Moving in to the Summer Place

It’s move-in week at my NY place. It sits empty for eight months of the year, including a sometimes hard winter. Consequently it can be interesting to open up the windows, turn on the lights, and figure out what critters moved into the cabin in my absence. It’s not actually a cabin. It’s a 40’ fifth-wheel trailer around which we’ve built a roof and porch. Still, the vernacular for summer places leans toward cabin, and that is the terminology I’ve found easiest when dealing with DSL providers, etc.

I’m about 40 miles north of Manhattan, on the west side of the Hudson River. I can be in The City in an hour or less on the train, yet the temperatures here stay much cooler than in any of the five boroughs. In fact, this area is probably the closest edge of the summer escape communities that allowed New Yorkers to maintain their sanity in the time before air conditioning. I love it here. I’ve spent 21 (or is it 22?) summers here, and cannot imagine anything better. I have established relationships with friends and neighbors, and I try not to gloat to my Texan friends if they make the mistake of asking about the weather.

So I’m cleaning (and avoiding cleaning by typing), and tracking down a stray electrical repair or two before I can really feel that I’ve settled in. A curly willow tree fell onto the back corner of the roof … that will have to be dealt with. I haven’t even turned on the water yet to see what plumbing repairs I’ll have to make. One step at a time, the nesting continues.

It may seem an odd thing to be enjoying, but this time of unfolding my home, and the emotional fluffing of pillows, is really a great part of what I enjoy about the life I’ve crafted for myself. I have four places I call home. I do the nesting thing four times per year, often with great helpers, but sometimes alone. This time I’ve got some great helpers, who are also part of our kitchen crew (which means they know what clean is … this is always a bonus). Later today I’ll unload my car into the clean space and discover which little black dress is stored in this closet, familiarizing myself with another wardrobe.

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.

Summer Job Lady

I’ve been the “Summer Job Lady” for 20 summers now. Before we had our own businesses there, I managed all of the personnel and payroll for the man that owned 75% of the food program at the New York Renaissance Faire. With an attrition rate of 10%, and 85 positions to fill, some summers I’d hire 135 kids during the 8 week run of the festival.
These days, for our own operation, we need about 25 people. We have a more generous pay scale, and the fact that The Hubby and I work in the kitchens with our employees, rather than just counting the money in an office combine to give us a lower rate of attrition. We now hire the younger siblings and even the children of some of my former summer hires. We have a solid and reliable crew in New York, and I’m looking forward to establishing the same type of team in the shows where I have less tenure.

My Summer Job Application

Still, I’ve learned a few things over the years about summer jobs.
1. 8 weeks is a “lot” of someone’s summer to give up. I talk about it being 17 days when asking them for a commitment. We’re open on weekends only, for high-volume sales. There is no room for extra bodies, and consequently no real way to hire extra people … (except …)
2. There are people that simply cannot give up all of these weekends. I take their info, and enlist them as backup. If they are former employees who cannot make the full commitment, I go ahead and hire them for the busiest weekend, or a holiday weekend … “someone” is going to flake, and you’ll still be ready for your biggest day, as well as maintaining a relationship with that employee as she’s moving off to college or whatever.
3. This is often someone’s FIRST JOB. Any incorrect assumptions they make are the manager’s fault for improper training. For example: We are now hiring a generation of people who have never been away from their cell phones. Getting peeved when you find the 16 year old texting between customers is absurd. It’s the management’s fault for not explaining that there is no phone use while on the clock. Reprogramming a young person to ignore a ring or buzz of his phone is harder than you might think. Instead, provide a secure lock-up near the time clock. Let employees know they can check their phones for messages when off the clock; otherwise the number of bathroom breaks required appears to be related to their text and voicemail frequency.
4. When hiring people under 16 (Yes, it’s legal for some positions.), It’s their parents that have to acknowledge the commitment to punctuality and attendance required of the job. I *have* made arrangements with parents of school-age kids that if the student’s grades dropped, he or she would lose their permission to work. I’ve always been fine with this, and it allows me to establish a partnership with the parent that has always worked in my favor over consecutive summers.
5. This is simply a personal theory, but I have hired in Texas, Colorado, New York, Maryland, and Georgia. In my opinion, the likelihood of an employee being a no-call, no-show is directly related to the rate of unemployment in their parent’s experience. Areas that have known double-digit unemployment any time in the last 30 years seem to instill in the younger generation an awareness that jobs require a level of responsibility that at least requires a well-crafted excuse and a phone call. This level of consideration is not as common in states where the unemployment rate stayed low.
6. Ask questions that will help you decipher a personality and match a potential employee with the proper manager. On my application, I ask the following:
a) What was the last book you read?
This one often tells me more about the local school’s curriculum than it does the interviewee, but often we have these books in common, and it eases some of the tension of what might be his or her first job interview.
b) What is your MySpace or FaceBook URL?
I probably don’t need to explain why this is of value. You can really learn a lot about someone with this information.
c) What was the last music you bought for yourself?
In a time when file-swapping is the norm, knowing what music she assigns value, tells me a great deal, and again, gives me a conversation point in the interview process.
d) What Team Sports / Athletics experience do you have?
This is key. You see, The Hubby communicates like a basketball coach … mid-mistake corrections, short sentences, an expectation of follow-through on whatever “play” he’s just called for. It can be disastrous for me to place someone with no team sports experience in his shop, especially if they have any self-confidence issues, because they have no point of reference for his management style and tend to go directly to “He doesn’t like me.”.
e) What Music or Theatre experience do you have?
We’re vending in an entertainment venue. If I’m staffing for a Front-of-House position, I’m asking them to wear silly clothes and fake an accent. Theatre geeks live for this … it makes job placement very easy.
f) Do you believe that life is a set of circumstances one makes the best of, or that life is a result of choices one has made? (Please circle your selection.)
a) Circumstances b) Choices

This is my favorite question. I have had several applicants draw in an option c) “Combination of Both”. They gets props for creativity with that one. While I would officially say that there is not a right or wrong answer to this question, we all know that’s not entirely true. Answers to this question have never kept me from hiring a person, and folks 17 and under will have a tendency towards selection ‘A’ because their parents are making the choices. I’ve watched with interest as people’s answers change over several years of summer returns. However, as a manager I need to know that it’s risky to place a selection ‘A’ person in a position with a high level of responsibility. This is  the person who could have a flat tire on the way to work, and not recognize that his choice of buying cigarettes instead of new tires affected his day, and then his lack of a job. If I’ve invested a lot of training in a choice ‘A’ person, I may just have to do it all over again with another hire before the summer season is over. However, if he truly makes the best of his circumstance, he still comes up with a ride to work … hence my not holding to a right or wrong answer for that question.

The most important thing I’ve learned in the 20 years of being the Summer Job Lady is that hiring kids for their first jobs is an honor. We have the opportunity to be mentors and a role models for an upcoming generation. Recognizing this privilege and living up to its responsibilities help create the future we are all hoping to see.

Potluck Pics: South of the Border

Near Atlanta, Georgia, on May 21st, the Competition Potluck Theme was South of the Border. The unplanned but well-balanced menu consisted of Green Chile w/ Shredded Pork (which does *not* photograph well), Cheese Enchiladas, Tofu Tacos which pleased even the meatiest eaters, Mango Black Bean Stew, and Organic Guacamole.

Kelly's Contribution
Mango & Black Bean Stew
Guacamole
Organic Guacamole from my orchard in TX.

Oh and Mara-gritas, er, Margo-litas, er … Limeade w/ good stuff and some salt.

TechMUNCH NYC

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.

Competition Potluck Rules

Folks today don’t seem to have extensive experience with potlucking … or at least that’s what we told ourselves when new folks would show up at our potlucks with nothing but a spoon. How can  you maintain the welcoming environment of a group dinner and still educate the newbies? Easy … Make it a contest.

First you need to invent a quasi-official organization which will establish the rules. Then all regular attendees can shrug and explain “It’s in The Rules” whenever someone wants an explanation of the whys and wherefores of the event.

Long before Foursquare was allowing people to become Mayor of their favorite coffee shop, we formed “The Little Texas Mayoral Commission” to list and ensure compliance of the Competition Potluck Rules. This has allowed our very competitive group of foodies to continue to create incredible dinners without a bunch of tag-alongs showing up for a free feed. In Georgia, each of the 8 weekends we meet is assigned a geographic region to theme that week’s Competitive Potluck. Actually, simply using a title like “Competition Potluck” weeds out most of the wimps.

The Rules:

The Little Texas Mayoral Commission Potluck Bylaws:

As Texas Potlucking is a competitive sport, and all competitive sports have rules, the Mayoral Commission of Little Texas puts forth this official list of rules, so that the uninformed may properly participate.

  1. Bring a food item equal in volume *AT LEAST * to the amount of food you expect to consume.
  2. Bring a plate, and eating utensil(s).
  3. Expect to take home your dirty platters / plates / etc. Your Momma ain’t cleanin’ up after the potluck.
  4. Bring yourself something to drink.
  5. Your contributed food item must be no less than the amount of food you eat.
  6. No politics (Exceptions are made for political organizations throwing potlucks.)
  7. No Smoking at or near the food serving area.
  8. No Pets, unless cooked.
  9. Proper Texas Potluck Etiquette maintains that the proper comment, whenever a participant sets something on the table, is “Oh! That looks delicious, thanks for bringing it.”
  10. At a minimum, provide an edible contribution which is as large as your own appetite.
  11. Decent, upstanding Potluckers ask for the recipes of their favorite dishes.
  12. While in a points-tallying competition, scheduling can affect one’s scoring, in a “friendly competition” such as we have here in Little Texas, promptness does not affect the outcome of the dinner. Be pleased that someone bothered to make a time-consuming dish, and share it with you.
  13. Rudeness will not be tolerated…go eat by yourself.

Mediterranean Potluck Pics.

Our competition potluck last week was Mediterranean. I brought Bruschetta, Kelly brought Caprise Salad, and Bobby Knight, always the consumate host, brought Moroccan Meatballs with Couscous, and he even made a veggie version as well. Pics!

One of the greatest things about our Georgia stay would have to be the weekly Competition Potlucks. Each week we decide upon a region or theme for the following week, and on Friday evening at 6pm, we all show up to show off. Competitions all have rules … that will be another post.

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.

Compostables

I want to have a styrofoam-free bakery service-wear program in 2010. It’s easier said than done in the Houston market, so I may schlep some of my disposables down from NY.

The Hubby and I do two music festivals in NY, mostly selling Chocolate Dipped Strawberries, Frozen Bananas, and Cheesecake. The festivals are Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival and the Fingerlakes Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance. Both have well-organized composting programs. As a vendor,  I’m required to distribute only compostable disposables. This means that everything I give away has to be able to break down in a compost pile. Plates are paper, paper pulp, or bamboo. Cups are sometimes made of paper. Sometimes they are made of corn or sugar cane. The latter two options still look like clear poly cups. There are a few differences in handling. The cups are designed to start breaking down at compost temperatures, so the corn cups start mis-shaping at about 100 degrees. This can be a problem. One errant sunbeam on a hot day, and an entire sleeve of cups has become a useless lump. Costs are much higher than foam, but I believe that if one took into account the costs of an event’s garbage fees, the costs might align more closely. It’s hard to say, because those costs are dealt with by different groups of people. Festival Management pays for disposal costs, and Festival Vendors pay for their disposables.

These composting programs look like this: a volunteer provides my food shop with a 5-gallon bucket, half-full of straw. All of my waste goes into this, unless it is utter trash, for example, a plastic sleeve from a stack of paper plates. Hourly, a volunteer comes around with a wheelbarrow, dumps my 5 gallon bucket into said vessel, and provides me with another bucket half full of straw. On my end, as a vendor, I am charged with assuring my customers that their disposables are in fact compostable, and should go into the designated containers at the refuse stations. The festival management has accepted a lot of the educational responsibility as well. They’ve staffed refuse stations with educators, who explain the three categories at each station: Compost / Recycling / Utter Trash. The compost from these stations, as well as from the vendors, goes into large roll-off dumpsters, which will be sent or sold to a local municipality that has an industrial composting program. Compost educators maintain an education center, which also functions as the headquarters for all of the volunteers involved in the composting process at the festivals. It always seems to me that much of what they’re doing is teaching people that there’s no such place as “away” when it comes to garbage. Amazingly, children seem to “get it” faster than adults. Maybe it’s because they are not having to relearn it after years of apathy in regards to our waste-full ways.

In March, I was in Anaheim for the Healthy Baking Seminar and the Natural Products Expo West. During a breakout session entitled “Greening Your Bakery”, disposables were a subject of our discussion. Interestingly enough for an event being held in California, I was the only person in the group that had had any experience actually composting compostable servicewear. A representative of a California bread bakery asked the question: “Are we deluding ourselves about being greener when we pay so much more for compostables over foam, yet our customers are taking these products home and throwing them into their standard garbage cans?” I offered for consideration that there is value in beginning the conversation on compostables and landfills with our guests. Also, as the comparison had been made with styrofoam, I presented my paper cup of tea for study (Starbucks had provided tea and coffee for all of us at the seminar.) I said “Let’s talk about perceived value. I believe that the perceived value of whatever is in this 12oz cup is easily 50% greater than the same fluid in a 12oz foam cup. That is without the logo. A plain paper cup with a neutral sleeve would still have that much more perceived value.” Nods around the table, although some disagreement that I was underestimating at 50%. If combined with a Fair-Trade, Organic label or product, the value doubled.

Which brought us to education as a green strategy. A baker out of northern Arizona gets twice as much as any neighboring shops for her coffee, but she saw that her role in greening her community had to include becoming as much an educator as a baker. She uses organics whenever available, Fair Trade, Organic coffees, and all compostable servicewear. The servicewear has a separate trash receptacle in her retail space. It is composted within her community, by individuals rather than by any municipal organization.

In the end, both the Arizona baker and I told the Californian that he might consider by-passing his garbage service, and looking to local Master Gardener’s organizations as well as his county extension agents or nearby universities for someone doing composting on an industrial scale. It would be a lot of work, but the PR benefits were certainly something to consider, especially when he’d admitted to wanting to do a cleaner and greener job at his bakery.

In my experience, taking a holistic approach to greening your operation allows you to optimize benefits on all levels – ecological, community building, and bottom line/branding. Whether done as a comprehensive program, or initialized with baby-steps … it’s all forward movement.