himself, you realize why he's the man. He doesn't talk too much; in fact, he only talks when he has something substantive to say. He listens. He's warm and welcoming. Is he a genius? Tough to say... just like in a restaurant, it's hard to say if the chef is a genius or the people around him help create the illusion thereof.

We discussed all the ins, outs, and what-have-yous of the project. A big determination in the design was going to be the slippery eel known as City Code, and whether a restroom or two would be necessary for our intended use, a grease trap, what kind of seating we could get out of those investments. How the parking would work, etc.

With my banker in mind, I popped the question: "So, how much you figger this is gonna run?"

Hsu looked at me with a poker face to end all poker faces.

I gathered that he wasn't impressed with the timing of the question. I decided to let it slide until next time.

Next time, I got this:

My very own pastelly scribbly perspective drawing! Just like I always wanted! Just look at those humanoid blobs commingling over soup! Nothing makes ideas come to life like these drawings... as much of a spreadsheet nerd as I am, no pro forma could breathe life into the new business like this. No pie-in-the-sky imagining could do it either. THIS is the thing that I would show my banker. Bankers, spreadsheet uber-nerds that they are, LOVE renderings!

Unglorified Shed, I am beginning to love you... but how much will I have to pay for your love?

(to be continued)

The Juicebox/Soup Peddler Project III

The work on the pro forma business plan made me feel like this idea was something worth pursuing. My greatest fear about having a retail presence for The Soup Peddler was the lack of appeal of soups on warm days, of which we have at least a few. A soup tour of New York City many summers ago sealed the deal. Even the New York soup places closed in the summer. Our full menu delivery service mitigates the weather effect somewhat, but even then, summers are pretty slow. Having the juices and smoothies, particularly from the brain of a juice genius, would theoretically help matters greatly. The little bit of magic in this concept, from the business planning point of view, is a little business school concept called "Complementary Product Lines." Fortunately, business school theories are reliably correct 100% of the time except when they're not. I like to think of it as selling umbrellas and sunglasses. So that's what we called the new entity... Umbrellas & Sunglasses, LLC.

Yes, there was a new entity. There was lots of sitting, beflipflopped, at boardroom tables and discussing things with attornies--something which I swore off years ago. You can just feel the clock ticking. But I got through it and Matt and I got everything lawyered up between us. It turns out that this prophylactic lawyering is a whole lot more agreeable than the surgical kind.

Then there is the money issue. How is this going to get funded? Food service funding often takes the form of "equity funding." Since the cost of entry into restaurant is so huge... pregnant pause... let's amplify that statement: building a restaurant to code in the City Of Austin, or probably pretty much anywhere, is an ungodly expensive proposition. Oh, the water meter is 5/8" and needs to be 3/4"? That'll be five grand. Gosh, it looks like we discovered an ancient civilization while digging your wastewater line. That'll be eight, plus a four week delay. Grease trap? Ten grand. Walk-in? Twenty. Hood vent? Forty. HVAC? Fifty. Make no mistake of what you're paying for when you eat out. You're not paying for food. You're paying for the opportunity to eat that food in that place. You're pitching in for a 3/4" water meter, you're paying interest on the Ansul Fire Suppression System. You're paying the bill for Freon Systems to come fix the walk-in, and you're paying for all the steaks they had to throw out last night. Why is this pasta pomodoro $18? Look around you. Look at that tile work. Nobody's getting rich here. It's $18 because the chef/owner is trying desperately to swim up to the dizzying heights of getting his nostrils above water. Yes! You can cook it cheaper! But you can't eat it here and you have to do your own dishes.

I digress.

So about equity funding. An old joke: "How do you make a small fortune in the restaurant business?" "Start with a large one." Since the entry cost is so massive and the risk is so massive, it would be downright idiotic or next to impossible for one person to foot the bill for a new restaurant. The best restaurateurs in town have a phone list. You get on this list by being rich. When they're ready to open a new restaurant, they call person #1 and say, "I'm doing a new thing, it's going to be kind of a Borneo/Brazilian fusion dim sum tapas joint right on 6th Street. I'm selling blocks of $100,000. How many do you want?" If you, the rich person, say yes, you get to keep your spot on the phone list. If you say no, you drop to the bottom. After a few hours of phone calls, Monsieur Restaurateur now has $2.2 million and he's good to go. He calls his attorney, who is awarded equity in the restaurant instead of his normal billing rate, and says, "Paper it up."

It's arguably a great way to do business. Insulates the owner from risk, involves a lot of really smart people into the project, allows some great spaces and concepts to be created, contributes to the economy of contractors, designers, architects, service staff, etc. I don't really know what the down-side is. Maybe too many cooks in the kitchen? Too many hands in the pie? It's definitely how the big boys do it. I just know that's not how we're going to do this project. Maybe it's too much for me to wrap my brain around.

We're going the bank route. One of the reasons a lot of folks do equity funding is because they can't get it from the bank, because there's no demonstrable business history. You have to have three nice years of really well-documented numbers to look at to even sit down at the bank. Matt and I have that history. Plus you have to have that pro forma together. I called my loan officer from Frost Bank and invited her out to the site. To make a long story short (some might say, "too late for that," but then they haven't read this far, have they?), she bought it.

She said, "How much do you need?"

(to be continued) (we're mostly done with the boring stuff)

The Juicebox/Soup Peddler Project II

"Do you see that building over there?" asked Matt, pointing across Lamar to a tired old shopping center. Tired. Looked like nobody had so much as picked up a paintbrush there since 1964. The kind of place that you drive by a hundred times before you ever see it. Shifting his gaze, he said, "That right there is going to be the new Amy's Ice Cream and Phil's Ice House and they also bought that crappy old shopping center, that whole triangle. See that little building over there? It's for rent for $500 a month. My buddy Wes has the lease on it but he's probably not going to use it."

"Hm," I thought to myself. Then, again, after a pause, "Hm."

I repaired to my thought cave and began working on a business plan. Pro formas are great. Pro forma is the "beforehand" version of a Profit & Loss Report. It comes from the Latin for "No Fucking Way." It's a layout of your best guesses of how a business is going to work. When a banker or investor asks for your business plan, they're talking about this one sheet. You don't need a cover page, you don't need an introduction, you don't need a competitive analysis or any of that other B.S. They just flip right to this page. The pro forma is also the way you begin to mold the idea. A spreadsheet is good for getting information out of your brain, but its best purpose is to answer your questions. What if the rent is this? Looks good. What if the debt service is this? Okay, we can afford to spend this much on the remodel. How many people can we afford to employ and what can we pay them? Okay, that's reasonable. What does our Cost Of Goods have to be in order to make it work? Okay that means our pricing can be like this.

But most importantly, the biggest pie-in-the-sky question is: how much money is going to come in the door. That's what you're betting your house/marriage/happiness/reputation/future on. How much money is going to come in the door. The pro forma is all about "If this, then this." But it all comes down to the top line. The revenue line. There are different ways of calculating that top line. Seated restaurants have a fairly set formula based on the number of tables, the average ticket, the average number of table turns. Essentially, how fast can we get people chew and swallow? It comes down to that. Other businesses have different ways of guesstimating that top line.

But ultimately, it comes down to this: Is it going to work or not work? If it works, there's very little a reasonably responsible person can do to fuck it up. If it doesn't work, there's very little anyone can do to change it.

I'm really saying "it all comes down to this" a lot. I need an editor. Or you could make a drinking game out of it.

So I worked my way through the pro forma, bugging Matt for various stats and vital signs from his current shops on Barton Springs and Lake Austin. We sketched a menu. I had my General Manager, Pat Brown (for those of you wondering, yes, The Pat Brown), work out the food cost for a bunch of our most popular soups.

We found out that our most profitable soups also happen to be our easiest-to-make soups also happen to be our most popular soups also happen to be our best soups also happen to be our oldest soups, more or less.

I had always been under the impression that one of the keys to our business model was that we "owned the channel." That is, we own our sales channel. Restaurants own their own channel. Food manufacturers generally do not--there's generally at least one other person between them and the end customer, taking a slice of the proverbial pie. In a way, we have sorta had the labor advantage of the manufacturer (cooking in bulk as opposed to restaurants who cook a la minute), and we have sorta had the cost advantage of owning the channel. Those are good fundamentals, but every silver lining has its cloud: like I mentioned in Part I, our volume is pretty teeny because of the inherent drag coefficient of our model. Those middlemen take their slice, but they also hold the keys to the Volumizer.

Objection! Relevance!

I am simply trying to establish the thought process behind the design of the new business plan.

I'm going to overrule the objection. Proceed.

Basically, our discovery about our food costs combined with the thinking above made me realize that I could "afford to" sell Soup Peddler soups on a wholesale basis to this new venture. That way, Soup Peddler kitchen could get some revitalization as a benefit of this side project. The kitchen would be the manufacturer, the store would be the middleman, and it would be mutually beneficial. And while we're at it, why not open the door to wholesaling city-wide? Why not steer back towards what we do best? Making soup. Making those old recipes that are still sitting dusty, grease-stained, in my accordion recipe file, still hand-written in Sharpie... those old recipes from the early, naive, magical phase of the Soup Peddler story. Blow the dust off those old magical spells and see if they've still got the power.

Seems obvious, doesn't it? But sometimes it just takes a little serendipity to throw some new light on a situation. That serendipity was my decision to go to lunch at Phoenicia that one day. The fact that I didn't stop on the way to drop off some checks at the bank. The fact that Matt didn't get waylaid by an emotionally-distraught employee. The fact that everything happened that day just like that... my own little South Austin, decidedly non-action-packed version of Run Lola Run.

(to be continued)

The Juicebox/Soup Peddler Project I

The Soup Peddler is a complicated man. Anyone who refers to himself in the third person, nay, with a superhero moniker, will tend to be on the complicated side. That is given. My particular complication over the years has been an inability to find a path forward for my company. This brand, this company, has been blessed by incomprehensible goodwill and support from the community. But on the flip side of every blessing coin is a paired curse. That curse has been our "business model." Let's discuss.

For those of you tuning in late to this program, I started The Soup Peddler out of my rental house in a really bootstrappy sort of way. A credit card purchase of $90 for a pot (no lid), a stirring paddle, a ladle, and some soup buckets. I needed to know how much soup to make so I took orders over email and cooked that much soup. That's how it was and that's how it still is. Order this week for next week. That's the model. The model has been much lauded... "Oh, you have no waste! That's what kills restaurants. You're a genius." "Oh, you have negative accounts receivable aging! That's amazing!" "Oh, you are using the Dell Computer business model for fresh food. How did you do that?!" "Oh, you don't have to pay rent for a dining room or payroll for a service staff or deal with parking issues! You're getting away with murder!"

But what most of these people don't realize is what most people realize: For most people, ordering from us is a pain in the ass. We are one of the most beloved brands in Austin, but we really haven't grown much over the past three years, despite our best efforts to keep improving our food and introducing new recipes. I believe it's because of the barriers our model sets between us and our customers.

When you're the first person doing something, you're either a genius or an idiot. If, after a while, you're still the only person doing something... well...

I always said, "The model is what keeps us in business." That's because, as much of a pain in the ass as we are, we are still a service. That service aspect is what keeps us in people's minds and keeps them supporting us. I've always been afraid to take that service aspect away, and that has guided my decision to always stay rooted in what we were.

Slowly, it's become clearer that something new had to happen in order for this business to thrive and move forward. Over the years, people had whispered many ideas in my ear... franchise, put it on the shelves, open in new markets, become a cooperative. Every idea has been unworkable for me for one reason or another. After a while, I began to feel stuck.

My baby girl was born in 2008, so that kept my mind off it for a while. Now that she tells me things like "I need privacy," and "Do your own ting, daddy," it's more than time to get back on that bicycle and ride.

Shift to a blustery February day in Austin. I'd been realizing that nothing interesting happens to a business owner while he's in the office looking out. So I went out. I stopped at Phoenicia for a falafel. I ran into Matt Shook, co-founder of the Daily Juice. We both sat at the little picnic table under the awning looking out at the gray mist, the cars swishing by on Lamar. We were both on the phone, looking like important businessmen. We hung up our calls, gave each other a look that said, "Look at us important businessmen, done with our days at 1:30, not knowing what to do with ourselves until we pick up our kids at day care."

Matt and I started our businesses at about the same time. They were both gritty little South Austin operations that were long on inspiration and perspiration, probably a little short on polish and planning. Each in our own way, we turned our businesses into institutions of a sort. Against the backdrop of the vigorous entrepreneurial incubation that Austin's food world has seen over the past five years, both Daily Juice and Soup Peddler have come to be seen as "old school" or "classic" Austin brands, each embodying a certain "weirdness" or individuality of its own flavor, driven directly by the personality of the owner.

On this particular afternoon, Matt was moaning about the weather. His business suffers a bit of Seasonal Affective Disorder like mine, but in reverse. I was happy because the rain and cold meant the orders were rolling in, everything was flowing, and payroll was taken care of. He was sullen because he hadn't taken a paycheck in a while and was supporting the business from his savings.

I told him, "I feel your pain... talk to me in August and these tables will be turned."

He said, "We should open a business together."

(to be continued)

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.

Edible Austin - Robert Kraft

“My guitar is under the bed, next to all the rifles,” said Robert Kraft, manager ofAustin’s Vital Farms. It stands to reason that an egg farmer-short story writer-carpenter-voiceover specialist-fugitive recovery private detective-jazz singer-heavy equipment operator-guitarist would stash all his long, thin possessions under the bed of his two-room trailer. Kraft’s factotum job history is all true. You could know his voice and face from anything from a ubiquitous Time Warner commercial to live shows with Glover Gill and Tosca. I asked him why he’s with Vital Farms. “This is my first steady day job in about ten years,” he said. “I wanted to get into something different than ad work, something that was tangibly beneficial to the world as opposed to making pretty music, something that helps people and educates people about where our food comes from.”

You find Vital Farms onBrandt RoadinSoutheast Austin. Austinites who may, in their checkered pasts, have sufficiently angered the parking gods are likely familiar withBrandt Roadand associate it with memories of dodging the pit bulls that protect Assured Towing in order to recover their vehicles. My recent visit toBrandt Roadwas decidedly more bucolic than the previous one. Flocks of Bovans and Hy-Line Browns clucked with what sounded to this reporter’s untrained ears like chipper unconcern. It may have been wariness or conspiracy but decidedly not angst. The farm is a long, sparsely-treed field that spreads along the tree-lined floodplain of Onion Creek.

Upon my arrival, I hitched a ride across the field with Mr. Kraft on a lipstick-red Kubota en route to witness the most important function in a pastured chicken operation: moving the birds to fresh pasture. “The whole crux of the pasture raising operation is the grass,” Kraft told me on the bumpy ride across the field. “The grass makes a special product, the dark colored yolks, the viscosity of the yolks, the flavor, it all has to do with the birds eating grass.” The forage component is only about one third of their diet—the other two thirds is an organic “layer ration” made primarily of corn and soy.

He was quick to point out that “pastured” is distinct from “free-range,” which in the egg context has very little if any legal definition and is often employed primarily as a marketing term. In this context, a “marketing term” is a marketing term for a “lie that may be printed in good conscience” on a package. “Free-range,” according to Kraft, “signifies that there is an outdoor area available to the birds which is seldom used.” Whereas “pastured” birds, while also lacking legal definition, is sort of the opposite: birds that live outdoors but have access to indoor space.

“This is nativeTexasgrass. What comes up now is buffalo, winter rye, fescue, and various winter crops,” continued Kraft. “There is a slight variation of the flavor and color of the eggs during the course of the year depending on what the chickens are eating. The French chefs have a term for a winter pastured egg. It’s something that’s really sought after. They know an egg that has been on winter pasture is distinct.”

What this means for the farmhands is that they spend their days conducting a veritable game of musical chairs for the birds, where the pens are moved around every few weeks in order to provide fresh grazing. Each pen consists of a solar-powered low-voltage fence (for the birds’ protection from land-borne predators), about 400-500 hens, a shade shed that looks like a small set of bleachers with a roof, and a MCU—don’t you know, a Mobile Chicken Unit. The MCU looks like a verySouth Austin, galvanized version of the Jawa Sandcrawler droid factory where Luke Skywalker purchased C-3PO and, reluctantly, R2-D2. The MCU is the “coop” where the hens lay their eggs. Why? “They have a special set of specifications in their mind as to where they want to lay their eggs, and we try to make sure the nesting boxes fulfill their requirements,” said Kraft. Part of that is removing other options, like low bushes or other cozy, inviting spots inside the pen.

When the pasture inside the pen has been taxed, Kraft and company enlarge the fence to encompass a fresh, adjacent pasture area, drag the shade shed and MCU into it, then chase the birds somewhat comically in that general direction and close the fence off behind them. The used land then has time to regenerate, and the birds have a few weeks’ worth of forage at their disposal. Voila. Pastured eggs.

We adjourned to the processing trailer, a truck trailer housing a Rube Goldbergish egg-sorting machine. “The eggs get candled then go through a solution of organic egg wash and water, then it rinses, dries, sorts and grades them,” said Kraft. “These little kickers kick them out according to weight. It’s an old piece of junk—we get several months of good work out of it and then it breaks down for a month while I run around the country looking for parts.” What then? “We just get a few pairs of nice ladies’ exfoliating gloves that are available at your finer establishments and hand-wash the eggs in a bubbler I made from a freezer compressor and perforated piece of PVC.”

He cracked open an egg. “See how the white holds together like that?” Kraft said proudly. “Grass makes these really thick orange yolks. Dessert chefs like these very much. The yolk stands up a little more. If you treat the birds better and you feed them the right things, you get this premium product. Our ethos is if you’re going to ask an animal to give you food, you owe that animal the best possible living conditions you can provide it.” He paused. “You hear how quiet it is here? If you’ve ever heard the egg farms like down in Gonzales, the birds are just screaming. It’s like something out of Dante.”

We adjourned to Kraft’s home, a mud-spattered trailer. The juxtaposition of eggs and trailer trash brought to mind the sadly overlooked Oscar-grade performance of Edie Massey merrily warbling “Oh, the egg man, the egg man!” in John Waters’ 1972 classic Pink Flamingos. Alas, it was Cloris Leachman’s year. Inside the trailer preenedAndorra the cat. I suggested that this was acush assignment for a cat. “She has a pretty good life if she can stay out of the clutches of the coyotes,” said Kraft. The same could be said for the chickens. “The object is to allow the birds to live as natural an existence as possible. There are downsides to that, they have to sleep outside in the cold but it’s not anything they can’t adapt to. They sleep in big groups and their body heat keeps them warm. The electric fences keep 95% of the predators away. We had a coyote who figured out how to jump the fence and he killed a lot of chickens until I was able to hunt him down. The large hawks will occasionally take a chicken. That’s the balancing act of letting them live naturally.”

“We’re the only provider of this product in the country—a real organic pasture-raised egg that is available in various markets. We’re in about 200 Whole Foods stores, about to be coast to coast.” Something didn’t add up. Kraft had said that the Onion Creek farm would max out at 2,500 birds, producing some 2,200 eggs per day. How could such a small farm with a built-in production ceiling play ball with UNFI, the Whole Foods distribution company? It turns out that Vital Farms considers the Onion Creek farm to be a “flagship” farm—true enough, the next day Whole Foods was coming to film a short segment. The vision of Vital Farms’ owner Matt O’Hare is to set up a network of small farms across the sun belt—the only region that allows for year-round pastured eggs—to service various regions, effectively adding sales range without adding food miles or over-scaling the farms. They already have a satellite farm inArkansas, a large egg farm that primarily supplies Wal-Mart which Vital has contracted to set up a 5,000 bird pasture operation according to their specs. Two additional contract farms are coming online soon nearBastropand Lockhart.

Kraft indicated that Vital cares about theAustinmarket as well. “We want to service the community that nurtured us. We had a lot of local accounts but due to the drought our production went down and we weren’t able to service them properly. We lost some clients and I’m in the process of re-building that.” Vital Farms has recently re-joined both theSunsetValleyand Downtown Farmer’s Markets and their eggs are available at Wheatsville Co-op, Asahi Imports, and Farm To Market.

Consistency Vs. Creativity

A little peek behind the curtain for you this week... like any business, we have our little internal debates and difficulties. Our business is fraught with its own set of little complexities. In so many ways, the blessings upon this business often reveal the face of a curse. Since we, not unlike many restaurants, sit on the fence which is described by the intersecting line between the spheres of art and commerce (ok, you nitpickers, I know the intersection of two spheres isn't a line, just bear with me), our kitchen is daily torn between two clashing motives: consistency and consistent improvement. Do Soupies want things exactly the same each time, or do they want us to work on improving things? Do we make things the way we think they ought to be, or do we make them the way we think they'll please the most people? What do the answers to these questions say about us as a business, and as artisans?

This week's iteration of the debate was a conversation about last week's gumbo. Those of you who have been following our gumbo over the years have seen it change subtly in different directions. When I personally used to make the gumbo, I would make as dark a roux as I personally had the nerve to do. Sometimes I hit the mark and sometimes missed it. However, the darker the roux, the less body the soup had. Over the next few versions, our chef Justin fixed the issue by making two rouxs... one dark one for flavoring and one lighter one for thickening. This week, Adam aimed for the middle, more like our seafood gumbo roux... he used a different technique for the roux and kept it lighter. It was really good gumbo, and I was proud to serve it... but was it our gumbo? Was it Adam's gumbo? Was it more broadly appealing than a darker roux? Should we take the roux to its limit, put our foot down and say, "this is what we think gumbo is?" But who are we to say what real gumbo is? Is there a real gumbo to the exclusion of others? Is there even an objective reality independent of our observation of the universe?

Sorry about that last one. Kitchen conversations can get a little deep. I decided to read a passage to the culinary staff from Bill Buford's Heat, which is an excellent book detailing his internship at Mario Batali's Babbo Restaurant near NYU. Mario was giving a pep talk to his staff and said, "If someone has a great dish and returns to have it again, and you don't serve it to him in exactly the same way, then you're a ____." You may fill in the blank with your current favorite vilifying profanity. I don't think we'd rate very highly in the eyes of Mario, according to that metric. But that's the never-ending battle between chefs and management. Management is concerned with meeting customer expectations and true chefs are constantly self-motivated to exceed customer expectations. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail. Managers don't like to play dice with a customer's experience, so there's the rub. Control systems versus artistic license.

That's our management challenge, and I guess it's not peculiar to our business. We are all personally here because we don't want a life full of control systems. But somehow we need to reach agreement on what's best for the business... after all, it's incredibly annoying when a business becomes more about the employees than the customers. I guess it's a balancing act that we'll have to continue to embrace. It seems a metaphor for parenting as well... it can't be all control systems (Draconian), but it can't be free reign for the kids (chaotic).

I'm Not Complaining, Mind You...

Does anyone else find time to be speeding by this year? We're certainly gratified that the summer has taken it's sweet old time coming around. I was enjoying what felt like an October breeze on the afternoon of July 6, and it almost made me long for the hot summer wind. I haven't been driven out of desperation to the springs... I haven't developed my usual case of cabin fever... an evening bike ride is still well within the realm of reason, and it makes me feel like something is missing. There is little ammunition for complaint this year, the ties that bind us are loosened, our very identity as suffering Austinites is disintegrating. Luckily, the incessant rain gives us some replacement fodder for conversation, and yet it seems wrong, we feel like Seattilians or some other breed. People still crave and enjoy our soup, which sucks the very essence of my seasonal affective disorder away from me. When normally I would be known to hang my head low in lamentation for these months, I can only brush off friends' habitual commiseration with a "well, no, actually, business is doing just fine." Soup Peddler staff, who expected me to be a shuddering wreck like last summer, seem almost quizzical at my easygoing spirit nowadays. The kitchen isn't nearly the cauldron of hellfire that it rightfully should be this time of year, and it just leaves us all sort of mildly happy, in that sweet, quasi-lobotomized Austin springtime way.

For those of you keeping track, yes, you now find yourself reading my complaints of having no complaints. Welcome to this particular apse in the cathedral of my neuroses. Discuss amongst yourselves. Have a nice day!

For What It's Worth...

This week, I ordered some food from one of Austin's crop of prepared food delivery services so I could feel what it's like to be a Soupie. The little bit of mystery, anticipation, and ultimately the tasting experience. I understand as well as anyone the complexities and challenges inherent in sharing handmade, lovingly-prepared food with a distributed audience. But I wanted to see if I could just get a sense of what it's like to be you... making a leap of faith and trading some hard-earned money for a service.

I was very pleased with several of the items, but there was one that didn't quite do it for me. I just didn't care for it. It seemed very nicely and attentively prepared and packaged. I didn't feel cheated. I didn't feel like it would stop me from supporting them in the future (if I wasn't already swimming in our food). But I just wasn't jazzed about it... the main problem is that I wouldn't really go running to my friends to share the news of this great service. I put the offending article in the fridge so that it could slowly get pushed to the back of the shelf and several weeks from now be dumped down the drain, and I pictured my own Soupies doing the same thing, and it made me sad.

Every week, you make that same leap of faith... you trust that its going to be good. You can't taste it ahead of time. The waiter can't gauge your disappointed expression and ask if everything's okay. Our part is to do the best we can and your part is to let us know how we did. It should be like a conversation, not a monologue. We don't need a blow-by-blow account of your evening's enjoyment and wouldn't burden you with any such unnecessary obligation, but we do want to hear from you if you ever suffer the disappointment that I described above. We understand that 'no news is good news', except when it's not.

What we offer is the closest thing we can to a satisfaction guarantee... since we're not a restaurant, we can't have the chef come out to fall on his or her sword and offer you dessert, but we can credit your account for any such disappointments. And we're glad to do so. You needn't feel embarrassed, just let us know. Easy. I used to be one of those folks who never sends food back, but now I understand that it's important to do that sometimes. The proprietors would much rather know, so they can make an effort to preserve a positive relationship. They honestly don't think any less of you for it, believe me.

So, you're probably wondering, 'Did he let them know about the dish he didn't like?'

Well, no, I didn't. But I hold you to a higher standard than I do myself, in accordance with the time-tested parental maxim, which you are allowed to use up to three times on Father's Day: Do As I Say, Not As I Do.

Harvesting The Great Soupie Brain 2007

Here it is, Springtime, 2007. The Soup Peddler is a little over five years old. We're doing great. It's a happy little place. Everything's cool. And yet we're always scratching our heads over here about how to go forward. There are a lot of ins and outs, a lot of what have yous. We sit here and think and think and think. One of the things we think about is that there is a massive, throbbing collective brain of the Greater Soupie out there in the ether.

We thought to ourselves, "Why don't we harness the power of that brain?" In the past, I have used Soupie surveys to do just that. But I thought we'd use a different format this time.

As crass as it seems, I offered One Thousand Fresh, Delicious American Dollars for the most brilliant new idea for The Soup Peddler. Here were a few possible examples:

You: "You guys should advertise on TV!"
Me: "No."

You: "You guys should sell Soup Peddler
brand cigarettes!"
Me: "Uh, no."

The Envelope, Please... This was a really difficult contest for us to judge, in part because of the vagueness of the assignment. Also, we had quite honestly already thought of most of the entries in one form or another... and had either acted upon already or discarded out of laziness or complexity. There were certainly some repeated ideas that we came to think of as the concensus ideas, generally in the form of family conveniences, incentive programs, and health-consciousness concerns... It was good to be reminded of these Soupie desires.

But then on the last day of the contest, a submission came in that sort of polarized our thinking. It was a bigger idea than the others, not quite as immediately usable as some... perhaps never usable, maybe a little commie/pinko and yet it was really the only substantive submission that had never previously crossed my mind. Maybe it's because of the attraction that youthful idealism holds for a grizzled entrepreneur like myself. It was an idea I could put in my back pocket for later. It was the submission of Laura Lucinda-McCutchin (pictured right), and in the end, I decided to give her the prize. You may find her winning entry below...


What if evolved into SoupPeddler.COOP?

submitted by Laura Lucinda-McCutchin, with special assistance from Therese Adams, Steven Yarak, and Laura Jordan

Executive Summary

Soup Peddler, the Coop? That’s right: coop, as in cooperative. Why? The cooperative structure combines the best of community vision and solid business sense. Wait, let me explain.

Anymore, the Soup Peddler has become an adventure and a community, no longer one single person. There is David the Souper Peddler, a.k.a. the Soup Peddler Soupreme, and there is the Soup Peddler which is all of us. So I wanted to think of a good idea that would help all of us. All I had to start with, of course, were my own experience, perspective, and concerns.

My biggest concerns are:

  • that you, David, might someday burn out, and
  • that growth of the Soup Peddler enterprise might dilute the community I value.

The cooperative structure offers tremendous benefits that come from the Soup Peddler community you catalyzed into being. With a coop, you would have options for lightening your burden and rededicating yourself to creativity, while entrusting the Soup Peddler adventure to the collective efforts of committed people who would work to ensure its stablity and continuity.

My Concerns

You might someday burn out.

How can I not wonder when your visionary creativity will grow root-bound and need a new pot? Self-starters are not necessarily interested in maintenance, and I worry about your getting bored and disenchanted.

Possible Consequences

  • You would be sad. You might limp along with us, or you might need to leave the Soup Peddler enterprise behind to create a new wonder the world doesn't know it needs. Either way, it could be very hard.
  • The Soup Peddler adventure might stagnate.
  • Soup Peddler employees would be sad. Oh, sure, they’ll figure something out, but who needs that kind of growth experience, in the middle of trying to make a happy living?
  • You would be stressed, worrying about your employees.
  • If you leave us cold, Soupies will be distraught. Consumed with grief, we will be forced to go to the grocery store, where everything is new and improved, not tried and true.
  • If you leave by selling the business, of course you’d conscientiously sell to someone making good noises about our Soup Peddler values, who’d then very likely betray us and turn it into an impersonal, mechanized fast-food chain.

How a Cooperative Structure Addresses these Concerns

With a coop, you’d be less vulnerable to burnout, and you’d have an easier choice if it hits. Whether you stay with the enterprise or move on to a new pot of soup, the Soup Peddler would be in good hands. You can go to Italy, take a year’s sabbatical, spread the Soup Peddler concept far and wide, start up a new amazing project, work in your yard, or all of the above.

If you stay, a coop would support you by letting the us all take responsibility and share your burden, including the hassle of taking flak when people grouse about change. The coop policy process gives give dissenters a voice and a resolution, in advance of change.

If you go elsewhere, you could sail serenely on to your next venture, trusting that a community of responsible people would carry on in your fine tradition.

A cooperative framework would nurture growth while ensuring stability through the steady, healthy gravity of vibrant community. I know, it sounds like a paradox, and it is. That’s life.

The cooperative structure builds on the energy of the community and strengthens it by encouraging and supporting commitment.

Accordingly, the rising success would be anchored around a core of committed people, who would be dedicated to supporting the enterprise by sharing their resources:

  • capital,
  • regular ordering,
  • service,
  • creative thinking (for free, no $1,000 necessary),
  • support in decision-making, and
  • good stewardship, sustaining both the health of the enterprise and the relationships with non-profit agencies in the larger community.
  • Anyone who orders from the Soup Peddler would be invited to join, which just by itself shares a communitarian message to all and sundry. People on the fringe of Soupieness would be drawn in, increasing the solid base for sustained life and growth of the business.

Possible Objections and Considered Responses

David might say: "But *I'm* the Soup Peddler, and *I* make the decisions."

Yes, and how wonderful that has been! Clearly, the world is grateful. Please, please keep it up as long as you enjoy it. If you think you might one day want to move on, this is a flexible structure for transition planning. You would retain efficient and effective and fun control as long as you wanted, while at the same time allowing for a smooth exit.

The Scaredy-Cats might say: "But a soup coop—that's never been done."

Oh, stop. The man invents bicycle-delivery-soup-peddling, and he's going to be scared of something new? I don't think so. Anyway, just look at these kids at Black Star Co-op Pub & Brewery []—that's never been done, and it's not stopping them.

The Chicken $#!+& might say: "But it might fail!" When a coop fails, it’s because the business in which it engaged failed, because they weren’t running things as a business. That’s not the case here. The business is already highly successful, filling an expanding market niche while sustaining steady growth. With Black Star and Wheatsville as examples, a Soup Peddler Coop could address challenges and avoid pitfalls.

David's Employees might say: "Yeah, but we need a paycheck." Daily operations would stay the same in a coop structure. There would be the same cash flow for employees to be paid.

David might say: "What about *my* paycheck—my *profits*?"

Appropriate compensation for the Soup Peddler Supreme would certainly be structured into the bargain. Of course. A cooperative structure offers more security, too, what with shared capital and shared responsibility. Security of personal cash flow means knowing you can go buy more yuccas, salvia, and crushed granite for your yard. That, and don’t forget: you’d get a hefty chunk of change when the coop buys you out.

Resource for Further Consideration and Practical Study

Steven Yarak, President of the burgeoning start-up Black Star Co-op Pub & Brewery, has agreed to serve as a resource, if you like. He can share his knowledge of coop principles, the history of coops, and why the successful ones succeed. I think you’d enjoy theorizing with him and crunching numbers.

Did I mention the gazpacho? My, it is good. Oh my gosh, and everything you do, the food and the helping us all in weaving the social fabric. Thanks for all of that.

You are the hand that stirs the alphabet soup of the world. Don’t let’s forget it.

Do let me know if you have any questions, comments, jibes, taunts, or whatnot, for sending you this soupie cooperative manifesto. Thanks for reading it, and thanks again for all you do.



Interview With Jesse Bloom (pre-Ecstatic Cuisine)

How did you get started with Soup Peddling, So tell me where it all began? It began on my porch, I used to live in this awesome house in South Austin rented a room with this porch overlooking the city, I was living beyond my means because I didn't like working and I guess I got sick of “working for the man” and doing meaningless things withy my one and only life... I wanted to break out and try something, I had too much security in my life. I had just come back from Africa and I was feeling like, Man this really is a golden land and should be able to do whatever the fuck you want. And I should be able to take a chance and try something and it was kind of tired of not contributing something, and just being a player in the economy, money really passing through me and not really doing anything, so those were the kind of thoughts I was having. And that was what led me to not really want to work but of course the problem was paying rent and things like that and I had credit cards and was taking to the habit of charging my rent which is not a very sustainable practice. I had been doing yoga teaching and freelance writing, which wasn't really working out, at least financially. Those are long roads, and a sort of desperation move I was down to less than a 100 bucks in my bank account and I had this passion for cooking always and I was feeding it at the time, through these communal dinners that we would do for the Jewish Sabbath and that was my first introduction to food for lots of people, and witnessing community around food and that richness and the slow food lifestyle. Just the power of food and culture and started thinking about those things and cooking more and decided “Hey, maybe I can make a living making food. So I sent an email to my friends and neighbors, anyone withing striking distance: “Hey, I'm gonna make some soup, Its gonna be a gumbo, vegetarian, it'll be 10 bucks and I'll bring it to you on my bike. And It'll be reusable containers, so it will be like the milk man. I found this really nice containers at the restaurant supply store and you'll leave your empty one out and I'll take it and leave some soup. It'll be like the milkman—each week I'll bring you a new one and that was were the trouble began.

You know I didn't have the name Soup Peddler then, it was called Soup Subscription Service by Savory Soul Sustenance and within a couple of weeks I had the real “stoned moment of my life where I was like peddle... soup... “soup peddler” and I figured that out. So I'd never even set foot into the back of a restaurant, anything close to trained- never been in a restaurant, never even waited table. Had no idea about food cost, about how it works, you know the hurdles that were ahead of me. Now you know, when someone comes to talk to me about food, business, getting started.. I”m just like your crazy, do you have any idea of what is in front of you. And I end up talking them out of it. And luckily I never really... Luckily my first mentor in business, one of the owners of Thai Passion, he this really gentle, amazing angel with a broken wing, and he totally believed in me, he had no doubt that this would happen, and he saw the magic in what I was doing, the pure insanity of what I was doing. And him being in the restaurant industry and knowing what those hurtles were about and I remember he brought me into Thai passion and how this thing works and how to scale up recipes and free rent and got onions out of the fridge and he taught me how to cool things down.

Who was it?

Joe Rubio. He was a very community involved character in the late night crowd subset of Austin. I remember one time he, the first time I made crab soup. I mean my favorite soup is crab soup, coming from Maryland yunno, and I didn't not know what it was like to make 25 gallons of soup, at that time that was a big deal for me. And know we do 25 gallon batches like (snaps fingers), and so I got a bushel of crabs and and brought them to the Thai restaurant and I'm using all their little Thai steamers all stacked up to steam these blue crabs and all the Thai guys are freaking out and its a real Maryland thing to do a bushel of crabs, and he's just standing there on the side, looking at me hes' like “ kind of impressed by my naievete, that I thought I could do that and then packed that shit up and put it on the back of a bike and drag that shit all around South Austin, all the hills, you know its hot as shit out its pretty hot out, it was insane. But I was like a literal burning flame. Those first 3 years, a burning, on fire, my engine was, it is hard to explain I was expending so much energy.

When did that start?

The first season when I started it out of my house and moved to Thai Passion was February 2002. until July. And i took a couple of months off and started back up again at Lambert's . The second season began at Lambert's and he was my second guardian angel, and he was a way different character and taught me different lessons that was the following October to June. And then we can talk about the next phase of getting my own place.

I met you when you were at Lambert's? At what point did you know that you “had something” when were you like “I”m going for this?”

Well from the very beginning it was just pure desperation pure financial desperation, I'm just going for it and I went down to Ace mart and bought a big pot and a paddle, and I was like the inside joke there at Ace mart. Like, “Okay, here's your pot and here's you paddle, and they were like hey do you want a ladle?” and I said, “Yeah give me the biggest ladle you got,” and I was the joke around there until I hired away one of their managers the guy who is now my GM. Yunno it was funny, every weekend they were like you counted I sold 90 gallons of Matzah ball soup. They are all restaurant managers so they could do the math. They were like man, Jesus Christ he's selling the shit out of that soup. So I wandered in there, desperation from the beginning, I started with 90$'s after the first season, the Thai Passion thing, Yeah I'll do this thing again. Man I”m gonna have to do my own fridge, and I have to have my own fridge and that's like 800$, man that's a lot of soup, So you know, I'm kind of getting in deep and I'm not sure if this is gonna work out. And so I got all fridge and all the accoutrements for the season. and then the movie happened and the press started happening. And that was a really magic, a Golden time, the myth making part. And, very very rewarding. As far as alignment with my ethics, environmentalist stuff and community stuff, it was at its peak. Literally everything got delivered by bicycle, literally everything got composted, it was all vegetarian, there was no trash. Buckets were all reusable. From where I was sitting it was like “this is a pure business” over the course of the season I probably didn't throw a dumpsters worth of trash away.

That was at Lambert's right? How many people were you serving soup to?

100 subscriptions. I only had so much kitchen time and storage space.

At some point you made the transition—recognizing that “I need my own space,” and you needed to do a more, pragmatic, formal “business plan” type approach. When was that?

That was right at the end of the Lambert's thing. Because I moved out of Lambert's, I moved out of there with my bike, Went away for the summer again, to figure it all out and how to do it. I came back to town; “I've got to find a place.” How do I get all of these numbers out of my head and make it work? In other words, How do I make a business plan? And so I started putting together a spreadsheet, how much does it cost for rent, employees, so I worked up my first P and O, showed it to Lou Lambert, and he was very helpful and Joe Draker at Maudies' and he was very helpful at the time, and so you have to raise money, take it around to people, show it to friends and family. Obviously, a bank isn't going to believe that whole story. So I finally found a place, where I am right now. I'm walking by it every day going, Man that place has got to be going out of business soon. And one day I'm walking by there and I'm like “Marcus, dude what's happening?” “Oh, I'm glad you came by. We're thinking about, well, yunno, pairing down a little bit here.“ And I said, “I want the space, I want it for myself.” And kitchen spaces are incredibly difficult to come that are at all affordable. And especially this one that was perfect for me because I didn't need any dine in and I didn't need any street sidewalk, street presence, so I didn't have to pay for any of that. “Man, 1500 a month, and 1500 deposit and I have to get a 2000 range, and a tilt skillet, and a walk in and a steel tables and a pot rack, sinks and all this shit and where am I getting all this money?” And finally, really befuddled, sitting in my bedroom staring at the trashcan and there are these convenience checks, the ones that are 3.99% cash advance, So I called like 10 times to find out what the catch was. And there like, no, no catch, as long as you pay your bill one time it will always be 4% and so I wrote a check to myself for 20,000 put it in my account. And within 3 weeks was chopping onions and making soup. Meredith was helping me chop onions. I had no employees...The size of the financial risk wasn't that great but the actual risk of, is this going to be here, is this going to exist and work risk at that level was at its highest then. So that was a pretty big leap of faith. Since then there have been pretty large leaps of faith, bank loans now and a lot of crap.

So basically your start up capital was 15 grand for your rent, and everything to get your kitchen all set up and that was basically on a credit card?

Yup, and it was open in 3 weeks. I had very good luck or Grace. Everything went really smoothly. Like with the permits, It was like historic that some jackass could get a kitchen open, with some jackass electrician who wanted to talk about his feelings and a salvaged pot rack that was a piece of metal from my back yard bolted to the ceiling. Go to these equipment yard and dealing with someone who was leasing me equipment who looked at me and was like “I don't know if I should be going to the trouble of leasing you this equipment.” And now he's made so much money on this walk in by now. Years later I'm still paying the same lease on this walk in and I could have bought it several times over by now. People took gambles on me and it worked out. And inspected in 3 weeks.

So now you've taken it to the next level, in terms of investments in bank loans, in vehicles, in staff...At some point you had to make decisions about how your were going to do things that were compromising that absolute, pure pure business that you were talking about. When did that start to come in and what was that like?

Its been an evolution. When we first got into the new place, to this day we still recycle a lot of stuff. We were still doing the buckets, pretty much all bike riding, but we started adding cars pretty quickly there... and started seeing our position in the whole food supply chain. Heretofore, I had been groceries from different stores, and now I was getting deliver trucks and i was starting to see a little bit of futility of what i was doing, and the bike thing had a nice symbolic effort to it. And I knew it was a purely symbolic effort from the beginning but...I started seeing it from all sides. All the customers where driving to pick there stuff up. All the food was coming from fields thousands of miles away and the bike thing slowly started eroding the importance of it. I knew it was very important symbolically a lot of my prestige was owed to that part of the story but i felt like that the way this business was evolved with a kind of screwed up model with the routed that we have a really efficient routed so even with the trucks we needed that efficiency. So there are always these people clamoring o get into the soup thing. And so they would all drive down to pick up soup. And I was like You know I can just go up there, its like 10 or 15 people who would drive down every week from Hyde Park. And I could just go up there once and do all that, right. And So that is a better efficiency a more sustainable approach and I started seeing, whittling away at the bike because I started seeing myself as a part of a bigger thing so while it had a great and heroic and motivating symbolic value it was actually shooting ourselves in the foot sustainability wise. Likewise the containers, they were an awesome symbol of waste not, want not and getting people to connect with the waste in their lives and getting them to think about stuff like that. It was a really beautiful part of the business. But what was happening was first of all we were driving ourselves washing the buckets. First of all there is an inefficiency there, washing the buckets all the soap, the health department really didn't like them, and they would come across the country on trucks too. And they were these 12 buckets took up this much space and they each came in their own box...and I was starting to see the cracks in the whole sustainability of that whole approach> and i was trying to figure out a new system, a new packaging system that would be more sustainable., there is always give and take and what we came up with was the bagged soup thing. Which was much more sustainable from an energy perspective. It helps us cool the soup, we bag things hot, an energy efficiency and also a health concern and it's really not romantic. When I was first giving customers these bags of soup it was really gut-wrenching. When we first got those trucks the refrigerated trucks which were obviously better, more efficient than loading ice into the back of my Subaru, there was a part of me that was really hurting inside that we had this garish trucks, and the bagged soup, and it was kind of sad to me that these strong symbols were going away but the reality was, what I was doing was more sustainable. And on top of all of that I got a lot of grief, the headline on the front page of the Statesman was Soup Peddler Inc, another Austin institution changes to meet the times. And it was really brutal and I got a lot of heat form customers like 'sellout” like Dylan going electric kind of thing, the fallen hero thing. It was really weird. It was a very very difficult time which kind of threw me into what was kind of a depression in combination with some other factors.

When was that going on?

A year ago. All the sudden we had trucks that were branded, and I felt like people where begrudging me my success. Oh, Austin's changing, were losing ourself.

Yeah, like the Austin veteran's syndrome “it's not what it used to be.”

Yeah, you know your right it's not, its way the fuck better now! And so that whole story was how the super hero character in the play came about. This deflated hero, depressed, that was what was happening, some other shit. I brought someone into the business to help someone grow it and there was a like a lot of shit. Was coming down from a magical magical phase and coming into some reality and business stuff. And there was a lot of risk a lot more money at stake

So it was growth at the cost of, a whole lot more investment, capital risk and you were making some choices that people where talking about.

Yeah everybody was talking about it “what's going on?”

And there was a business partner that didn't work out?

And ended up legal, It was just...We've grown into ourselves, we've gotten good at what we do, and we made it through the summer. It was always a seasonal business and we made it through our first summer and that was pretty freaky and everything is rolling, things are just going. I just go there and direct the culinary vision, fly on the wall and make sure that we are doing the right things.

So your roles have really changes a lot?

Yeah I haven't been cooking full time for probably two years.

It strikes me that...there is this whole idea of having this business that is a reflection of who you are in the world and there is a separation and a cleavage and it seems what I heard was that when you were making the changes from the meta-viewpoint that that was really impacting for you, on the personal level. So my question is how has that evolved for you and how has that happened?

Yeah, there is always a bit more separation happening. Its a bit complicated because I am the soup peddler, and the soup peddler is a business so there is two incongruous thing. But I've been separating myself ever since...first it was like getting myself out of the kitchen and getting people to chop onions the way I wanted them to, and then writing recipes and then it was getting chef and then a GM and constantly putting people. And then there is a shame period of moving away from the work. At first it was hard to have an employee at all. To have people doing stuff for me, working hard for me. I've gotten over that and it was quite an evolution. And there was also guilt about who am I? what am I doing? I'm not a cook, I'm not meeting the people, I'm not the happy neighborhood guy, I don't know everyone's house anymore, I don't know the customers. I don't know who the dogs are. I used to keep track of all their kids names and dogs names on a spreadsheet. You know who am I? And what am I really doing? And is this really rewarding for me? And stuff like that. Still trying to come to terms with all that stuff, is the business a reflection of anything anymore.

What does the business reflect now?

In the past, I kind of came out of my blue period. I've come to gain a lot of pride and see business for what it is. And entrepreneurship for what it is. I feel like its a really amazing business, and it really tries hard and it really wants to be, and you know you want to live, and be human You have to worry about external, like the customers, but really you know a lot about internal, What kind of company do we want to be? What kind of feeling, what kind of communication do we want there? I don't want it to be corporate, I want it to be human scale. I've always wanted that. One of the things, there was some corporate feeling kind of creeping in and it sucked so you know that is all gone now and its a happy little south Austin businesses.

You said you see “business for what it is” now, What does that mean?

Its a way to provide a living for people, essentially. Obviously for me, I want it to be worth something, to do something decent. And I think we do a bunch of really good things. And on a grand scale its not a really successful business because it doesn't provide a living for that many people.

We have 10 or 12 employees now. You don't build a business to be under its heel for the rest of your life. The reason you build a business is for freedom. The reason I didn't want to be a guy in a cubicle. I wanted more out of my life, more in charge of my own life, more time for myself. So that is why I went to all that fucking trouble and took all that fucking risk and so now I 'm more comfortable saying that now. I don't want to be a slave to this business and I don't want anyone to so trying to keep everyone...

So what does that look like in terms of what I would call “sustainability” So what does that look like in terms of the jobs, and the internal dynamics, the communication style of the business? How are you implementing that?

Those are still works in progress. We are just getting to the point. We've just recently gotten to some stable job descriptions. We are a small company so there is a lot of cross-over. Just this year we documented the customer service position. I am the IT department. The kitchen works in a totally new way and those guys basically..

...self organize?

And I brought those guys in, with the intention of, “Hey, you guys know this way better than I do.” I made it work but we did well but your guys know how restaurants run and how kitchens run and how to staff kitchens and how to tap a vein of Mexicans and bring them into the kitchen culture and you know even for them it was an immense challenge. Because its a really bizarre model about what we do in comparison to a restaurant

Like what?

Well restaurants package there food in the small intestines of their customers and we have these spikes in production, and we have to cool all the product and store all the product and the trucks have to be routed and it needs with software to be exported and the kitchen needs to export their software. It is the most bizarrely IT intensive business for its size. It never would have happened, there is no one doing this, we are probably the most together prepared food delivery business in the country, I swear to god and its really hard and, we got it all working now

How much of that do you think could be changed or could be made better by having a space that was specifically designed for it?

Well we have kind of, we finally got our space organized for it. At first it was fucked up and now we have a packaging room, we could use some more refrigeration because of the spikes in production that I was talking about, Building a church for Sunday kind of thing. The church is empty 6 days a week but you have to have this huge... It all happens Sunday. It's kind of like that with our place in certain ways. There are also advantages to what we do task ware wise, Because we take the money online ahead of time we know how much to make,

so no waste?

Well, that's hard. But we've gotten to the point where there is very little waste, and we have the money before we buy the shit, which is kind of the reverse of restaurants. There are some fundamentally cool things about it. It all kind of grew out of the necessities from the very beginning. It all grew out of the beginning, knowing how many people wanted soup and then getting that amount of stuff. It is basically like Michael Dell building computers.

Yeah, its just like Dell's computers with soup.

Yeah and that is how he took down the behemoths... Was by not carrying any inventory, by doing just in time production and selling online and getting the cash flow ahead of time. Pushing his suppliers back...We don't have enough power to push our suppliers back much but its kind of like that, same sort of necessity. Instead of building PC's out of a dorm room we are making soup

Do you have other practices with your staff, things that you are proud of in terms of employee option plans, how you are paying them, flexible schedules, or anything creative happening there?

No, pretty standard trying to pay people as well as you can. We have health care which is bizarre and nice for an embattled little company. We have, that's basically it. We are trying to get to the point where we are more generous.

Jumping back to the initiation of the “blue period”. You talked about catching a lot of grief. Part of the value and hook of the soup peddler was these heroic gestures, the biking, the packaging, that was got people to buy in. So, then there was a shift when you stepped back and made decisions from a larger vision of sustainability. How would you change or redirected that sense of value to the customer? So what are you doing now to give that value to your customer? The energy went somewhere else...

Well a lot of it went into expanding the menu. That was the big bet, that hey yunno people eat more than soup and honest to god I'm pretty sick of soup and I have some other creativity that I want to get into other types of food and a lot of the energy has gone into that. There has always been a community aspect, a creative writing aspect, a performance aspect, those things I'm still trying to work on. The community thing has changed, you know I try to be a part of the neighborhood and this and that, but as it's grown we had to create an abstraction on the community stuff Now we do a 5% kickback to various non-profits around the community. They send customers to us through a special portal and there supporters and on a quarterly basis we kick back the 5% to them. Its a marketing effort, so we can do more if you help us out more. And so I'm doing another performance at Boggy Creek in a couple of weeks on the 15th. We are just trying to be...I don't know if you get the newsletter, you know its like tales from South Austin, tales from the Soup Peddler make you laugh make you cry.

There is a ton of creativity in what you are doing...

Just trying to imbue, to make it rich.

Its a many textured thing, a lot of layers of flavor in what you are doing.

Thanks man.

Getting back to what you are doing, after having not seen what you were doing for a while, it really was really, like “Wow!” It really strikes me, it especially strikes me as inspired.

There are people around the country, marketing experts, lecturer types from around the country that subscribe to my list and read all my shit. Its really strange. I've become like this marketing savant, a lot of people think. Its pretty pure you know. Even before I started doing the soup peddler bit i was teaching yoga and doing a yoga newsletter and I'd write like my feelings about different poses and my experience and how i related it to music in my life and different stuff. And people read the yoga newsletters and passed them around. And there was a soup history from the first week. That was intentional. I wanted it to be educational. Challenging the palates of the customer. Next week we are launching a Ramadan menu: in the middle of something Texas, we are doing an Iraqi soup, a Palestinian dish, a Tunisian soup, an Algerian soup, a Moroccan stew, and its risky, its nervy. And we are still trying to be real, and be passionate.

That's awesome. I think that is the thing that gets me, I'm always weaving who I am into what I'm doing and I think there are some personality similarities, and I'm always doing some performance stuff just because it's who I am, and I'm writing all the time and I see you weaving all that stuff in and I'm like “cool, man.”

It's fun.

I don't know what I”m gonna do but I know its gonna be like that...

That is the only way, I really feel, to move yourself forward. Like I was at this Whole Foods thing, with the vendors. And I was at these little breakouts with these vendors with all these marketing people. And I was like—there job is to breathe life into life-less brands and create stories around brands that have no story. The most story that any of these companies have is... “This is my mom's recipe, she was a really good cook. Here's mom, say “hi” to the camera.” Whereas you can do something so much richer. You know the guy who does the feasts out in the fields...

No, I don't know about him.

Oh my god!

I can't believe I don't know about him

Its called...something in a field. They go around the country in a bus---and they set up a big table.

Oh man, i've had this exact same idea...

They.. I know they're burning, I know what they are feeling, they are glowing, burning human beings. I feel like I'm past that. I'm not that guy anymore. I'm putting more of my energy into my marriage and home, and I love seeing that. There's dumb luck, there's desperation, there's passion and pure expression has to be behind it because I know one of the things I experienced early on was doors like slamming open in front of me...there was a vacuum in front of me sucking me forward and a crowd of people behind me pushing me forward. That sense, and honestly at the beginning, you have to, it helps to be naïve, and not really know about the money, and not really know about... people can sniff that. They used to get this plane white bucket and there was just this different feeling to it and now all of the sudden with the bags, there are these labels with the brand and the bike and it was branding and the website was nicer and it was a different arrangement of pixels and they sensed there.. Oh my god there is a profit motive here! Most people aren't entrepreneur's and you have to take yourself back to that mindset of “oh I'm a customer,” to picture what they are thinking. But they are very sensitive, and they don't know how business works, what goes on behind the veils but they are really sensitive to that shit. And people really do want to support passion and you are doing something you are so passionate about that you end up getting help from these unexpected corners because your enthusiasm opens up all of these doors because people are responsive to your enthusiasm, you brighten their day and they want to do something to connect to you and they might open a door for you to someone else and it is just this chain reaction kind of thing. Whereas if you are like at a business meeting, mixer for small businesses and everyone is there to...its cool... everyone is like your trying to make money and I'm trying to make money and there are plenty of ways to make a living doing that and I'm not sure that that is what you are after. Unfortunately, there is a dissonance between creativity and, the passion is going to come from one side of the brain and the stuff about the survival of the business is going to come from the other and there is a dissonance there. And that is just something that you will have to come to grips with.

Sweet talk. Thank you so much. I feel like I could talk for another ½ hour. But I've got to go. And I would love to talk to you again.

One thing I definitely wanted to...(end of tape)