“Look at what realists have done for us. They have led us to war and climate change, poverty on an unimaginable scale, and wholesale ecological destruction. Half of humanity goes to bed hungry because of all the realistic leaders in the world. I tell people who call me ‘unrealistic’ to show me what their realism has done. Realism is an outdated, overplayed and wholly exaggerated concept.” —Satish Kumar, editor of the amazing Resurgence Magazine.
and of course:
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him. The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself. Thus, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” —George Bernard Shaw
“You can not be creative in a system that is very unjust, like the system we live in, unless you are a dissident.” — Nawal el Saadawi (who my coconut cream pyramids are named for!)
A lot of small businesses are struggling these days.
My BFF Christy’s secondhand kid’s clothing shop in Portland, LilyToad, is on the brink of closing, and a wildly popular vegan cinnamon roll bakery in Berkeley is strapped for cash this month, too.
It’s a damn hard thing, this small business owner thing.
The other week when I was doing my grocery shopping for the meal delivery service, I kept a little tally of how much I would have saved if I’d bought 100% non-organic, non-local, non-heirloom, non-artisanal items. I generally get a wholesale order from United Natural Foods of dry goods, then my CSA produce, then more produce from Taliaferro Farms across the street from my house, then little things here and there (and all the things I forgot to order wholesale but need this week, oops!) from my friendly local health food store, and finally lots more from the New Paltz, Rosendale, and sometimes Kingston and Rhinebeck farmer’s markets. I also special-order many specialty items from teeny tiny small companies that don’t wholesale, so I just pay retail prices plus shipping. I also have wholesale accounts with more specialty food vendors for my olive and grape seed oils, other nibbles here and there, and my chocolate suppliers. Sometimes it seems I spend half my life buying groceries in one form or another, and I’m constantly forgetting things, no matter how many lists I have.
Instead of all that, I could just get non-organic, non-local produce, plus all my dry goods, from a huge distributor like Sysco. One or two deliveries a week, everything I need, all at once. So easy and efficient!
The only problem is that I’d sort of rather die than order from Sysco.
There’s nothing really wrong with them, it’s just not how I function. I have these weird little rules I live by, like: don’t buy chocolate made by child slaves. Don’t lose your politics to convenience. Silly things like that. Sysco is a remarkably successful company which provides a service extremely well. We live in a capitalist system and they fill their role in the system very well: buy cheap products from producers, mark them up and sell them to food-service outlets at a price that allows them to further mark up their finished products in order to balance the need for a suitable profit margin with the need to attract customers. Simple.
But I love my farmer’s markets and my CSA. I love knowing my maple syrup guy is making my maple cream for the new chocolates I’m working on on Saturday and I’ll have it by Sunday. I love that I can talk to him about how he knows every tree he taps, knows the land like he knows his children, knows how to fix his giant huge sap-boiling contraption when it breaks down, knows everything I’d ever want to know about maple syrup. I buy it by the gallon, for about $40. Do you know how much maple sap, how many hours of labor, it takes to make a gallon of extra-dark (thus extra flavorful) maple syrup? $40 is a bargain, as far as I’m concerned. I know how hard this guy works.
So, in one week, a week when I didn’t even need to buy maple syrup, I estimated that if I’d bought non-organic, super cheap, super crappy versions of absolutely everything at all these places, from Goya brand beans instead of fancy pants organic French lentils or Rancho Gordo heirloom beans, to artificially low-priced wilty Sysco produce instead of glorious greens and veggies from the family organic farm one minute from my house, I’d save at least $300-400. $400 A WEEK! Now you see why a quick assessment of the walk-ins and back room of almost all restaurants that proudly claim the big O mantle feature precious little actual USDA-certified organic groceries (not to mention the ones that straight-up lie to you about using local produce, and admit that they’re lying!). Organic peppercorns are almost double non-organic ones. Food cost margins in the restaurant industry are notoriously tight even without the organic option. I don’t blame the restaurants that lie. Organic is a buzzword, and it does bring in consumers. And some things are just ludicrous to buy organic.
But I buy these things anyway. Organic nuts? LUDICROUS. But I buy them.
I buy them anyway, because want to know a secret?
I’m not actually in this business to make you food.
For eight years that’s what I’ve been doing, and I love it and blah blah blah, but my real mission is something I’ve kept mostly a secret. It’s two little words that are tattooed on my brain, two words that I repeat to myself over and over when times get tough. Two little words that get me into masses of trouble all the time. Two little words that sum up not only my business philosophy but my life philosophy:
All I wanted, in 2002 when I decided to try to work for myself full-time, was not to compromise my beliefs. Those beliefs are the same as they ever were:
-I believe in a sustainable food system not dependent on giant agri-business conglomerates that force down wages and food quality and receive outlandish amounts of federal subsidies while wasting massive amounts of food and encouraging the development of more genetically modified and otherwise dangerous food.
-I believe in seasonal food grown by farmers I trust.
-I believe in mind-blowingly delicious food.
-I believe I’m entitled to a pleasant work environment without garish fluorescent lights, disgusting kitchens, and chaos.
-I believe in fair wages for me and my helpers.
-I believe in work I’m proud of.
It’s poetic and lovely, but it’s a terrible business plan.
There’s nothing about food costs coming in under 10%, or net vs. gross income ratios, or anything like that. If I’d had investors (instead of just credit cards) when starting out, they would have been crazy to loan me money for a business based on the idea that I have an ethical system I’m proud of.
But I can sleep at night.
When all else fails—when I’m exhausted and there are too many dishes to do and the stupid sink won’t drain AGAIN and my landlord still hasn’t fixed the hood fan and why are people saying the war is over when there are 50,000 troops in Iraq and 100,000 in Afghanistan still and the end of oil is coming sooner than we think and I bought a diesel car so I could convert it to veggie oil and I still haven’t gotten around to it and damn, are sales taxes due AGAIN, already?—when it all gets to be too much and “I got straight As for 16 years and I’m just so tired of washing dishes”-ish, I have that: I can sleep at night.
I’M DOING IT. I’m the person I wanted to be back then, when I was slogging through Times Square to a mindless job just to pay bills and have health insurance. My business is miniscule, infinitesimal, positively lilliputian, but to me it’s a revolution I’m ludicrously proud of. I don’t lie. I don’t compromise. It’s my own weird, quirky business, run according to my own often-annoying standards and values.
It’s everything to me.
Not being forced to compromise means not just spending a whole bunch of money I could be using to pay down my student loans or my mortgage, it means that I’m not owned by the out-of-control capitalist system I tango with every day. It means I have reclaimed some control over the way I choose to live. It’s amazing, it’s a miracle, and the fact that I’ve found customers and clients who appreciate it is the best gift I could ever have.