5 year planning

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.

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.

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.


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.

Queen’s Pantry, my fall gig

Queen’s Pantry is the official bakery of the Texas Renaissance Festival. It’s also my frenzied fall experience, and one of my culinary creative joys. In 2010, the festival hosted over 448,000 visitors during its’ 19 day season, and every one of those visitors passed by my bakery counter. I own the first food shop on the right inside this 53 acre park, and my crew of 19 helps me keep everything running smoothly. I tend to run a higher # of crew than other shops here, because every food item we offer is hand-built. Personally, I take offense at the assumption that attending an outdoor event means one has to eat poorly.

I’m not going to imply that everything I sell is dietarily a sensible choice, but I do make every effort to provide food items that will please the most extreme gastronomes. I am of the opinion that if one is going to make a caloric expenditure … one should have gourmet investment options.
Queen’s Pantry is the breakfast shop, so we’re open at 7:30 am for the 2000 workers at the festival. The park opens to the public at 9am, and closes after a nightly fireworks show. This makes for a long Saturday and Sunday, especially when you factor in that there is usually a late Saturday night delivery from our food purveyor, and we have to complete the week’s inventory and order on Sunday night, to meet the order deadline of 8am Monday morning. Most of our products are designed so that the majority of the preparation happens during the week. During the 8 weeks the show is open, core crew is fortunate to get even a half-day truly “off-work”.
None of this is said in complaint … the manic highs of a high-volume restaurant mean that I can get paid for my adrenaline addiction, rather than scheduling my next river rafting or skiing adventure. Besides … it’s only 8 weeks in October and November. Well, I also spend September flying back and forth to NY in order to get the Texas show open while my NY show is still running, and there are a couple of weeks of closing the show down, but in truth, the gift of running a restaurant with huge volume, and then being able to lay in a hammock and read novels for a month as recovery … I’d call it a pretty good life.

The menu is evolving. Food items at these parks are highly juried, and a booth is sold with an existing menu and the rights to those products. This means I’m always on the search for the next great festival food item. We are constantly developing products, knowing that the more we try, the more opportunities we have for success.  The Scotch Eggs, Multi-layered OMG Cakes,  Strawberry Josephines, and Gourmet Brownies all deserve more attention than I can give them right now.  At this point I’ve owned the shop in Texas for 5 years, and it’s just now really at a place of reflecting my personality more than my predecessors’.  For the past 21 years, I’ve spent summers in NY, and I bring a lot of that East Coast Foodie attitude back with me every fall. The trick is to allow the influence, while still presenting foods that the Texas Palate desires. This is not, (to be trite) a piece of cake.

Dropping a Wedding Cake

Wedding cakes are both lovely … and horrible. They can bring great money into my shop, but wedding stress is, well … there just isn’t anything quite like wedding industry stress. 

The Texas Renaissance Festival
offers the most complete Renaissance themed weddings available anywhere in the US. The 53 acre park includes five formal wedding venues. Costumed brides and grooms enjoy their weddings and receptions within the park on festival days only. So, on average, 27,000 guests and 2000 workers are making a Renaissance village come to life surrounding their nuptials.

My bakery within the park provides the wedding cakes whenever they are wanted at a reception. We’ve had as many as 7 cake receptions in one day, requiring multiple cakes at each. Cake designs are simple. The reception is outdoors, near Houston, TX. It’s pretty much guaranteed that the weather will be either hot, or wet … sometimes both. Fondant is the obvious choice. We use a delicious almond flavored fondant for the white wedding cakes, and dark chocolate fondant for the grooms’ cakes.  We dust those grooms’ cakes with 100% cacao that we get from my favorite spice monger in Houston.     

This past season, an average wedding weekend involved 4 cake receptions, with each reception having 3 to 6 cakes. I’ve always baked back up cake blanks, one of each size. We’d slice them into layers as elements in our two-fork-treat giant creations in our pastry cases after the final wedding of the weekend.

The third weekend of the 2010 season started out looking like an average weekend, with five weddings, but only 3 cake receptions. Saturday there was a 12:30 delivery, then at 1:10, the festival’s wedding coordinator called and asked me if I had cakes for the 1:30 wedding. Mr Sniffen & Miss Kiss had not ordered cakes, but showed up with cake knives and toppers for their reception, and the intention of buying cakes from us on the spot. I assured the wedding coordinator that we could make their wedding day dreams come true, and promptly stole prepped cakes for a Sunday wedding and had my cake decorator start finishing the spare blanks for the Sunday wedding. Whew … that was pretty easy … and the wedding coordinator thought I was a rockstar, at least for that moment.

Fast forward to Sunday. We have two weddings scheduled and no backup cake blanks. Mike Wyatt, a videographer for the Travel Channel is inside of my bakery filming Bananas Foster Cheesecake topping and other random pastry building until 1:30, when he accompanies us on our cake delivery. With an amazing lack of forethought, the three kitchen managers who wear radios set off across the site, carrying cakes.

No matter how slow-motion the event seems … there is never quite enough time to keep it from happening. A turned ankle … and one of us was going down while holding a 12” wedding cake that folks were going to be cutting into in 15 minutes. Extreme Matrix-like contortions only managed to cause week-long body aches, but there was no catching the cake. Just as we thought it was saved, the momentum slid it off the cake board and onto the ground. I called into my radio: “Queen’s Pantry, we have a cake down. I repeat, we’ve lost a 12” white cake. We need another one delivered to New Market Arbor within 10 minutes.”  The Hubby heard me. His 3 shops are on the same radio frequency. He asks “Queen’s Pantry, did you copy?” No answer … Katy, Rich and I all look at our radios. “Crap!”

The Hubby sets out for my bakery from his fruit shop, and Rich starts running too.  At this point, Rich is near hysterical, so festival goers see a gangly 6’ tall gypsy boy at a dead run … crying while saying “I can’t believe we dropped a cake!” & “Thank Gawd it wasn’t me!” alternating over and over.

The next wedding reception was scheduled for 45 minutes later … and we stole its’ 12” cake … you know … the one they actually eat at the reception. *And* we’d already used our spare cake blank, *And* we were out of prepared white frosting, and the mixer bowls were full of mousse and Bavarian cream. So it looked like this: Katy carved two 12” cake rounds out of white sheet cake, and then we troweled cream cheese frosting on them to contain the crumbliness, while Karen rolled fondant, Katy prepped the bakery bag for the edging and “Voila! … heart attack averted.” The next batch of cakes was delivered by serenely smiling bakers, and the 2:30 wedding was none the wiser.

After the delivery, as we came down from the adrenaline rush, my management team sat over cups of tea and strategized how never to allow another moment like, well, like any of the 37 stressful moments in a row that we had just experienced. We shifted our strategy to one where we go ahead and completely decorate the back-up cakes, and maintain a backup of every size until the last wedding is over, and then we serve these cakes in our pastry case as “Left at the Altar”, “Tainted Love”, or “Jilted”. We also established specific delivery times that do not conflict with the times of day when our retail business is slammed. In the past,  New Market Arbor’s caterers gave us a 15 minute delivery window for cakes, whereas the Italian Village caterers like to have a cake delivered at least 2 hours earlier, and they do the set-up themselves.  The delivery changes will go into effect with the 2011 season.

Hopefully all of these changes will lessen the stress a bit. I’m writing this 2 months later, and the memory still manages to raise my heart rate.

In the Weeds

It’s November … and the Texas Renaissance Festival is open. I spend all of October, and most of November in “The Weeds”. “The Weeds” is restaurant-speak for way-behind-schedule-and-needing-to-hustle-because-business-is-Rockin’ … so it’s a good thing. Spare moments are spent cat-napping rather than writing blog posts, so I feel I’m way behind here. However, now we’ve hit the half-way point of the festival, so the crew knows what to do, and we’re beginning to feel more caught up.

I’m going to try and get some pictures this weekend. Here is a link to a quick video that my friend Bevan made of our crew this week. The festival was open for school field trips on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week …

RhonniRocks a Student Day at TRF

More soon …

Menuspotting, a definition

Menuspotting is the search for the next great festival food item … many festivals must be attended, and many yummy things must be tasted … it’s all part of the job.

Higher-end festivals protect unique food offerings, so the goal is to discover or create the next Turkey Leg or Funnel Cake. Well, my goal is to connect with more like-minded gourmands and get them to come see me at festivals where I produce & sell delicious and healthy items … but it’s a good sound-bite to say we’re out to discover the next Turkey Leg. Inspirations are captured in non-festival situations as well. Somebody has to be the first person to try and sell it on the street.

As Audre Lorde said, “There are no new ideas, just new ways of making them felt.” We take inspiration from foods and flavors, and find ways to make them work in our industry. Picasso said “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” meaning real art is in taking an idea and making it your own. This is what we are trying to do as we bend food inspirations to fit our specific niche.

Our niche is well-defined.

A) Items must be easily eaten with one utensil or less.

B) Items should have a high perceived value, as time windows for sales are short, and it takes the same amount of time to make a $7 sale as it does to make a $2 sale.

C) Items that share easily are appreciated.

D) Items must have 5 or less ingredients or steps, (OR key parts of the process can be prepped during the week).

E) Items must be pretty, have a catchy name, and

F) Items Must. Be. Yummy.

What is catching your eye on current menus? What do you hope to someday see at festivals everywhere? What is the item that you think might be the next Turkey Leg or Funnel Cake at your State Fair? Inquiring minds want to know.