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.”

Nothing But Austin Interview

Excerpt from an email interview with the new Nothing But Austin blog... a bunch of old info for some of you, maybe a few intersprinkles of some new bits...

When you decided to end your career as a "profoundly bored" software professional, did you face any backlash or lack of support from friends and family?

They had grown pretty used to seeing my flounder around so I wouldn't say that was a terribly difficult stage. My folks gave me the great gift of a college education in engineering but weren't very heavy-handed in advising me to make use of it or tell me how to run my life. They were certainly quizzical about the soup peddling thing at first but after my stints at teaching yoga and freelance writing, it wasn't a real shocker. They knew I was very engaged in it and happy and proud so that was fine.

When you first started your business, you say you sent an email to your friends asking for $10 in exchange for soup on their porch. How effective was that? Did people laugh at you or embrace your quirkiness?

Embrace. Like any bootstrappy business, it began with friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends. Basically the South Austin circle. People may ridicule the bumper stickers that describe the South Austin thing, but I have to say they're all true. People loved the Soup Peddler. It wasn't just kitsch, but there was really good food and there was really good writing to go with it and there was a sense of belonging to something insider and cool. Back then, it was a different culinary scene with zero avenues for someone with my limited culinary experience to make a go of it. So it was audacious in its way, like "hey, I'm going to work outside of the system and see if my blood, sweat, and tears can make this thing work." And people really felt that gesture, they felt my passion and energy and supported it. It touched a nerve quite dramatically so much that The Soup Peddler became a sort of folk hero.

Your name: The Soup Peddler is pure genius as you peddle to deliver soup and you're "peddling" (selling) soup. How did you come up with the name?

Marijuana. Smoking it, then sitting and thinking.

Were their other names you had before being called The Soup Peddler?

Yes, when I first started it, it was called the Soup Subscription Service by Savory Soul Sustenance. Believe it or not. But probably two or three weeks into the business I came up with the name. It took probably a half hour to design the logo, which hasn't changed since.

Do you have any ambitions to sell your soup in grocery stores or other retail outlets?

We are opening our own retail outlet with one of the founders of Daily Juice, it will be a nice Jo's Coffee-style kiosk on the corner of Lamar and Manchaca called Juicebox/Soup Peddler. I've been chronicling the development of that project at blog.souppeddler.com and it's a pretty interesting read for folks who are into entrepreneurship, design, or architecture.

When I think of your name "The Soup Peddler" and the way in which you deliver your product, I immediately think of a comic book superhero. Any chance you would develop a costume as uniform while delivering soup along the streets of South Austin? That would be interesting?

There have been many thoughts of caricaturization of The Soup Peddler character once I sort of separated myself from that legend. I wrote a slightly fictionalized book of memoirs that was fairly successful on Ten Speed Press, selling over 10,000 copies. There have been thoughts along the way of turning it into a screenplay, a stage production, an action figure, etc. But I don't really have a media department and I've been kind of busy with various things like my life, my family, my interests, and my business. Cool thing is (see attached file) the Zach Scott Theatre did a production some years ago called Keeping It Weird which was a stage play developed from the verbatim remarks of Austin luminaries and weirdos including myself. The superhero costume was derived from comments in my interview regarding tension living up to people's expectations of me as a local hero. The costume still lives in the props department at the Zach. Spandex is for the young.

You've gotten tons of local and national press coverage in print, online, and television. What's your secret to gaining so much press attention?

Do the work yourself. Serve up the story on a silver platter. Media folks are super-busy and it is very, very difficult for them to find content that is interesting, subjects that are honestly friendly and helpful. Of course much of it comes from having an interesting story, but that really comes from authenticity, being true to your passion and community. The other part is really doing the work for the press, knowing what their needs are and providing for them. The camera crews, the sound crews, the reporters, whatever... be really nice to them, feed them, ask them about their day, be real, be humble. It makes everyone's day go better.

You started your business with only $60 in your bank account. Were you afraid of failure? Did you have a Plan B? What motivated you not to quit with such great odds stacked against you?

Some people say that the greatest point of risk for a venture is Day 1, and it goes down as you go along. That's one way of looking at it. From a purely statistical point of view, yes, the odds of the business succeeding are at their worst on Day 1. But you have other weighting coefficients along the way like the amount of debt involved that change the magnitude of the downside of the risk. So in one sense, the risk was at its lowest when I only had sixty bucks and not a whole lot of heartache on the line. You can't forget the value of naïveté with regards to the entrepreneurial spirit: This is someone looking at a gorgeous sunrise while a raft of churning storm clouds are encroaching from the west. I'm saying I didn't know what odds were really stacked against me so I paid them no attention. I always say that if the me of back then came to ask the me of now what I thought about starting The Soup Peddler, the me of now would have laughed the me of then out of the room.

Most entrepreneurs in your situation who "put everything on the line"
work an insane amount of hours to get their business up and running. How many hours were you working to initially build your business and when did you become profitable?

It has always been profitable. That's the nice thing about truly bootstrapped, organically-grown businesses. There was a whole lot more DIY and sweat equity in this business than real equity funding. In fact, there has been no equity funding. For a while, I worked pretty darn hard. But after you achieve a certain point of scale, you're able to extract yourself to work solely on the business instead of both on and in the business. That's a much better arrangement.

Did you have any secondary form of employment to maintain income while building your business?

No. I didn't really require much income at the time. Just getting-by money. But I'm a big man now and a fully functioning member of the economy.

From all the press I've seen about you, you seem to take life so casually. What words of encourage can you provide for new entrepreneurs who are looking to break into business but fear the loss of stability from their 9 - 5?

Do the numbers. I ALWAYS have my business plan spreadsheets open on my laptop. I am ALWAYS looking at numbers. There was a database system years ago called Delphi. There's another biggie called Oracle. Get it? Databases and spreadsheets are meant to ANSWER QUESTIONS. Entrepreneurship is all about answering questions. Numbers answer questions. Fears are based on unanswered questions. Figure it out. I'm not trying to be opaque here, just honest.

South Austin is famously known for it's food carts/trailers, but you're the only company I know who delivers soup on a bicycle.

Er, uh... we haven't done that for about five or six years now.

Since becoming "The Soup Peddler," have you had any competitors? If so, how has it affected your business?

We've seen some competitors come and go, some trends come and go. Basically we're in the realm of restaurant alternatives. The whole thing where you would schedule an appointment to go "cook" or mix a bunch of pre-prepared foods together, like Super Suppers or Dream Dinners... that's gone. The trailer thing is a wonderful thing but I'm fairly certain it has passed its peak already. The Snap Kitchen/My Fit Foods thing is the new one. It looks pretty strong right now, it could work, or it could be a dead end. Nobody has really challenged us on the prepared foods delivery. It's pretty headache-filled, so it's a long row to hoe to get where we are with it. We are certainly not immune from competition, but we still seem to be surviving in an original little niche and supported well by our very very very well-valued customers.

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.

2010 SXSW Band Name Revue!

Soupies,

It's time for The Soup Peddler's annual SXSW Band Name Analysis And Award Ceremony. Our previous winners Crapulence, Phil And The Osophers, and We Were Promised Jetpacks served as advisory board members to help me cull through the thousands of entries.

Simple analysis reveals the biggest trend in this year's band naming: the exclamation mark. It has been used to some good effect. For example, The Terror Pigeon Dance Revolt seems somehow incomplete, flat, without the addition of the mark: The Terror Pigeon Dance Revolt! It makes all the difference. You Say Party, We Say Die becomes You Say Party! We Say Die! and suddenly there is a suggestion of jubilance in the murderous intention. Attack Attack seems like something a robot gone bad might say, whereas Attack Attack! seems more like a fun way to announce an imminent bludgeoning.

We've seen this trend before also. In times of economic strain, bands turn to familiar, heartwarming, cuddly things to inject with irony. Rabbits are a common motif. This year, we have Bad Rabbit, Frightened Rabbit, Dirty Little Rabbits, and Roxy Cottontail. There was a smattering of other fauna, such as Butterfly Explosion, Nervous Turkey, and Kittens Ablaze. I feel like the latter could have gone the extra mile and added the exclamation mark. Check this out: Kittens Ablaze! It jumps off the page.

We discovered an interesting correlation between the Chinese calendar and SXSW band names... indeed it is the Year Of The Tiger. We have Papier Tigre, Spring Tigers, 60 Tigres, Tigersapien, and Tiger! Shit! Tiger! Tiger! (you'll excuse the latter, they're Italian. Europeans employ such cutely awkward use of American curse words). Other great cat-inspired bands are Jaguar Love and Japanther (not to be confused with Japandroids).

In a hopeful note, only a few bands joined my Bad Grammar/I Weep For The Future Because The English Language Is Dying List this year: She And Him is probably the most glaring example, but The Bewitched Hands On Top Of Our Heads is arguably more embarrassing because it doesn't seem like it was done on purpose. I assume She And Him is purposeful and ironic in some way.

I felt that this year there was a marked decline in band names that were selected purposefully to embarrass the parents of the band members. Certainly, we still have our Middle Finger Salutes, etc., but we definitely have a much more subdued crop. Gone are the Die! Die! Die!s of years past. However, I am concerned still for the marketing approach of some bands. Particularly The Gates Of Slumber. Sounds like a real pick-me-up! I think I'll go to that show! Or BFS & The Crappy All-Stars Karaoke? Or The Spit Brothers? Or We Are Country Mice? I don't see these as big marquee names. Perhaps a little self-sabotaging. Maybe ironically self-sabotaging?

Several bands seem to have used the Free Online Random Band Name Generator to no good effect: Mammoth Grinder, Spleen United, Codeine Velvet Club, Yourself And The Air, and Peanut Butter Wolf were just a few.

Well, let's move on to the final round of judging. In no particular order, these are the band names that floated my boat: Hammer No More Fingers, John Dear Mowing Club, Hyperpotamus, Bass Drum Of Death, Banjo Or Freakout, Flosstradamus, Plastician. I'll have to say that my runner-up for this year's prize is a self-styled "Thrash/Classical/Glam" band whose music sounds as though it was beamed digitally to Earth from Alpha Centauri and then decoded incorrectly: Computer Jesus Refrigerator! Come on down to claim your prize!

And this year's winner, a combination of sheer timelessness, genre-crossing brilliance, and great Scrabble point value all rolled into one: Foxy Shazam! You are the 2010 Soup Peddler SXSW Band Name Analysis And Award Ceremony Award Winner! Huzzah!

Next Week's Menu: Hotcakes, Zesty Southwestern Tuscan Crispy Bacon Melt

Soupies,

We have a lovely menu for you next week! First a few business notes to attend to... One of the things we've been struggling with for the past few years is how to manage the growth that we've been experiencing without sacrificing the quality of our service. To that end, we have decided to adopt the decimal calendar, first instituted by the Coptic Christians in Egypt and also the Ethiopian Church in the 4th Century. With a ten-day week, we are able spread our weekly delivery schedule out more efficiently over our ever-expanding service area.

As you can see, the first seven days of the week are conveniently named Sunday through Saturday, then it moves onto Octoday, Nonaday, and Deciday. We have provided an iPhone app available on iTunes that will translate your existing calendar functions to the new decimal calendar. Sorry for any inconvenience and please let us know what we can do to assist you in this transition.

OK, onto the menu... please lettuce know what we can prepare for you!

After much head-scratching here at Product Development Central, we had one of those "Aha!" sort of moments. I posed the following question to my staff: "What can we sell that will sell like hotcakes?" And then with a wry smile... "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Soup Peddler's fluffy, warm hotcakes are prepared in the traditional disc-like shape that you've come to know and love, each one just a little different, just like mom used to make! (Serves 4) $10

There is no shame in our game. How better to capitalize upon our culture's food fascination than to design a dish around the most compelling menu adjectives known to 21st Century (Wo)man? After hours of whiteboarding and also a little tinker-time in the kitchen we offer our latest and greatest. Enjoy! (Serves 2) 11.9**

**studies show that removing the dollar sign and adding a single decimal representing tens of cents subtly dissociates the menu item from the dollar amount

The culinary arts are rife with traditions of frugality. In fact, some of today's most valued foods were at one time throw-away items... ribs, trotters, clams, crabs... the list goes on. Ever-rising food costs compel us to think creatively in menu design, thus this clever riff on our famed Penne Alla Vodka. Ah, sweet memories of those Everclear nights! (Serves 2) $4

Have you ever wondered what they do with the rest of the nauga after they remove the hide? We asked our meat distributor and found our answer... nauga nuggets are among the most economically-priced proteins available to man, and what's not delicious battered and fried I ask you? Served with our Original Genuine Ersatz Sauce and Spurious Slaw. $10

Do you ever tire of the unalterable drone of "crisp on the outside, tender on the inside"? It's almost as if the measure of a food is entirely reliant upon its external crispness and internal tenderness. I feel like many important textures have been lost or endangered as a result. We bring you a dish based upon one of the lost greats: squishiness! $12

Innovative, out-of-the-box thinking is hard to accomplish in an industry where thousands of creative minds are pounding the virtual cognitive pavement for the next great idea. The Austin Cakeball movement is well afoot, but we are proud to unveil what we think is the next level: Cake Trapezoids! Where spherical forms of food say "I'm old. I'm traditional. I'm rolled by someone's questionably sanitized hands," angular forms such as trapezoids say, "I'm fresh. I'm edgy. I'm precision-cut. I am the next level and I am here to stay." $9

Order early and often! Thank you as always for your continued soupport, and I feel I would be most remiss if I did not wish you and yours a joyous, happy April First.

Your friend,
The Soup Peddler

Further Thoughts On Soupmaking


Addie Broyles of the Austin American-Statesman recently interviewed me for a story on improving your soupmaking skills. Unfortunately I didn't have my thoughts entirely, cohesively together, so I'm re-cobbling them together here:

Cook Longer: Just because it takes longer to make doesn’t mean you have to work harder. Soups perform very well on autopilot. For example, with ten minutes of attention a stock can be put on before bed and be ready without another thought for dinner 18 hours later. A vegetable soup can be put on Sunday morning and stew all day with scant attention and be glorious by dinnertime. This is the #1 way to make your soup taste better, it’s the secret behind the alchemy of soupmaking.

Don't Shop For Soup: all the essentials for soup have great shelf life and your home should never be without them: carrots, onions, garlic, celery, potatoes, rice, noodles. From there you’re never too far away from having soup. All the great soups of the world are cucina povera, from the poor kitchen, using the scraps. This should be the spirit behind your soupmaking. Look at the larder and figure out what soup can come from it. It's that alchemy again... How to turn lead into gold.

Cook Like Bob Ross: Don’t paint by numbers. Develop a feel. Choose where you want to put that happy little tree. You start with a big brush, setting the background, the mood, with your stock and aromatics. As you move along, you add layers to the painting, you move to smaller brushes, adding details like featured ingredients which may be highlighted by a separate or shorter cooking process. Then you finish with a tiny little detail brush, adding those little shimmery bright spots like lemon, parsley, salt, finishing oils, etc.

Take Recipes With A Grain Of Salt: Soup is a particularly tolerant medium, so recipes are great for inspiration, but they should be thought of as a lead sheet in music. The chords are there, the melody line is there, but the song can become realized an infinite variety of ways. Think about interpreting a recipe as if it’s a piece of music. That parsley is in the recipe to freshen up the flavor, right? You happen to have only cilantro and mint on hand (shame on you for not always having parsley)... go with what you’ve got. Those shallots and leeks are there to provide a deep savory flavor, but you’ve only got garlic and onions... go with that.

Be Like Michael (Pollan): Don’t Put Anything In Your Soup That Your Grandmother Wouldn’t Recognize As Food". Use only whole ingredients. With the exception of pasta, canned tomatoes, maybe a can of coconut milk here and there, your ingredients shouldn’t come from boxes or cans. This provision is primarily intended to enforce against use of store-bought stock/broth, which is with VERY rare exception pure trickery.

Vessel


LONG-AWAITED SOUP PEDDLER PRODUCT RELEASE FALLS FLAT

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Anger erupted in the state capital today as citizens claimed that fraudulent marketing practices created a media frenzy around a new product release, codenamed "Vessel" by accused soup monopolist The Soup Peddler.

"It's just a big bowl of soup. It's the exact same thing as their previous soup, but bigger," said a visibly disappointed Soupie Carol Hatfield. "It doesn't even come to you warmed up."

The "Vessel" product unveiling on Wednesday afternoon at Jovita's was a who's who of insider media and foodies jostling for position to be the first to catch a glimpse of the new product. Expectations were stoked by nebulous guerrilla marketing stunts like soup spoons dangling from overpasses and clattering by the thousands down the capital steps.

To the raucous cheers of the expectant standing-room-only crowd, Ansel exulted, "Welcome to the next generation of soup. I bring you... Big Soup!" A stunned silence and quizzical expressions spread throughout the room. "Is this thing on?" asked Ansel.

"I feel like I've been played for a fool, I mean I used to trust The Soup Peddler to be a customer-oriented innovator but now I'm not so sure," said Blair Fox, a longtime customer.

Local marketing expert Laney Catledge said, "There's always a bit of smoke and mirrors involved with crafting and conveying a brand image, but I think The Soup Peddler went way too far this time. There was a sense that they were insulting the intelligence of the public."

As of press time, the owner of The Soup Peddler, David Ansel, is reportedly in retreat at his private island hideaway in Town Lake after the debacle and could not be reached for comment.

Good Buddy

I have some sad news to share this week. Though many of you are fairly new to The Soup Peddler, there's a whole lot of back story that I've kind of stopped sharing over the years. After all, you can't really keep telling the same story for too long or you'll find people avoiding you at parties and so forth. But back in the early days I lived in a house just up the hill from our shop and a Collie/Aussie mix named Alex lived there too. We were roommates for six years and she kept me company a lot when I was cooking soup and riding my bike. She became a regular here at the kitchen and sort of the de facto mascot of The Soup Peddler. She was in Soup Peddler: The Movie and also a major character in Soup Peddler: The Book. Over time, I got busy with life, moved out, got married and had a kid. We still borrowed her frequently and took her for hikes and stuff. She was even in a photo with us in Life Magazine. Eventually, we adopted a bad little orphan kitten and he made her visits to our house miserable, ambushing her fluffy tail from the couch or piano bench. She was slowing down, and I guess we got too busy with the kid. We didn't see a whole lot of her in recent years. But she kept hanging in there, to the ripe old age of 17 years. I guess you can see where this is going. Alex was put to sleep in her front yard surrounded by loved ones on a beautiful day last week. I have a few photos to share from those early days...

Numerical Cues

Busy days here at The Soup Peddler. Nothing we can't handle, mind you. An auspicious 1066 quarts of soup sold last week. Is it folly to ignore the numerical cues that hint of links between the hidden and the seen? The cat leaves six pieces of dry food in his bowl, scratches his cheek twenty-four times with his back foot, turns around eleven times before settling into a cozy spot (your black coat--upon which he deposits exactly thirty-one individual white hairs). After forty minutes he meows forty-five times at the door, and those six numbers hit on the powerball the following day. But what do we do with 1066? Invading a small island nation is out of the question. Massacre a scapegoated ethnic minority? Not in this day and age! Hire a guy named Norman? Perhaps. We'll keep our eyes open for opportunities.

Numerology

Busy days here at The Soup Peddler. Nothing we can't handle, mind you. An auspicious 1066 quarts of soup sold last week. Is it folly to ignore the numerical cues that hint of links between the hidden and the seen? The cat leaves six pieces of dry food in his bowl, scratches his cheek twenty-four times with his back foot, turns around eleven times before settling into a cozy spot (your black coat--upon which he deposits exactly thirty-one individual white hairs). After forty minutes he meows forty-five times at the door, and those six numbers hit on the powerball the following day. But what do we do with 1066? Invading a small island nation is out of the question. Massacre a scapegoated ethnic minority? Not in this day and age! Hire a guy named Norman? Perhaps. We'll keep our eyes open for opportunities.

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.