When the assignment came in, my husband called to make sure I had seen it. There were 5 days to complete it. All 5 of those days were already booked for him, as it was the Wednesday before opening weekend of OKRF, where we have 2 food shops.
The writing assignment came from the offices of the largest theme park in which we have businesses, and it went out to all of the festival foods vendors.
I will point out that writing assignments are not unheard of from this venue. That show keeps itself innovative by asking their participants to continue thinking about their businesses. In return, they bring us over half a million visitors over 19 days each fall.
The assignment was this:
A.) A two page report of your philosophy of Food and Entertainment and how they work together.
B.) Your goals for each of your areas for the next 10 years
C.) Who is your food advisor? Who or where do you get new food ideas from?

While two of those papers were data-centric (and thus easy), the focus of the assignment was the philosophy paper, which required some contemplation.

I assured Phil that I had the project under control with one caveat … I can be pretty ‘woo-woo’ about the honor it is to share food with people … Yet the request for the paper came in a business environment. Of course it was aso a Philosophy assignment. The Husband pointed out that if I took out all of the ‘woo-woo’ it wouldn’t sound like me, and I relaxed into the project.

What follows is the paper I turned in. I figure I either nailed it, or exposed myself as a wacko.

Tea with Mr & Mrs Rocks

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some thoughts on Food …

As James Beard said, “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.”

Food is at the heart of most social gatherings. There is a reason so many cultures have holidays and religious rites which center around a meal. Food brings people together in a way that other shared experiences do not. While alcohol may be a social lubricant, food is at the heart of how cultures define themselves. Shared meals bring people together on a level unparalleled by any other exchange.

“We should look for someone to eat and drink with before looking for something to eat and drink.” ~ Epicurus

Connecting with the festival audience around food is a remarkably powerful opportunity to influence their overall experience. As we speak of a desire to bring more “well heeled” guests to the Texas Renaissance Festival, we should expect to provide for them a food experience that rivals what they experience in the venues to which they are more accustomed. This is not a conversation about price, but about food quality and innovation. We as a group already hold that TRF is at the cutting edge of the outdoor entertainment field, but vendors are only beginning to bring that level of innovation into the food program.

TRF is host to hundreds of thousands of people, who are seeking an “experience.” They are looking to escape the commonplace nature of their regular worlds. The festival does a remarkable job of this by immersing guests in an environment unlike any other. To offer mundane food options in the park depreciates their overall experience of the venue.

Our opportunity, and our responsibility as food professionals, is to elevate the level of our guests’ food experience at TRF to one that inspires recollections and conversations, further building the reputation of the venue. Since the Texas Renaissance Festival defines what a Renaissance Festival is, it follows that we define what our guests’ culinary experience can be.

 

Our job is to take people out of their comfort zones … to challenge them to have an escape from their normal routines. If guests wanted “more of the same” they wouldn’t be attending a themed festival in the first place.

 

“If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him… the people who give you their food give you their heart.” ~ Cesar Chavez

 

Some thoughts on Entertainment …

Some of you know that the two of us were working at a Renaissance festival near NYC in September of 2001. The campground nestles in a tight valley. The mountains skirting the campground are crisscrossed with hiking trails. On the afternoon of Tuesday, September 11th, 2001, groups of vendors hiked up to the peak, from which we could see the smoke of the ruined twin towers. Throughout the day, reports on the wellbeing of our city-dwelling cast members were delivered. The festival opened for business that following weekend, taking its cue from Broadway choosing to reopen. People came that weekend … by the thousands. The profound value of what we do for a living was made very clear that day. While I’m sure guests occasionally think it … that weekend, the comment we received the most was a heartfelt “Thank You”. The clarifiers were “I needed to get away.” “I needed to distract my kids.” “I needed to breathe before going back and figuring out the next step.”

Escape is probably a universal human need. It certainly is so in our stressed out Western culture. The immersive experience of a Renaissance festival provides that escape by completely uprooting the audience from their routine. Interacting with a guest around the already intimate act of eating brings the engagement to a level of friend-to-friend exchange. Here guests are relating at a level we all experience. While it is certainly possible to interact with a street character about a subject, the conversation that happens there tends to have an element of make-believe. Whereas a question about food connects people at the shared experience of flavors, preferences, and opinions about the foods they love.

“Laughter is brightest in the place where the food is.” – Irish proverb

Food and Entertainment are interwoven. When you travel the world, the way that you are shown hospitality is by being fed by your hosts. When you buy any book on “Entertaining” you end up with something that is 50% recipes. Separation of the two elements is unnatural and counterproductive to a goal of creating a world-class experience. This goes beyond costumes and accents on counter staff, and requires a sincere wish to consider our customer to be our guest.

If we look up the global concepts of the word Hospitality, we find that Ancient Greeks considered it a divine right and in Greek society a person’s ability to abide the laws of Guest Rights and Hospitality determined their social standing and nobility. In India, the concept of hospitality is based upon a principle that translates as “The Guest is God.” More appropriate to our theme, Celtic societies held that guests were to be provided shelter and food, and protected from harm while in their care. We would all do well to remember that Theme Parks and Restaurants are part of the Hospitality Industry. As members of the village that is the Texas Renaissance Festival, we are in effect, inviting these guests into our home, and we should therefore be serving them the best we can offer.

The culture of festivals relies heavily upon Society’s need for communion and celebration. Our job as festival professionals is to facilitate a communally joyous gathering. The fact we make a living at this is simply a fringe benefit. One that can easily disappear if we take the magic of the exchange for granted.

September 13, 2013

September 13, 2013 — Leave a comment

American Gothic Lemonade … Me & The Hubby

I think that I write apologies for not writing, more often than I write. I also have a strong suspicion that while I think you would find my life interesting during the times of year when it is more challenging for me to find the time to write … I think you’d find the other, more leisurely 8 months of my year quite boring.

Catch-22 … When I have a lot of interesting things to write about, I don’t have time to write, and when I have time to write, I think the things I’d write about are only of interest to myself. Also, I know now that I’m not a food blogger. I’m a blogger that owns and runs food businesses, amongst other endeavors. I still love reading about food, and food plays prominently in the things I think and write about … but I’ll make a confession. I think that writing down a recipe is tortuous. No, really. I make employees do it, and then double check them … rather than write them out myself. I also still attend TechMunch conferences, even though I’m not a Food Blogger. There is simply too much good information there, packaged for easy assimilation.

I have wonderful and marvelously capable employees, even though my big show is only open for 2 months of the year. They are an intense 2 months. The Texas Renaissance Festival was open for 19 days last year (2012), and we had over 609,000 guests. That is spread over 8 weekends, including Black Friday, and 2 days that combine High School Performance competitions, and field trip days for students.

In my off season, many of my employees work for other vendors who have bakeries and food shops in parks and at shows in which I don’t have an investment. It works out well. I don’t want or need to add to my schedule, even though I’d like to keep these good people employed. These other vendors with whom I share employees have a tendency to make me look really good to my employees. I don’t know exactly what they do to make our common employees feel so put-upon, but I hear stories, and I get great piles of appreciation from my employees during the months we get to work together.

I also have about a 5% turnover rate, which is pretty damned amazing considering that the majority of my workers are nomadic. Apparently my reputation as a boss and the environment I create is such that I still turn away applicants … often. While I’m turning some of them away simply because I don’t have a position available … it is also my responsibility to create a workspace and a team that can crank out high-quality foods in an incredibly high-volume situation. I look for personalities that will suit. TRF gets over 30,000 visitors every day it is open, and I’m staffing and managing the first food shop on the right, once a guest enters the park. I need to maintain an environment where 14 hour days serving thousands of meals is entertaining, challenging, and fun. We have ongoing Earworm Battles, a Twist-Tie Art Gallery, and a squirrel-cage exhaust fan above the oven, entitled the “Smell-O-Vision”, which exhausts onto the sidewalk in front of our shop.

I do a summer show in NY as well. There my husband runs the food shops, and I manage food personnel, hairbraiders and henna artists. My workload is lighter there, because I have to be able to spend the second half of the NY show, opening the TX show. I love living in the Northeast in June, July, and August … but Texas calls to me. In September I work weekdays in Todd Mission, Texas, and weekends in Tuxedo, NY. I know my way around the airport pretty good.

These crazy few months allow us several months where we are free to attend other outdoor events, looking for new ideas, I attend SxSWi, to keep up on innovations in marketing and technology, and this year I’ve been talked into attending the New Media Expo. I like to stay in a consistent path of learning, even if it seems to be completely unrelated to my career. But my career path is all over the place anyway, so who is to say it is unrelated?  I used to design buildings and theme parks. I still edit articles for Festival Prose. I studied Sustainable Agriculture, and my superpower seems to be connecting other people with pertinent ideas. I suppose this blog would be an efficient way to do more of that … if I wrote more often.

I’ve learned to love the absurd. Not in a “oh that’s interesting” sort of way, but in a way that is deeply appreciative of its value. You see, no true innovations occur without absurdity. In the past, when asked the question “What do you do?” … I would shrug in a “Nothing important” fashion, and say I make a living in a completely absurd manner … completely dismissing the possibility that there was value in what I was doing.

The thing I was missing was that simply the act of finding an absurd manner in which to make a living had huge value. I found people were attracted to me because I was doing things differently. It was inspirational to them. This blew my mind. Some days it still blows my mind.

But then I started hanging out with innovators, and learned that absurdity is a completely necessary element for Game Changers. If you are not willing to consider the things considered absurd in the current paradigm of whatever you are working on, be it business, a specific industry or technology, or your personal well-being … you are going to continue to get more of the same. There might be some tiny tweaks along the way, but nothing for which the term “Game Changing” might be uttered.

Me … inside the 3M lounge at SxSWi 2013

I spent a minute at the Visual Thesaurus with the word Absurd. Its relatives do not look flattering when speaking of serious issues. Ludicrous, laughable … but who thinks there is too much laughter in our world? Nonsensical, idiotic, ridiculous and preposterous … but all of these adjectives are from the position of comparing the absurd to the existing norms. At some point in the development of any extraordinary idea, the ridiculous is referred to as innovative; the ludicrous becomes ground-breaking.

In order to live an extraordinary life, you have to be willing to be ridiculous. The folks that sling those judgments are most often the folks living the smallest lives. I’ve learned over time that a great deal of criticism for my “failures” came from folks who never tried anything at which they could fail. Show me a person with a string of failures and I’ll show you a person willing to make an attempt. I give that more kudos than playing it safe.

I’m not saying one should quit their job and hike off into the wilderness to launch your next business idea. I’m actually frighteningly practical in my own attempts at new businesses; more likely to take on another job when I’m building a business idea than to quit something. (I love taking jobs that train me toward future projects. There is a great Jim Rohn quote: “Don’t ask what you get from a job, ask what you become in that job.”)

But a large number of people get stuck not in the “how-to” of a project, but in the “will I look like an idiot” part of an idea … and they never get started. Those of us that have started and succeeded at several things have one great understanding in common: “Failure is Feedback”.  Without some level of failure, a project will never be fine-tuned into its best articulation or formulation. Sure you could hit it out of the park with your first try … but how likely is that when you hesitate to try?? Really, think about it. Those people who keep trying things are living a more creative existence amongst their failures than you will ever find in a reliable 9 to 5.

What is keeping you from embracing your own absurdities? Is that what stands between you and your experience of an extraordinary life?

Do you have some failures you can tally on your way to creating something magnificent? If you don’t; it’s very possible that you are not really trying.

The Western Hermit

March 26, 2013 — Leave a comment

I’ve long held this theory: Since Western Culture does not have a respectful attitude toward Hermits or Contemplatives; folks whose nature lends them to these types of endeavors hide out in their workaholism. Our culture values productivity so much, it is the safest haven for folks who are wired to be introverts and or contemplatives. How many party or dinner invitations can be avoided with “I’m too busy, thanks.”? Using my own life experience for reference I can say the answer is “many” or perhaps more truthfully, “more than I can count”.

Yet I wonder if the workaholism is sometimes fueled not only as an avoidance technique for social requirements, but also a drive fueled by the feeling of not being finished. The thing never started can never be finished. That feeling of incompletion is due to the fact that the hermit nature underlying the workaholism has never been expressed … never been fed.

Photo by И. Максим

If the food for this Hermit nature is time spent in contemplation, then how do we justify that time, when we have been trained to manage the profits and losses in all of our endeavors? Where is the value? What are the risks?

In a society which reveres productivity, how to begin the contemplative path? And can one begin a contemplative path while maintaining the professional benefits of being a workaholic? Can contemplation be scheduled into a day-planner or checked off a To Do List?

Because we must admit, workaholics succeed. I don’t want to lose that edge, but I also want to live my fullest expression. So if my theory that a workaholic is a frustrated contemplative has merit, then it could be I am missing out on something that might just be wonderful.
Do you hide in work? Do you wear your “busy-ness” with pride? Talk to me about it in the comment section. I’d love to hear your take on this theory.

5 year planning

March 19, 2013 — Leave a comment

Old skills revisited

It felt really good to run a jigsaw for a while today. I’ve been passing along information gleaned from years of building wacky buildings at Renaissance Faires, and I still do a bit of design, but I hadn’t done much actual production in years. It was good. I had some thinking to do for a couple of assignments in Marie Forleo’s B-School, and repetitive physical work is so good for the thinking process. It was a beautiful and warm spring day, and I was able to get a little vitamin D while I was out there working in the sunshine.

These days, Phil and I only have time to do construction and design work on our own buildings. We planned it that way. Years ago, when we realized that construction was over 80% of our income, we set to change that, and started buying service businesses at festivals, sometimes trading our labor instead of dollars. I say we set 5 year plans, but I find that a 5 year plan never takes that long in reality. But 5 years is an easy thing for me to wrap my brain around.

Here are things to know about how I do 5 year planning for business improvements:

  1. I rarely look for *More* as part of my plan, because I live with complete confidence that I will always have “Enough”. I may look to replace one thing with another, but the 5 year shifts are always more about quality of life than about money.
  2. I start at analyzing what brings me the most stress, and set an intention to lessen that.  (This is possibly the biggest element of the process.)
  3. I’m totally ok with Phil having a different plan to reduce the same stress. Sometimes we agree on method, sometimes we do not; but I am convinced that our agreement of intention to alter that stressor has huge impact in making it happen.
  4. I don’t write it down. I know that runs counter to so much of what we are told about goal-setting, but these changes are given 5-year windows specifically because they are about life shifts rather than stair-steps to another place. Not writing down steps for these has allowed space in which magic happens, and we often find ourselves looking back from a place we hadn’t even imagined, piecing together what steps we took to get here.
  5. This has only failed me when I got incredibly specific about “the big step that was going to fix XYZ”. Little steps in a general direction often lead me to fascinating places I have not imagined. Setting plans around a “When X, then Y” format don’t seem to pay out. I am back to the drawing board, but not picking up the pencil this time.  This time I’m saying “I have some stress around ____. I’m looking for ways to either replace ____ in my financial portfolio, hire middle management so that I don’t have to manage ____ myself, or whatever comes up that lets me simply let go of it. Maybe I’ll miraculously stop feeling stress about the thing. It’s possible!
  6. We maintain forward momentum. We have been and always will love to work. So we keep working, including working at those elements of our lives around which we have stress. We are not wishfully thinking that the intention is set and therefore we don’t have to continue working forward. A goal without action is a wish. There is something about forward momentum that pulls magic in behind you … allowing it to then help propel you forward.

 

Gizzies, ready for sanding and painting. They are part of the facelift plan for my bakery at the Texas Renaissance Festival.

So that very non-scientific system is my answer when other entrepreneurs ask me how I grew my business from a 2 person construction and design firm to our multiple-holdings and 40 person staff. I don’t know the “How”, and the system only fails if I try to micro-manage it. We work forward from the “Why”, keep working, and the pieces fall into place.

Pinterest appears to be a soothing way to kill several hours of otherwise productive time until you look at how you’ve used the data you collected as images. Dare I suggest it has real value?

I find Pinterest to be a right-brain filing system. In general, I collect images that appeal to me. I find the action profoundly soothing after crunching numbers or brainstorming a business element.

Sometimes I use the system as designed, and go to the article from which the image was pulled, but often I just want to look at pretty pictures. I recently cut myself off from Pinterest wanderings, because I thought I was stealing productive time from myself. I couldn’t justify it when I had so many other things to do.

Pinterest wasn’t a waste of time after all.

So I pulled away, and finished my list of the physical things I needed to get done … only to realize that the time I’d spent on Pinterest helped me hone my plan. By simply grabbing every image that appealed to me, I let my right-brain have ready input on the projects that I was piling up. Consequently, when I was ready to get a hall tree, I knew the elements I wanted to incorporate, and I knew of my love of doors and doorways.

I’ve got a bit of construction and building design experience. I designed and built small buildings (to code) at Renaissance Festivals for several years. So I’m not at all surprised that I like to look at small buildings. Will I use this information? Maybe … I still consult on building design, and I might build a guest room or two on my property. If my collection is any guide, the guest rooms will not be nearly as whimsical as the buildings I designed for faires.

So I’m back to letting myself have some Pinterest time. Maybe my right-brain can tell my left-brain what the next project will be.

Shoulds and Pushback

February 5, 2013 — Leave a comment

But what about the rules we’ve written ourselves? What of the things we *want* to do? When we are wired to push back against the shoulds, we often push back against our own wishes.

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I love to see situations where people have shaped their world as they want … like this guy.

Stop the car!

There was not a giant crew of stucco artists cranking out an expensive and eccentric home. There were 2 guys. One of them explaining with grand hand gestures; although he had stucco on himself as well.

(Scary scaffolding picture)

This place was not a large home, but it had a great deal of presence. I mean really, don’t you feel like you’ve arrived someplace important with this gate?

I think this guy is into music.

Yes, this is the chimney. Yes there is an outdoor firebox. No, this is not within a theme park.

The fireplace works both inside and out; not uncommon in the TX-MX border area.

Nope … I could not have made this up.I almost missed the fact that the house is round. I’d love to see it from the air to know if the footprint is guitar shaped as well.

Yes, the entire wall curves.

This was just a roadside random sighting I wanted to share. This guy obviously loves what he does. It’s unfinished, yet already too fabulous.

 

 

26 years ago my morning commute was a 30 mile drive along a beautiful stretch of Colorado Highway 82. The ritual involved early mornings of scraping ice or sweeping off snow, so that I could take my place in the parade of thousands of people who worked in Aspen, but couldn’t afford to live there. The Roaring Fork Valley is one of the most beautiful places in the US, but none of us were appreciating it. We were too busy watching for the deer and elk that shared the corridor, as the 2 lane highway separated the wildlife’s winter rangeland from their winter water source.

okay, this is actually east of Aspen, but when I drove the commute, 82 was still 2 lanes.

There was an addictive quality about Aspen. I’ve seen it in other places too. New York City is a good example. But the addiction is somehow tied to work, and overwork, and the idea that it’s worth a great amount of sacrifice to be ‘here’. No place else is as beautiful, as magical, as respected, or as important as this one, and the fact that you are working 3 jobs to afford the experience you don’t have time to experience … that’s just part of paying your dues. This infatuation with place is ubiquitous. It is the religion that underlies every worker’s forfeiture of personal time. Like crabs in a bucket … one worker’s escape must be viewed as insanity, lest they start to analyze their own situations too closely.

I flashed back to that time yesterday, when I ended up sharing 1 mile of my winter neighbors’ morning commute to Corpus Christi. I was headed into Rockport for an early morning yoga class. No scraping of ice was needed, but my fingers were cold, and I wished I had started the car 2 minutes earlier. The combination of cold fingers and a parade of unsmiling people at 7:15 launched me into the recollection of my morning commute experience, and I realized … I haven’t had a work commute in 25 years.

In all the time I’ve been building businesses, none of them required my joining the morning parade of people whose work is somewhere else. Yes, I have seasonal relocations. I live in 4 different places every year. But once I get there, I walk to work. I have 21.6 more work days available every year than someone who commutes 1 hour each day, 5 days per week.

I’d never quantified this before. To be fair I’ll take into consideration the driving for my seasonal locations. I drive for relocations 8 days annually because I’m leisurely about it and visit friends along the way. Still, that’s 2 weeks more life to live every year.

I’m not even touching on whether or not these commuters like the jobs they are driving to. What could you do with 21 more days in your year? Would you have a 21 day vacation? Would you walk on the beach? Would you start a new business? Would you finally get to that XYZ project, or perhaps you’d finish the project for which you’ve given up your weekends?

I really want to know.

Why is the term “Lifestyle Business” spoken with derision? Is it because “real businesspeople” discount the value of them, or is it because the Lifestyle business owners themselves belittle the amount of income generated by their businesses?

One of my favorite office spaces.

In a world so full of people that *don’t * like the things they do to make a living, it seems counter-intuitive to be belittling a situation that allows people to make a living doing exactly what they want to do. Admittedly, I’m in a strange place to be hosting this conversation. I live amongst artists and entertainers who make their livings in “Lifestyle Businesses” whether or not they use that moniker. Folks who make a living on their own creativity, who get to spend more hours of the day with their children, who get to travel and manage to make their businesses pay for it … these people surely have Lifestyle Businesses, even if the term is more often used for expat importers who can happily justify their second home in Bali; or folks who create automated business via the internet.

Believe me when I tell you that there were “Lifestyle Businesses” before there was an internet.

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Don’t think for a second that I am dissing the opportunity to have a second home in another country. Quite the opposite … I’m wondering why this ability to craft a business that allows someone the life they want most to be living, is dismissed as “less than” the person whose business makes an initial public offering on Wall Street.

It takes more than dollar signs to establish the value something has for our lives. I think we need to remember this when comparing ourselves to the lives of the people we see in the media.  The real goal, the brass ring, is living an abundant life. Living an abundant life has more to do with the intangibles than with the financial balance sheet.

If you want to live your best life; make a balance sheet that includes things like time with your kids, creative outlets, travel, self-determination … and see just how valuable that Lifestyle Business is against the cubicle job that allows more stability and less risk. I know which one I choose.

For the last 5 summers I’ve booked a show near here, simply to give myself a week with this as my office & contemplative space.