Ninety percent of restaurant start-ups fail. We found the ten percent solution. Something in the following stories may reveal our secret.
His shiny head butted me in the hip as he lifted his load off the floor. Tyler thumped the big bag of flour onto the table next to me as we discussed what to do with our pathetic pastry cook. He’d shown up late for work and still felt we owed him something. I was trying to take a day off and appeared calm standing next to Tyler in the sweltering kitchen. He was more a part of the environment. Flour and dough bits stuck in the hair of his sweaty tattooed arms, tomato sauce spattered on his damp tank top.
Veins pulsed up the sides of his skull and the rings on his fingers glittered as he shook. “I’m going to be sick, you come tomorrow and work with him. I can’t do it anymore.” Regretfully I committed to a 3:00 am shift, again.
The bakery is compact yet it serves the small population of Kilauea and the visitors who drive passed it every day. A sign at the end of the road reads, “The Northern most inhabited point in the Hawaiian Islands.” Beyond it is a cliff that falls into the lonely expanse of the Pacific. It was beauty that put us here in the fix we were in. With its shoulders wrapped in a green shawl of rain forest and its toes dipped in the blue ocean Kilauea was irresistible.
It’s a rural community originally sprouted around a sugar plantation. Weathered little homes in front of dirt sidewalks lined narrow streets. The tin roofed elementary school is so old the doors still have skeleton keys. A quiet Post Office, a little Market, and a few shops for tourists make up the place. Move here and people will soon know you whether you intended it or not. After nine pm the dark silence in town can be stupefying.
One morning, years ago in Kilauea a man gave up his struggle with free enterprise leaving behind a floundering bakery. The Hawaiians sat in the shade and watched. Soon half a dozen would be captains of industry were vying for the space. We out maneuvered them.
At 2:00 am July fifth 1991 I rolled over in bed to turn off the alarm the first day of business had began. Katie feigned sleep. I brewed coffee and grabbed my old bike for the short ride over to the soon to be prosperous Kilauea Bakery. Laying Trusty Rusty by the steps of the cottage that was to make our fortune I looked up at the night sky. A palm tree took a dark bite out of the star lit sky. Standing in the balmy air on top of the worn plank stairs I put the key into the lock and let myself in. The only sign of life was the chatter of refrigerators laboring to keep their new loads of food cold. We had spent a month transforming the place and I could still smell the fresh white paint that we brushed over the termite riddled walls.
To say our bakery was in a shopping center might conjure too common a picture. Kong Lung Center was a cluster of old buildings that had served as a commissary for the Kilauea Sugar Plantation. Our cottage was eighty years old. Built of first growth redwood plank, it had once held horse equipment; it was a Tack shed. New paint and a linoleum floor gave a clean, food-service look to the inside. The outside with its wide eves, wooden porch, and plantation paint was left untouched to reflect its fading past.
The interior was divided between the service counter and the kitchen yet a customer who climbed the stairs and opened the wooden screen door with a squeak could step to the counter and see the ovens roaring away against the kitchen’s back wall.
My first task was to scale out a bowl of ingredients and begin mixing the inaugural batch of bread. I’d been cleaning the big mixer the previous day and had absent-mindedly left the mixing speed up high. In my distracted state, being proud or anxious that morning, I hadn’t noticed. It was in the highest gear, reserved only for whipping cream. A speed so fast those seven hundred pound bread mixers will actually walk across the floor from the spinning vibration. Decades of struggle began the instant I pushed the button. The explosion of motion flung a forty-pound snotty mixture of flour and water over pristine tables, shelves and ceilings. It just took a couple of seconds before my startled mind reacted by slamming the “off” button but by then I was dripping with white runny globs and shaking flour dust from my hair.
Thinking back now I hadn’t realized the significance of the moment. It marked the beginning of days filled with endless explosions of food and broken down equipment and hours when customers and employees alike seemed a bit unusual and in constant need of attention or counseling. Like a Venus flytrap, the bakery had engulfed its next victim. A food service operation’s inherent movement toward chaos initiated a drawn out and brutal kind of therapy on me.
I swept frantically. Taking time to wipe up globs of spatter resembling paper mache’ paste wasn’t planned. Something made me pause alone in the florescent light. In what would become a repetitive phenomenon when things seemed to go inexplicably haywire I detected the ghostly fragrance of the previous bakers Swisher Sweet cigars. The odor would hang in the air most often in that last cold hour before dawn.
Our first paying customer was a jovial soul named Thea Carlyle. She banged on the door in the dark. On her way to open the mini-mart close by she had promised to check in. I hoped that maybe she was an angel of mercy coming to stand by and help with the mess. What she had in mind was hot coffee and the privilege of handing over the first dollar bill. We wrote something about luck and prosperity in the greenback’s margins and tacked it to the wall. She left with fresh pastry and coffee and I dashed back to my mess.
By 6:30, with a pastry case full of Danish and crispy breads, there were at once two jobs to do. Sell everything before it became stale and then wash the pots. Standing at the low sink faced me away from people entering through the front door. While bent at the sink I listened for the squeak of the screen door. I scrubbed and rinsed and wondered about things.
The morning rolled into afternoon with a scattering of visits by curious friends and neighbors. They politely complemented the efforts and leaned on the display case to offer advice. I succeeded in not offending or poisoning anyone. In between chats I finished the pots.
By adding up expenses and figuring the mean size of each sale I deduced the daily volume of sales we needed to avoid failure. The more I scrubbed and thought the more that squeak of the screen door gained a significance beyond it’s quaint noise. It had to squeak ten times an hour, less than that I began to worry and feel lonely. I scoured blackened sheet pans and promised myself I would worry about failure for only three years. With each squeak I’d happily dry my hands, straighten my apron and greet my customer cheerfully. I told myself, do this right and they may come back. Don’t appear too, they’ll sense desperation.
On slow days I found myself turning around or drying my hands thinking I’d heard or imagined the sound of the door hinge. This wouldn’t do over the noise of the refrigerators, fans, pots banging in the sink and the old stereo cassette player. I added a small bell.
The tink of the thin brass clapper soon blended in with the rest of the audio scramble. We had plenty of returning customers from the first week. Having one of the only two eateries in town may have helped. The pots often had to sit until closing time. I became a fixture behind the counter serving coffee, pastry and the topic du jour. To be continued…