September 13, 2013

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.

Pinterest and the Right Brain

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.

The Guitar House

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.



Rockland Bakery Day Trip

A free afternoon, and a free and fun tour of some amazing breads. What, you don’t think you can tour breads? You can if you’re in Rockland County, NY.

The Rockland Bakery is a local icon. Friends who grew up in the neighborhood tell stories of stopping by in winter to put hot rolls in their pockets for the bike ride home. All I know is that they let us into the inner workings of the bakery itself, and we can grab hot rolls as they get dumped out of the ovens if we stop to put on gloves first.

You can enter through either the pastry counter area, or a newer deli. Afterwards, in a big hallway, you choose your bag size and put on plastic gloves before walking through the swinging doors into the actual bakery. Most bakeries of this size keep the retail public far from the mechanics of the ovens and cooling areas, but Rockland has held to on to its local personality as it’s grown to the current volume of 700,000 pounds of flour per week. That translates to  fourteen 50,000 pound truckloads every week. For a real-world reality check, that’s 538.46 acres of wheat every week, less than the 640 acres that comprise a square mile, but equivalent to  28,000 acres per year. That’s over 43 square miles of wheat. Yowza.
It’s one thing to talk about the huge volume … but New Yorkers are serious about bread. I mean “Serious”. The only way a bakery could continue to grow in this market would be to consistently put out delicious products.

Rockland does a great job. The Hubby and I wandered around the cooling area trying to make a purchasing decision. We went back out to the pastry area, ogled the sweets, then went back for gloves and a big paper bag in which we could place our bread.
The Universe smiled upon me, and dark brown pumpernickel bagels were coming out of the first oven as we reentered the bakery. “Yes, Thank You!”  I grabbed some before they rolled up into the spiraling cooling carrousel.

We then threw random items in, such as an 8-grain baguette, a Semolina loaf, a loaf of Vegetable Bread, and a couple of big pretzels to compare for possible festival sales.

Half a block away, we found an Old-school cheese shop, (which will require its own review), and so our dinner plans have been agreed upon. In an ever-so-decadent end to a hot and sticky day, The Hubby and I have spread a vintage tablecloth over our bedding, and enjoyed a picnic of bread, cheese and wine under excessive air conditioning. Life is good.

Roadside Market Review: Conyers, GA

Yesterday I took a drive through Conyers, Ga on the way to see some friends. While I absolutely did *not* need any produce, I couldn’t pass this shop without stopping in.

He had all of the critical elements for a roadside stand in the Southeast: CocaCola signs, Vidalia Onions, Corn, Watermelons, and those must-stop items … Tomatoes and Cantalopes that had not seen the inside of a refrigerator. I mean really … these are the reasons we stop. We can get Vidalias and cleaner, crisper lettuce at our local grocery store, but real tomatoes and cantalopes are impossible there. I’m convinced it’s because all the produce is shipped to stores in refrigerated trucks, and any temps below 50 degrees Fahrenheit kill all that is good in a tomato or a cantalope.

He had bunnies in cages at kid-friendly heights, and floral baskets that seemed to be more of a splash of color in the scene than an item for sale. I started out with my camera, so he might not have realized I was really going to be a customer. For a Southerner, he was a little abrupt when he asked if he could help me. I assured him  I wasn’t leaving without a pile of those good-looking tomatoes and he relaxed a bit.

I had my watermelon, cantalope, and tomatoes bagged up, and was taking the last picture of baskets on the ceiling when I spotted the Boiled Peanut Pot. What was I thinking? OF COURSE he had boiled peanuts … this was the Perfect Southeastern Roadside Market. It would have been blasphemy to skip the peanuts.

For those that haven’t experienced boiled peanuts … the key is to think of them as beans, rather than nuts … which is closer to the truth of them. Green peanuts are boiled with an unimaginable amount of salt for several hours, and in the end, you have semi-soggy little packets of salty beans to eat. They are usually served warm, and I love them, even though I know my rings will be tight the next day. Truth be told, I don’t love them enough to make them at home, but it’s part of the roadside market experience, and I was going for the whole package. Next week I’ll leave Georgia for the year, and I’ll soon be eating Jersey corn and tomatoes, and New York cheeses.

Life is good.


I’m headed to NYC for a couple of days. This is not unusual in summer, because I live only 40 miles from Manhattan from mid-June until Labor Day. However, I’m going to attend a workshop/conference called TechMUNCH, and it’s on the day I would normally begin my drive from Atlanta to New York. I tried on several different travel configurations in my mind, and the most economical and energy efficient in regards to my own health is my current plan. I’ll pack up my ATL office and residence as usual, then park at a friend’s place and have her drive me to the airport for my 3 day escape to NYC. When I return to ATL I’ll get in my car and begin the seasonal relocation drive to NY for summer.

I’m very excited about this day of workshops. I’d been looking for the synthesis of answering wacky questions from other foodservice and event professionals, and working to bring my own targeted audience to our operations at theme parks and events. Traditionally vendors rely upon the Festival Management to do all of the PR and marketing. It’s one of the reasons we happily pay our fees.  However, those of us who appeal to a specific demographic need to take on more responsibility in promotions. When I can reach out and directly connect with my own target audience, our common interests bring us together naturally.

Blogging really seems to be part of the answer. Also, it gives me a platform from which to ask for advice as I bring more gluten-free and diet-specific items into our menus. As I work to source more organics in parts of the country where organics are not yet considered required stock by wholesalers, I can more easily be in conversation with folks in those industries. So now I’m well into the WordPress learning curve, and setting up some journalistic habits before I get into my busier season. Perhaps vlogging or podcasting will be the best way for me to keep updating during September through November, when I usually experience 3 months of 80 hour week workloads. You really learn to keep your eyes on the prize during that type of seasonal, high-volume madness.

So TechMUNCH thoughts fill my waking and even some of my sleeping moments now … it will be interesting to see if I can dream of anything else afterward.

Czech Stop Kolaches

The smell of bread, like Thanksgiving dinner rolls, embraces us as we leave the van. It’s the Saturday before Mother’s Day, and a major travel day here. Maybe Baylor kids are heading from Waco to DFW. Perhaps, like us, folks are making the trek from Houston to the Dallas-Fort Worth area. I suppose as many people head southward as northward.

The Czech Stop is a Shell gas station at exit 353 on Interstate-35 in West, Texas. That’s West, the town in Texas, not West Texas the region. It’s a tradition, an icon of road food in the region. Copycat businesses have attempted to build nearby, trading on the reputation of “That gas station at exit 353 with the great kolaches”.

Kolaches are a Czechoslovakian bakery staple, and by default a staple of all bakeries in the state of Texas, Czech or not. Sweet dinner roll dough, indented to hold sweet fillings that are somewhere between a pie-filling and a preserve; or wrapped around sausages and cheese. Anywhere else they’d be Pigs in Blankets, but in Texas they’re Sausage Kolaches.

The Czech Stop has a sister shop, the Little Czech Bakery. They share a parking lot, and the kitchen along the back of the building. I guess it was to help with the crowds, but this Saturday, the lines filled both shops. People bring their kids, their grand-kids … and they buy dozens of pastries for the family members they are headed to see for the holiday weekend.

There are quick lunch items in addition to meat kolaches. It is, after all, a convenience store and gas station. However, it’s the down-home, saran-wrapped, Egg Salad, Ham & Cheese, and Texas Style Pimento Cheese sandwiches that catch my attention. Vending in theme parks with policies against customer lines means I have a radar for yummy things that can be prepared in advance of a rush. At 10:30 on a holiday Saturday, the shop is maxed on employees. Selling items that require assembly at best lengthens the customer’s wait time, and at worst cuts into the bottom line. However, it’s that home-made element … the sandwiches may be made in advance, but the bread was baked in-house. It doesn’t get much better than that in the world of sandwiches.

It’s Sunday evening now, and I couldn’t stand the idea of driving past again without stopping. I wanted to try and photograph the classic kolache. I bought a dozen mixed kolaches, including cherry, lemon-cream-cheese, pumpkin-cream-cheese, mixed berry, the old-school prune kolache, plus a pimento cheese sandwich on whole wheat. We peeled off of the interstate, and utilized our well-worn copy of The Roads of Texas to find a more meandering route back to Todd Mission. I took the photos of the kolaches in our kitchen here. The pimento cheese sandwich was a more immediate pleasure.