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.

 

 

How much life do you spend in your commute?

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.

The Value of a Lifestyle Business

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.

 

Choosing the Right Paint Color

Every industry has rules. The trick is in knowing how to get what you want while meeting the rules. Venues with a historical theme have tons of several restrictions that help create the environment that fools the public into the fantasy that they are visiting a 16th century village. I won’t get into the finer points on costume rules and building design here, but I will talk about one control that shows up in both those departments. Color restrictions.

There are real reasons for having color restrictions in a historical venue. The technology wasn’t yet invented that could create a hot pink piece of fabric, or a vibrantly purple stucco wall. At least, there was no “affordable” technology that did so. Renaissance Festival costume rules almost universally prevent anyone other than royal characters wearing purple. Apparently in the 16th century, the only source for a purple dye was found in a type of muscle shell found in the Mediterranean Sea, and you needed a lot of them. All of the colors used during the Renaissance Period were from natural sources. Vegetable dyes faded fairly quickly, so the palette of the working class was soft and earthy. I’m not a professional costumer, although I have good friends that are. The end of the color issue that I know better is the one where color restrictions are applied to buildings.

Much like a mall lease contract, contracts for the vendors at a Renaissance Festival or Faire require they do their own “build-out”. They build, or pay to have built, the shops that they will be vending from at that particular festival. Designs have to be approved by the Vendor Coordinator, and perhaps the Site Director and General Manager as well. Each show is an independently owned company with only a few exceptions in the industry, so they’ll each have their own set of hoops for one to jump through. In the best cases, the proposed building design also has to meet with the approval of a Building Inspector.

Because buildings are each designed by an individual, with rare consideration of their neighbors’ designs, the color rules protect us all from garishness. If the color choices were not controlled, each vendor’s desire to be more readily seen than their competitors would quickly spiral upward into a visual cacophony. It happens sometimes even with the color safeguards in place. I myself am guilty of renaming a color when making my building design proposal to management, because it sounded far too purple otherwise.  (Smart building coordinators require paint chips with the proposal.) Fortunately, Park Management has final design control, and can easily tell a vendor to repaint if the color choice was a bad one. In most cases management is considerate to time restraints and may even let someone get a season’s use with the bad color before having to change it for the following season.

I designed and built shops for vendor clients for many years. (Actually, I designed, my husband built, and I painted and trimmed the buildings.) In conversations with my clients, I’d coach them on how to be creative within the color restrictions. I was not telling them how to bend the rule; I like the rules. But, I found that the best explanation was to tell them to “Put some dirt into the color that they most like, and it will probably qualify as an acceptable color.” It was a simplification, but one that communicated well. This is because, while vegetable dyes were used in fabrics, almost all colors used in the building trades came from mineral sources. So I’d ask a client for 3 colors, help them make choices that worked well together, and then if one of those colors was something that would have been more difficult, it became the smallest of the accent colors. In other words, no dark green walls, but perhaps some dark green trim.

It isn’t that any of this is rocket science. But the builder has to care about the illusion that she is helping to create. Renaissance Faire builders are amongst the luckiest designer/builders in the country. They get to design whimsical structures that actually come to fruition. More often than not, they are building inside a private park, and they rarely, if ever, have to build the same thing twice. Caring about the “whys” of the color rules just makes them better at their jobs.

 

Mid-construction, Jaime’s Coffee Shoppe at the New York Renaissance Faire. The bottom floor finished out with the same warm beige stucco you see on the dormer.

my favorite baker

Just because it makes me happy …

One of my favorite photos from the fall show:

We call him Vandal.

 

Vandal works for me during the Texas Renaissance Festival. I snapped this photo one morning while he was ‘bumping’ the mixer, in order to incorporate all of the flour for the Cinnamon Squealers without making a huge mess. I had been trying for weeks to get a photo of these tattoos, but he always seemed to be wearing gloves.

It was obviously cold that morning, because in this photo he’s wearing pajama pants under his customary cargo shorts and chef jacket.

 

Personal preferences vs menu items that make money

I’m really into food. Most especially, food that is both delicious and healthy. I derive great joy from preparing a meal for friends, knowing it is healthier and (quite possibly) more delicious than anything we’d find at a restaurant.

I make my living in food, but it is not the same food that I want to be making in my home kitchens. My restaurants are in seasonal theme parks, and while I wish it were different, the majority of visitors to outdoor events and amusement parks want to buy the food that they associate with these events. I slip healthier items in here and there, but the truth of the matter is that I pay my mortgages with French Fries, Funnel Cakes, and Scotch Eggs.

Steak-cut sweet potato fries

There are some regional differences in festival foods. We spend summers in New York, and are involved in a couple of well-juried food courts at The Clearwater Festival and The Fingerlakes Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance. The food courts at these shows are curated to give the best possible mix, while eliminating product overlap. Consequently, there are some very creative menus to be found. We spend our fall season at the largest Renaissance Festival in America, the Texas Renaissance Festival. We have 4 shops there. Mine is the bakery and breakfast shop, and my husband has 3 fruit and chocolate shops. TRF is another venue that is rich with food selections. I’m pretty sure there are over 600 different food items to be enjoyed there, and that doesn’t take into account the ever-changing bakery case selections at my shop.

While my own food preferences do not supply me with inspiration for the next great festival food, they do inspire me to sneak healthier items in where I can. During festivals, the crews work long hours in less-than-ideal climates. Healthy food has a solid smaller audience amongst festival workers. I also garner personal satisfaction from the idea that I am caring for my community members by providing these options.

My kitchen crew at the bakery is made up of about 20 souls, most of whom travel as I do. Some of us have dietary restrictions, some of us do not, but we are definitely not automatically tuned to the desires of the local palate. In fact, often sometimes we can be a little too “Dean and Deluca” for the Houston festival audience.  Take the Cinnamon Roll Situation this past fall. I knew I wanted to serve a hand-rolled cinnamon roll. I thought my audience would rather have something we made from scratch than something made in a factory and frozen/warmed/served. Wrong! Folks wanted something they recognized, and these folks were not happy when they had to choose from 25 other fresh baked items on days we didn’t have the cinnamon rolls. It took almost half of the show for us to figure out how to make enough money on cinnamon rolls to have them be an everyday item instead of a special. (Hint: size matters)

It’s not always easy to get into the minds of the audience; especially when the thing that they want is so drastically different from the things that I want. But it is a creative challenge … and I do love a creative challenge. One that pays the bills ?… even better.

 

The Cinnamon Roll Situation

This past fall, at my biggest show, I made a menu mistake. We were able to salvage it and turn it into a giant win, but not before customer feedback stirred us to action.

When I bought this shop at the Texas Renaissance Festival, it was considered a bakery, but no actual baking took place there. The owners of the shop were in their 70s, and most of their product line was bought frozen, then thawed and served. The festival runs for 8 weekends every fall, along with a couple of student field trip days. So, this means that while I’ve owned the place for 7 years, it’s been open to the public under my control for a grand total of 133 days. I’ve steadily shifted the place to be a better expression of my own personality, and a collection of better menu items for the audience. My crew has evolved to one that ‘gets me’ better as well.

Icing the cinnamon rolls

In this improvement process we had eliminated all of the frozen baked products except for one, a high quality frozen cinnamon roll. This year (2012), I vowed we would make our cinnamon rolls from scratch. Since they were very labor intensive, I thought we could just run cinnamon rolls as a special. After all, we had at least 25 other hand-made baked goods to choose from. Surely folks would simply choose another item. Surely they would rather have a handmade cinnamon roll, hot from the oven, rather than one that went from the freezer into the warmer? Nope. People wanted cinnamon rolls, and they were MAD when the choice wasn’t there. “How can you call yourselves a bakery when you don’t have cinnamon rolls?!” My salesperson replied with “Um … because we *bake* everything here?” At a Renaissance Faire we have a lot of leeway in how we interact with the public, because they’ve come for an interactive experience, but we quickly decided the proper response to their outrage was to explain we were now making them from scratch, and that they’d be a special of the day. We promised to put up an announcement on the Texas Renaissance Festival Foods Facebook page to let them know when that would be. This appeased a few, but so many of the festival’s 600,000 customers save up for a single annual trip … there was no fixing the fact that I hadn’t had cinnamon rolls on the day they visited.

 

This was a real problem. There is no short-cut to real cinnamon rolls, so they are always going to be labor-intense, and therefore expensive to make.

 

mix+roll-out+season+roll-up+cut+proof+bake+icing = expensive

So the question was how to make the roll something amazing enough to charge real money for it. I bought a new proofer to be able to regulate the rise of the rolls better than our “relatively air-tight, oh it probably needs more boiling water” old warming box. My baker Vandal and I decided on a serving size that would feel like a Texas experience: barely fitting into a 2# paper tray. He made a batch, cut them, and got them into the proofer in time to have some ready at 7:30 when we opened for the festival participants’ breakfast. Then I asked him to make a second batch, and to line it with soft-cooked bacon before rolling.

 

 

Cinnamon Squealer Production Shot

 

Vandal grumbled the entire time he was rolling and cutting that first batch of Cinnamon Squealers. In fact, he vowed to never add that tedious step again. It was a vow he quickly rescinded when our guests started yelling towards the kitchen door that we were geniuses, and obviously were on a path to world domination with our evil plan to compromise every diet plan imaginable. The experiment was an instant success. We were selling basic cinnamon rolls for $5 each and Cinnamon Squealers for $6 each. We sold out daily. We still don’t know the best number to bake in a day. They are still labor and time intense items, so we would make as many as we could, and note what time we sold out. We’re installing a new walk-in refrigerator for 2013, to allow us the ability to make more rolls and retard them in the fridge until time to go into the proofer.

 

The Public Relations team at the Texas Renaissance Festival was certainly part of the success. I would tweet a picture of the process, and Cory would repost it on the Texas Renaissance Festival Facebook page, which has over 112,000 very interactive fans. We had several customers come to the counter asking for specific items they’d seen the festival post, but the instant success of the Cinnamon Squealers was still a shock for all of us.

Gratuitous brand placement that was reposted by TRF

So the menu mistake turned into a menu-win, but only because we truly cared about our customer’s experience. It would have been easy to dismiss a guest’s request for a frozen-then-thawed cinnamon roll as an uneducated palate, but instead we tried to make his visit everything he wanted it to be. Obviously, his perfect day at TRF began with a cinnamon roll. Now it begins with an extraordinary cinnamon roll.

Making the market

As an outsider businessperson, I’ve learned that creating a business outside normal parameters requires the constant thought “there might be a good idea here”. Do not expect there to be a trade show tailored to your new genre, just because you are making a living at it. Go to every event that seems to have the slightest relation to your business. Go to any trade show that might have one booth of interest to you. There are vast opportunities in between the norms.

Mexican metal sculptures, made from oil barrels and car parts. Canton, TX.

This weekend we are visiting the First Monday Trade Days in Canton, Texas. We have friends that vend there, and while December is a slow month, the venue can easily get over 100,000 people per day in busy months. The event is loosely themed toward Texas antiques and reproductions, but Commerce actually drives the market. The place is a mix of folks who have the best price, and wholesale to the other vendors who have fancier presentations. It’s rather a microcosm of the antique and fine junk industry. The large numbers of visitors, both shop owners and homeowners, allow a quick reality check as to whether or not an idea will sell.

However, there are work-arounds. Let’s say you locate a great source for antique doors; a great enough source that allows you to wholesale them. The masses of people coming to the event already have a basic shopping list in their minds, and there may not be room in the truck for the new find you’ve brought to the market.

 

 

Smart vendors are networkers. The door source goes to his friend who builds reproduction furniture and gives him a deal on doors. Antique doors start showing up as headboards, hall trees and sofa tables. Interior Designers and Pinterest users carry the idea further, and now there is a solid business wholesaling antique doors. That smart door wholesaler might also sell reproduction cast iron coat hooks and hand forged nails for the reproduction furniture builders.

 

 

 

The Husband and I are not in the furniture, interior design, or antique business. However we do like to talk shop with other vendors who, like us, function best with a series of deadlines and concrete up / downtimes. We might find a new scheduling tool that makes the lifestyle easier. We may find a new food idea to steal from one of the many food vendors that are scattered amongst the 7000 vendors in town for the weekend. Or, we may just buy some antique doors for a project at our house.

 

Addendum: no antique doors on this trip, but I *did* get this awesome @ symbol.

The mug is for scale …

New Year’s Eve 2012

New Year’s Eve, and absolutely zero time requirements. We are visiting with my in-laws, who have a great appreciation for quiet reading and conversations about the reading. I’m enmeshed in Guy Kawasaki’s _Enchantment_ and a special edition of Yoga Journal magazine, entitled _Yoga for Beginners_.

The feeling is one of a metronome slowing … there is still movement, but it is a slow movement, with time for deep breaths between the beats.

Although I know that conversations about “Balance” are for people who don’t enjoy their work; I also know that rejuvenation is necessary for the big pushes connected to big projects.

Here’s to more successful big projects in 2013.

Be Well,
Rhonni

The Pinball Metaphor, planting the seed

A couple of friends who are also industry pros happened to be in the same state with me for a matter of hours today, so we met for lunch. One of them has been an Entertainment Director and Entertainer, and another is a Craftsperson and Booth Owner. We were talking about the Pinball Metaphor for park design and guest movement management. My argument is that if folks are entertained enough, they can be steered through the park, by bouncing them from experience to experience.

1965 Bally Sheba (German Version)

I mentioned positioning cart locations so that the permanent shop owners gain the benefit of the “bumper effect” of that cart. John argued that the responsibility of guest movement falls upon the Entertainment Director, and his ability to schedule shows in a way that moved guests throughout the entire park. I asked if he would consider the entertainment schedule as the flippers in the pinball game, and he grinned … I’m going to let him stew on it awhile, and then come back to the discussion.