One crazy summer

My college experience started and ended at the University of New Mexico.   It was a great school and it was really affordable in the 90’s.  My goal was to become a high school English and Drama teacher.  Ah, those best laid plans…  I remember being in a big lecture hall thinking “I am sitting here, listening to this man spout out and making me memorize things from a book written by a different man whose experiences may or may not have anything to do with my life.”  as I stared to doze off.

Needless to say, I didn’t last very long in college.  I was a person who had to go out and experience life on my own.  My path was leading in the direction of working with people and what better way to do that than to travel?  My friends and I made it a point to day trip whenever we could and as the opportunities arose, we adventured farther and farther.

When I turned 21, three of my girlfriends and I took the summer off and drove my Honda civic hatchback to Alaska.  We weren’t quite sure what we would do when we got there, but we recognized at some level that our best chance to learn and experience was right then and there.  Fear of the unknown was not allowed to be a factor.

After a long and storied journey, we found jobs at a Salmon processing plant, living in a tent city on the Kenai peninsula (really just a bunch of tarps shantied together in the factory’s parking lot).   Our duties included fish cavity scraping, egg sack redistribution and quality control.  The smell of salmon belly rot will forever be burned into my brain.  We were constantly smelly and dirty and we worked 12-14 hours a day.  But the sun was always up and we were young.

That summer led me on a new path.  I began to realize how to communicate with people on a new level.  We worked with a couple from Russia, native Alaskan Eskimos (no igloos and it was warm, so no fur lined parkas), a group of 4 deaf college boys travelling together, as well as gang members from L.A. trying to put their thug life behind them.  Out of sheer circumstance, our social constructs fell away making room for familial cooperation, and we worked together to get the job done.

I realize that there are many professions which require extensive book learning and collegiate certifications.  I do not recommend learning mechanical engineering by jumping into a helicopter, tearing it apart and piecing it back together.  But there are certain aspects of any profession which cannot be conveyed in a lecture hall.  What that summer taught me is that I can make a family out of any group of people.  I am able to find a common ground with anyone with whom I strike a conversation and build from there.  This skill has proven to be invaluable to me both in my personal life as well as in the profession which chose me. (14)

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It was the best of times…

I had the unique experience to simultaneously work for the best and worst bosses I have ever come across. My time was split between two small businesses.  I was working as a licensed massage therapist for a local spa and also as a stained glass artisan for The Glass Source in Shelton.  Both of these opportunities involved a field I was passionate about, but they could not have been farther from each other in actual experience.

The spa started out as a great opportunity with regular hours, work in my field and benefits.  I liked the women and the clients with whom I worked and it was a great opportunity.  However, things changed very quickly.  My coworkers and I started experiencing inconsistencies in our schedules and house rules.  The upkeep started to grow slack and the owner was less and less present.  We started having to make excuses and apologizing for management.  The environment became toxic and did not represent me or how I wanted to express my craft.

The Glass Source was the completely opposite situation.  Fred and I took an introductory class and I fell in love.  Debbie Breither, the second owner after the original owner/artisan Mary Pilsbury passed from cancer, saw something in my talent and offered me a job.  The space was small but tidy and her whole family worked there.  Debbie’s mother was the bookkeeper and her father the comptroller. I felt instantly at home.

From the beginning, I was amazed at the amount of grace Debbie possessed.   She made it a point to know everyone’s name, even if she had only met a person once.  When she gave a quote, she would tell the client that it would take a little longer than she expected, because she would rather pleasantly surprise them than give false hopes and empty promises.  Debbie loved her craft.  She had an uncanny attention to detail and executed as only a true perfectionist could.  She cared for her clients.  Her employees were treated like family (the ones you like) and I loved coming to work every day.  And working with stained glass was an amazing experience which I will always cherish.

The glaring difference between these two people was the level of care and attention they gave their businesses.  The spa owner was in it as a money-making venture- nothing more.  She made her money, but after a while her bare minimum level of care and integrity wore away at any staying power and the spa eventually failed.   Clients were disappointed and employees were left to fend for themselves.

Debbie had moved down South to semi-retire and passed the business to Mike Skrtic, an artisan with whom I worked.  His level of care and craftsmanship is equal to if not greater than before and he carries on the tradition of intuitive customer service and a keen eye for quality and detail.  He is the realization of a true apprentice becoming a master craftsman and Debbie took the time to teach him the art of small business ownership.

As a restaurateur, I feel that I learned so much from that time in my life.  I learned as much what not to do as how to do things correctly.  I learned what happens when you don’t treat your employees and clients with the utmost of respect.  And I know from experience that the short term decisions that I make can and will come back to either help or hinder myself and my business.  I choose the road of kindness, inclusion and care for my craft.  Thank you both for these valuable lessons. (12)

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I wanna be a princess!

I see business ownership as very similar to being a princess.  Try to stick with me here, folks.

Just like any other little girl, I thought I wanted to be royalty.  They can dress up and play all day, they have everything and everybody at their disposal, and when a princess speaks, everybody listens.

I got the unexpected chance to be a princess when I visited my Nonna in Sicily for a summer.  My family all lives in Collesano, a small mountain town where everyone is either related or, well, related.  I was 25 and had been living on my own for a few years.  I was accustomed to coming and going as I pleased.

When I arrived, I was in for a rude awakening. The social customs in mountain town Sicily differed greatly from 1990’s America.  I was not allowed to be seen in public without a chaperone.  If I wanted to leave the house, I had to lock down a cousin to make sure I was well-accompanied.  There were many times when nobody was available to babysit me and I had to look out from my balcony (really, they all have balconies) wistful of the freedom enjoyed by everyone around me.

When I finally got to leave the house, it was well known who I was.  Since I was a Manganello, I was considered to be a part of the family. However, I was still L’ Americana.  Everywhere I walked in town, kids would cat-call me and the widows in their vestibules stared me down, ready and armed with the evil eye if I made a wrong move.  I was the first generation of Americanized Collesano, so I had to represent my family with honor and grace.  No exceptions.

The up-sides were equally memorable.  I was approached by many family members and friends, who told me stories of the town and of my dad, who had recently passed away.  I was able to fill in some lineage blanks and the time I was able to spend with my grandmother, learning from her and getting to know her as an adult, is an experience I will cherish for the rest of my life.

Here is where I tie it all back together.  Owning a business is something people dream about.  The notion is that you enjoy complete freedom and do whatever you want.  Money is always plentiful and you don’t have to answer to anyone.

The real picture of small business ownership is not as fanciful.  We are less free than you think.  Our businesses are like our children.  We do not have the luxury of leaving our job- it follows us wherever we go. Our minds are always preoccupied with the weight of ownership and may not pass the buck of responsibility to anyone else.  It begins and ends with us.  Like I’ve said before, we don’t take vacations and, financially, we always seem to be skirting disaster.

So the next time you think wistfully of the fanciful life of the small business owner, please know that for all of the “freedom and glory” we get to experience, there is an equal amount of weight and responsibility attached.  It is usually worth it and I am thankful every day, but I sometimes fantasize of the comfortably secure life which I do not get to experience. (14)

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You gotta know when to hold ‘em

When I think about what it takes to run a business, I am reminded that we are gamblers.  Not in the literal sense- I’m not spending my free time at slot machines and poker tables.  What I am talking about is taking blind chances, grounded in faith and confidence.  Not only did we have to take the chance of our lives when we decided to open shop with $50 left to our name and two small children to care for, but we entered into the realm of constant flux.

We make little bets every day.  We open our doors, not sure who will walk into our lives, needing our services.  Will there be any business today?  Will they like our food?  What if it snows? In April?  Do we have a solid, long lasting concept or are we just a flash in the pan?  Yes, this is what goes through my mind on a daily basis.

When we need to hire someone new, we are also rolling the dice.  We don’t really know who they are and what their story is.  No matter what their references are or how much experience they have- everyone’s story is different.  How they will work with us is unknown as well.  There is a lot to be said for chemistry and flow of personalities in an intimate workspace.  We have all experienced a job which looked great on paper but… and the gamble doesn’t always pay off.

I can’t always be there to bake the desserts, so my goal is to teach someone else to do it.  One of the biggest leaps I take is when I share what I love to do, hoping that the bug will catch with my current student.   I can’t tell you how many times I have taught my chocolate mousse recipe.  Or my key lime tart.  The scones, ah the scones.  I am always hoping that my next protégé will be the one that sticks.

When I share a baking recipe, I get really jazzed.  And they get excited.  I get hopeful and start to teach more recipes.  It all goes well for a while, but then starts to go downhill.  Either the level of passion that I have just is not there or their level of confidence is not where it needs to be.  I never know which one it will be, but it is pretty inevitable.  They start messing up or lose interest and stop showing up for work and I have to start all over again.  Snake eyes.  This actually breaks my heart.

I know that I am a perfectionist and that I have high standards.  I also know that baking isn’t for everyone, but I tend to see something in people that they don’t recognize.  Talent and creativity.  I am willing to put it all on the table, time and again, with the hopes that one day the bets I make will pay off. If even one of my students will find their passion run with it, maybe one day they will be willing to take the chance themselves and live the life of an empassioned gambler.

  (19)

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Handmade

Over the last few years, we have participated in a few local farmer’s markets including the new Shelton Farmer’s Market.  In addition, we are proud to be a part of Celebrate Shelton’s Downtown Handmade Market.  As I peddle our breads & spreads, I look around at all of the specialty items and their proud makers.  I am in awe of the craftsmanship.  Heather in the corner has spent countless hours crocheting hats and shawls in a rainbow of colors and textures.  Lisa and her daughter Gabbi have turned their passion for their animals into a line of pet treats made from local all natural ingredients.  Kevin and his wife have developed a line of kick-ass BBQ sauces which sell out every time.  I haven’t even mentioned the soaps made by Lisa whose medicinal properties have been meticulously researched and balanced in just the right proportions.  The list goes on and on.

These are people who have taken their passions and created products to share with their local community.  It is usually done after their 9-5 jobs and squeezed into their busy lives. They light up when someone asks the origin of their coconut lemongrass soap.  They will happily tell you exactly where the sweet potatoes came from which became the biscuits in your bag.  And if there is ever a problem with an item you get from either the farmer’s market or the handmade market you can bet that the issue will be resolved immediately and that you will be over-compensated for your inconvenience.

When it comes to buying something handmade, there is more to it than just an exchange of money for a product.  There is a transfer of love involved.  The loaf of bread you hold in your hand was not just spit out of a production line in Chicago and transported halfway across the country needing preservatives and chemicals for “freshness”.   It was made last night and packed this morning just for the people at the market.  Just for you.  And we want you to love eating that loaf of bread as much as we love making it.

The craftsmen at these local markets take a chance every week.  They work hard at what they do. Sometimes nobody shows up to the market and they have to lug a carload of unsold items back home.   Still, they will work hard to replenish their goods in the hopes that next week will bring even more people interested in sharing some positive energy.

I invite you to visit one of your local handmade and farmer’s markets soon.  Besides getting out in your local community, you will appreciate the true benefit of purchasing a product made with love. (15)

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But what about the children??

I often sit back and wonder what my children are missing out on being the kids in a small business family.  I know that there are certain aspects of our life which I would like to change.  For instance, we don’t take many family vacations.  We might go camping for a few days(which I love), but we cannot be away for too long or go too far.  Fred usually leaves a day or two early so that he can get back to making soup.  Packing up sucks.  Like really sucks.

Our home life is also dictated by the needs of the restaurant.  We are always running errands on the weekends and it is usually to the detriment of a family hike or outing.  We don’t like it and try to make up for it in other ways, but it is what we have to do.  The kids say they understand, but I know that it is hard on them.

One strange by-product in my children’s life is absence of the weekly grocery store trip.  I cannot remember the last time I have gone to Stop & Shop for more than a handful of things.  They don’t know the routine of weaving up and down the aisles, purchasing small boxes of pasta, cookies or cereal.  We never buy one gallon of milk.  We need at least four.  Instead, we are constantly at BJ’s and Costco.  The staff knows us all by name and know when we’re missing a kid.  Even if we don’t.

For all of the things my children may be missing out on, there are many things for which I am grateful and would never change.  They know our stores inside and out and feel equally at home in a commercial kitchen as they do their own living room.  We are teaching them our art and we are blessed in so many ways that we can share it with them.

There are many different aspects of this life which the kids can gravitate towards and learn from.  Jacob is more interested in the business side of the operation whereas Sarina & Sam love learning how to make raviolis and cakes.  Jackson has a great palate and has become a food critic and Rowan & Bridget are our comic relief. They all pitch in when needed and we manage to have fun no matter what we are doing.

They enjoy a large extended family in our co-workers and customers.  Since birth, they have been raised as very social and helpful people.  They know what it is like to actively participate in community functions and charity events.  We are adamant that they be involved and give back to the community which keeps us going.  They must be humble and thankful.

Although we do yardwork and housework in frantic snippets and dinners are often leftovers from the day’s special, our children are a part of the family we call Liquid Lunch.  It is all they know. It is not an easy life, but it truly is full of love and when I asked each of them what their favorite part is they each told me that they love the good food.  At least there’s that! (15)

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Black Tuesday

Black Tuesday.  You may not remember it, but it will live in infamy amongst the alumni of Liquid Lunch class of ’04.

Fred and I were young parents at the time and we couldn’t afford childcare, so he had Tuesdays off to watch our boys.  We had only been open about 3 weeks and we were getting into the swing of running a luncheonette.  It was my job to run the kitchen when Fred was gone and I thought it wouldn’t be too bad.  I could hold my own with a knife.

At first, it was pretty chill- I was prepping for the day and my cousin Antionette took a few phone calls for specials and such.

All of a sudden, the phones started ringing and they wouldn’t stop.  People started streaming through the door for lunch and very quickly we found ourselves in the proverbial weeds.  Tickets stacked up, deliveries became later and later, angry mobs stormed the castle walls…ok my recollection has become a tad epic.  The point is, we were slammed!  I was making 7 layer salads, sobbing and cutting, cutting and sobbing.  I thought “What am I doing?? How could I possibly think that I could do this?  I could get a job at Starbucks and be just fine.  I can’t.  I can’t.  I just can’t. “

But really, what was I going to do?  Drop the knife like a mic and walk out the door?  As easy as it would be to give up, I took a deep breath, looked at my next ticket and just made it.  Then the next one.  And the next. One at a time. Before we knew it, lunch was over and everything returned to its semi-normal state.  There was a lot of clean up and a couple of apology phone calls which needed to be made, but we had gotten through it together.

We as a fledgling restaurant learned a lot from that day.  We implemented a set delivery schedule, hired kitchen staff who could handle a knife better than me and prepared ourselves earlier in the day for the rush among other things.  We had become better at what we do through experiencing how badly things can go wrong.

Black Tuesday serves as a reminder to me that no matter how bad a situation seems, it is temporary and will pass.  If you are lucky, you might even learn something useful and improve from it.  After 12 years of being in this business, I still have “those days”.  But I try to get through them as gracefully as possible and take the lessons in stride.  It is, after all, what I have chosen to do! (14)

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Hey Davey!

Competition in the small business world is an interesting thing.  One may think that we hate competitors.  That is not necessarily the truth.  Friendly competition is always welcome.  We actually like when someone chooses to take the leap and follow their dream.  It is a relief to know others who understand the frustrations and perspectives we hold.  We wind up commiserating and becoming a family and when one of us does well, it usually means that more of us begin to pick up for the sheer fact that higher traffic equates to better exposure.  And that means a higher sales potential for everyone.

My opinion changes, however, when the cards are stacked against us.  This happens when a large chain or national company comes in and has high volume purchasing power and advertising dollars that we simply cannot compete with.  Unfortunately, we are directly compared to the “big guys” without consideration of these fundamental differences.  I will give you the example of my business to illustrate my point.

Liquid Lunch cannot charge the same price for a “sammich” as Subway or Panera Bread.  Yet, we have been reviewed in the past with a direct comparison to these companies stating that although our food is superior, we cost too much and we take too long. There is no way for us to compete with this perspective.  They make deals with national distributors in order to purchase commodities at prices we would never be able to get.  They also compromise on quality in favor of lower cost.  We take longer to make it because we are making it for you from scratch.  We created all of our own sauces and most of our dressings.  Our chicken is grilled only when you order it.  It does not sit in a warming tray, getting chewy and old.

These large companies have national promotional campaigns, market studies, analyses and focus groups to promote their brand.  They researched what color makes people hungry and paint their walls to match.  Marketing is a very powerful tool which can change the public’s perception even if it isn’t the truth.  We as individual owners have to combat that skewed perception on a daily basis. We have mainly relied on community word-of-mouth, individual customer service, and offfering consistent quality products to grow our customer base.

We as a nation have been trained to care more about cheap and fast- not quality and well-made.  This statement is true not only within the food service business.  It is true in so many industries from furniture to electronics to appliances to clothing just to name a few.

Get to know the local business people around you.  Take the time to check out the corner appliance shop or local luncheonette.  I personally recommend eateries like Bar 140, Hunan Pan, Billy D’s and Focaccia’s.  These are members of Shelton’s small business food community whom I respect and enjoy a healthy competition with.  Let’s reconnect with our neighbors and discover something great!

If there is an aspect of small business life you would like to know more about, please contact me at michelebridget@outlook.com. (13)

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I Love You, Man!

One of the most rewarding aspects of owning a small business is our relationship with our employees.  In a large corporation, a person is hired for a certain job.  They are assessed on his or her performance and whether or not they reached assigned targets.  If someone does not enhance the company’s profitability, they become expendable.  Emotions are stripped from these equations because at the end of the day, it really is all about the precious bottom line.

In a small business environment, this formula realizes quite differently.  Of course we need results and want certain tasks accomplished.  We also have a bottom line to deal with.  However, the true goal for the small business owner is that our employees care.  We want people to serve a cupcake that they would love to eat.  We would rather someone take a little extra time building a stained glass window for a client than rush through just to make a deadline.  Our employees become an extension of ourselves and our hope is that they truly get what we are doing and why.  After all, we can’t work forever!

In return, the small business owner is usually a little more lenient when it comes to individuality and creativity.  We like to play.  We want our environment to be fun and we want our employees to enjoy coming to work.  In my business, we have more than a few amazing “sammiches” which have been created by our staff.

The most unexpected reward has come in the way of reconnecting with former employees.  It is such a great feeling to see our “kids” all grown up in the real world.  They tell us that they had a great experience working for us and that they will never forget their time at Liquid Lunch.  There is not much better than that.

Alas, the corporate workplace has become such a scary environment where loyalty and creativity are rarely rewarded and fierce competition is the expected norm.  Our goal is to reset this paradigm through care, appreciation and individual attention.  As a result, our small business workplace becomes an extension of our family and at the end of our day, it truly is all about sharing what we love. (11)

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Thanks for the memories

Some of our very best memories from childhood are the ones we remember when thinking about our community.  Our neighborhoods.  Our family.  Think back to when you were a kid, running errands with Mom on a Saturday.  Maybe the first stop would be the bakery, to choose the best loaf of morning bread and to catch up with the baker on local news.  Mom would chat a bit while you chomped on your ginormous chocolate chip cookie.  Next stop was the butcher, again to choose the roast for dinner and of course get his take on the baker’s story.  A few slices of your favorite pepperoni were waiting for you at his counter.  The pharmacy was next and the grocer was the last stop of the morning.  You happily tagged along, knowing that at each stop there was a small treat waiting for you.

This is how it used to be.  The center of town was bustling with commerce.  People were shopping and going about their day.  Neighbors chatted with each other as their kids played.  Each community enjoyed an even exchange of goods and services, but there was so much more going on.  We experienced a connection which has sadly been lost in the era of suburban sprawl, e-commerce and big box discount stores.

I am of a generation who caught glimpses of small town community living.  When I was a kid, downtown Shelton was dying.  There were still a few holdouts, like Kyle’s Corner and the Culinary Bake Shop, but not much remained of our small business heritage.  Then stores like Super Stop & Shop and Walmart came into town and hit the nail in the coffin.

Those of us in the Valley small business community are a vital part of bringing the small town feeling back.  There is a special feeling we get when we find you that perfect piece of jewelry for your engagement or successfully groom your labradoodle without her nipping at anybody.  We care.  You have become our family and we are here to make your day just a little bit better.

We put our hearts and souls on the line in the hopes of connecting with our community.  Sure, there are options which may be a bit cheaper (but usually not a better value).  We all recognize big name brands and it is hard for a shop owner to compete with the big guys. This is why I will be writing a regular article highlighting different aspects of “village” business life.  I’ll bet that there are so many offerings of which you are not even aware.  Let us show you who we are and what we do.  You might be happily surprised. (9)

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