The Juicebox/Soup Peddler Project I

The Soup Peddler is a complicated man. Anyone who refers to himself in the third person, nay, with a superhero moniker, will tend to be on the complicated side. That is given. My particular complication over the years has been an inability to find a path forward for my company. This brand, this company, has been blessed by incomprehensible goodwill and support from the community. But on the flip side of every blessing coin is a paired curse. That curse has been our "business model." Let's discuss.

For those of you tuning in late to this program, I started The Soup Peddler out of my rental house in a really bootstrappy sort of way. A credit card purchase of $90 for a pot (no lid), a stirring paddle, a ladle, and some soup buckets. I needed to know how much soup to make so I took orders over email and cooked that much soup. That's how it was and that's how it still is. Order this week for next week. That's the model. The model has been much lauded... "Oh, you have no waste! That's what kills restaurants. You're a genius." "Oh, you have negative accounts receivable aging! That's amazing!" "Oh, you are using the Dell Computer business model for fresh food. How did you do that?!" "Oh, you don't have to pay rent for a dining room or payroll for a service staff or deal with parking issues! You're getting away with murder!"

But what most of these people don't realize is what most people realize: For most people, ordering from us is a pain in the ass. We are one of the most beloved brands in Austin, but we really haven't grown much over the past three years, despite our best efforts to keep improving our food and introducing new recipes. I believe it's because of the barriers our model sets between us and our customers.

When you're the first person doing something, you're either a genius or an idiot. If, after a while, you're still the only person doing something... well...

I always said, "The model is what keeps us in business." That's because, as much of a pain in the ass as we are, we are still a service. That service aspect is what keeps us in people's minds and keeps them supporting us. I've always been afraid to take that service aspect away, and that has guided my decision to always stay rooted in what we were.

Slowly, it's become clearer that something new had to happen in order for this business to thrive and move forward. Over the years, people had whispered many ideas in my ear... franchise, put it on the shelves, open in new markets, become a cooperative. Every idea has been unworkable for me for one reason or another. After a while, I began to feel stuck.

My baby girl was born in 2008, so that kept my mind off it for a while. Now that she tells me things like "I need privacy," and "Do your own ting, daddy," it's more than time to get back on that bicycle and ride.

Shift to a blustery February day in Austin. I'd been realizing that nothing interesting happens to a business owner while he's in the office looking out. So I went out. I stopped at Phoenicia for a falafel. I ran into Matt Shook, co-founder of the Daily Juice. We both sat at the little picnic table under the awning looking out at the gray mist, the cars swishing by on Lamar. We were both on the phone, looking like important businessmen. We hung up our calls, gave each other a look that said, "Look at us important businessmen, done with our days at 1:30, not knowing what to do with ourselves until we pick up our kids at day care."


Matt and I started our businesses at about the same time. They were both gritty little South Austin operations that were long on inspiration and perspiration, probably a little short on polish and planning. Each in our own way, we turned our businesses into institutions of a sort. Against the backdrop of the vigorous entrepreneurial incubation that Austin's food world has seen over the past five years, both Daily Juice and Soup Peddler have come to be seen as "old school" or "classic" Austin brands, each embodying a certain "weirdness" or individuality of its own flavor, driven directly by the personality of the owner.

On this particular afternoon, Matt was moaning about the weather. His business suffers a bit of Seasonal Affective Disorder like mine, but in reverse. I was happy because the rain and cold meant the orders were rolling in, everything was flowing, and payroll was taken care of. He was sullen because he hadn't taken a paycheck in a while and was supporting the business from his savings.

I told him, "I feel your pain... talk to me in August and these tables will be turned."

He said, "We should open a business together."

(to be continued)

Edible Austin - John Hoberman

Zen and the Art of Junk Maintenance: John Ogdenby David Ansel

Deep within the belly of the weed-choked, unmarked commercial kitchen equipment junkyard, through a narrow canyon of stainless-steel vent hoods, teetering piles of walk-in refrigerator panels, grease-encrusted fryers, battleship ten-burners and the occasional dough-sheeter, beyond the crossroads of the valley of shattered two-door merchandisers and the field of rusted metro shelving and steam jackets, an enigmatic hero clutching a cordless phone and a receipt pad appears at the gate of a cavernous warehouse.. This is the inner sanctum of Ogden Restaurant Supply, where John Hoberman holds court. (nice paragraph, David)

Hoberman, actually known to customers as “Ogden,” is Austin's Rain Man of restaurant equipment. He maintains a scarily accurate mental map of tens of thousands of unorganized pieces of equipment and spare parts, and knows the current price on every single piece of equipment advertised in industry catalogs. For those in search of anything from a dicing grid for a mid-70s Robot Coupe to a replacement tread for a Sherman tank, he’s your man.

“A used two-door mega-top runs $795,” he recites to a customer, as if stating an immutable truth. “The one over there is a standard ten-pan unit. $775 for a two-door ten-pan.” (nice!)

It’s a business model that would drop the jaws of MBA candidates to the floor: Hoberman buys decades-old equipment for pennies on the dollar at auction, fixes it up and sells it for nearly the price of brand-new equipment. Oh, and he takes a 50% deposit before touching the equipment. The secret is that restaurant equipment is generally built for no-frills, single-purpose functions: make stuff hot, make stuff cold, chop stuff. Properly maintained and/or occasionally rebuilt, much of it can essentially work forever. And with a never-ending glut of equipment from failed, ill-advised endeavors into the people-feeding business, you have the makings of a millionaire who happens to drive a beater pickup, wear grease-stained jeans and spend his days neck-deep in junk.

How did it all begin?

“This whole thing started with me deciding in college that I was going to tune my logical thought process to figure out through various investigations, meditations, concentration activities and lots of study, how the universe got created,” (HAHAHAHAHAHAHA best to start small, yes?) states Hoberman, matter-of-factly. “To make a long story short, I had a visionary experience and found what I was looking for.”

That experience led him to phone an Omaha radio call-in show to describe his vision of creating matter from mind stuff to a touring minister named Stephen Gaskin. Yes, the Stephen Gaskin, co-founder of The Farm. Yes, The Farm of Summerville, Tennessee—the famous spiritual intentional community. Upon hearing Hoberman’s vision (aren’t you the least bit curious what the experience was???), Gaskin exclaimed to the bible-belt listenership, “I want all you people to realize THAT WAS A TRUE TRIP!” (not sure I get what he means by a “true trip”… like a hippy would say-dude it was such a trip? Yes, like a hippie Or as in it was a legitimate journey?) Hoberman and his wife Susan soon packed their bags and moved to The Farm, where they turned in their bucket of silver bullion to the collective and stayed for nine years.

The Farm used machinery extensively—from combines and tractors for agriculture, to a solar construction company—and all of that equipment needed maintenance. Hoberman had found his niche. He paired his early experience working in his father’s copper-recycling factory with The Farm’s shoestring budget constraints to spearhead a project that built a laundry and bathhouse for the residents by trading scrap metal for broken-down Swedish washing machines.

Soon he was then bumped up into food service, which was primarily concerned with freezing and canning produce for winter sustenance. Hoberman’s guts had never agreed with the pressure-cooked soy beans—the protein staple for the collective—so he set up a tofu manufacturing operation. At the same time, a group from Vanderbilt University did a study on the vegetarian diet of the collective and found it to be balanced but lacking in calories. They recommended the addition of white flour and sugar. (Give them a break. It was the 70s.) Combining the results of the study, the huge surplus of soy milk from the tofu operation and the reconditioned Dairy Queen soft-serve machine that Hoberman had serendipitously acquired, a soy ice cream dream was born for The Farm, making Hoberman one of the first innovators in the field.

Hoberman’s family and several others were packed into a refurbished Greyhound Scenicruiser and shipped off to San Francisco to create a soy ice cream factory with the generous startup budget of $5,000. Ultimately the mission was doomed to failure, but their “Farm Foods Soy Ice Bean” eventually became part of the Hain Foods conglomerate through a series of acquisitions.

Finally Hoberman and family arrived in Austin and landed at a collective located at Chicon and Cesar Chavez. His romance with collective living, however, was waning . “Some people thought I was too interested in making money and I felt others weren’t interested enough in making money,” Hoberman says. “A collective lifestyle has the generalized effect of de-motivating the most highly motivated people. Your efforts are diluted by the combined effort, or lack thereof, of everyone else.” So he threw himself into being a successful capitalist.

Enter John Ogden. The real Ogden, according to the ersatz Ogden, owned a small used restaurant equipment business but was content—thanks to his wife’s wealth—to use it primarily as a napping locale instead of a place of business. Hoberman, who had by now become a master refrigeration technician, made a deal with Ogden: instead of just selling the equipment as-is, he would repair and warranty the equipment and they’d split the profits. Deal. Then Hoberman suggested they get into the icemaker-leasing business, providing a solid revenue stream. The business snowballed from there.

Hoberman’s departure from philosophic ideals was only partial, however. He carries his college studies of Zen into his art of maintenance work life. “It’s very relevant to the work here,” he says. “I use the work as a discipline to focus my intention by. I assume that each situation in which I find myself is posed as a test of my ingenuity and resolve. I’ll find myself out in some boony location trying to move an 800 pound oven by myself and all that is there is a broomstick, a pack of matches and a crowbar. The job for me is to figure out the answer which was already laid out for me to find. By doing that, you open your mind to possibilities that most people would not discover because they presuppose a negative outcome. It makes you look like a magician because you do things that people don’t think can be done. People don’t realize the extent to which outcomes are shaped by negative versus positive thinking. It’s kind of a teleology thing, where your presupposition closes or opens whole sets of possibilities. It’s analogous to sending a missile off—if you get the trajectory off by a tiny little percentage on the ground then the outcome can be half a solar system away at the other end.”

Not exactly a Fred Sanford monologue.

As far as a business ethos, Hoberman says the key to being a successful capitalist is to “find a technique for time-binding. Money is symbolic of energy as a medium of exchange between people. So if you can figure out a way to make your past energy pay you today, you’ll find success.” He goes on to relay the tall tale of George Westinghouse charging Ford $10,000 dollars for a seemingly easy repair. “The part cost $10 dollars,” says Hoberman. ”Knowing where to look cost the other $9,990.”

Hoberman is a riddle to be sure. He runs a highly profitable business out of a place that inspired Daily Juice owner Matt Shook to wonder aloud if he was going to get attacked by some insane axe murderer by simply walking onto the lot. He quotes Gurdjieff and Roshi with the same nonchalance as listing the amperage specifications for a 100 quart mixer. He looks like he walked out of a Ford truck commercial yet he’s been a vegetarian for 39 years. He earns devotion from clients yet treats them in a manner not consistent with most accepted customer service theories (“Will it take a long time to get it ready?” “Well, it takes a long time to do anything except ask stupid questions.”). He’s a delightful combination of crustiness and eloquence.

His domain is the back of the house for the back of the house. What looks like a junkyard to the untrained eye can inspire an air of reverence or even awe among the food service professional. It’s a graveyard swirling with stories. How many sorry saps stood in front of that charbroiler sweating night after night? Whose dreams were built on the purchase of that convection oven? It’s a place of resurrection as much as repair; phoenix as much as vulture—where the energy of Austin’s past failures is recycled into its next successes.

2010 SXSW Band Name Revue!

Soupies,

It's time for The Soup Peddler's annual SXSW Band Name Analysis And Award Ceremony. Our previous winners Crapulence, Phil And The Osophers, and We Were Promised Jetpacks served as advisory board members to help me cull through the thousands of entries.

Simple analysis reveals the biggest trend in this year's band naming: the exclamation mark. It has been used to some good effect. For example, The Terror Pigeon Dance Revolt seems somehow incomplete, flat, without the addition of the mark: The Terror Pigeon Dance Revolt! It makes all the difference. You Say Party, We Say Die becomes You Say Party! We Say Die! and suddenly there is a suggestion of jubilance in the murderous intention. Attack Attack seems like something a robot gone bad might say, whereas Attack Attack! seems more like a fun way to announce an imminent bludgeoning.

We've seen this trend before also. In times of economic strain, bands turn to familiar, heartwarming, cuddly things to inject with irony. Rabbits are a common motif. This year, we have Bad Rabbit, Frightened Rabbit, Dirty Little Rabbits, and Roxy Cottontail. There was a smattering of other fauna, such as Butterfly Explosion, Nervous Turkey, and Kittens Ablaze. I feel like the latter could have gone the extra mile and added the exclamation mark. Check this out: Kittens Ablaze! It jumps off the page.

We discovered an interesting correlation between the Chinese calendar and SXSW band names... indeed it is the Year Of The Tiger. We have Papier Tigre, Spring Tigers, 60 Tigres, Tigersapien, and Tiger! Shit! Tiger! Tiger! (you'll excuse the latter, they're Italian. Europeans employ such cutely awkward use of American curse words). Other great cat-inspired bands are Jaguar Love and Japanther (not to be confused with Japandroids).

In a hopeful note, only a few bands joined my Bad Grammar/I Weep For The Future Because The English Language Is Dying List this year: She And Him is probably the most glaring example, but The Bewitched Hands On Top Of Our Heads is arguably more embarrassing because it doesn't seem like it was done on purpose. I assume She And Him is purposeful and ironic in some way.

I felt that this year there was a marked decline in band names that were selected purposefully to embarrass the parents of the band members. Certainly, we still have our Middle Finger Salutes, etc., but we definitely have a much more subdued crop. Gone are the Die! Die! Die!s of years past. However, I am concerned still for the marketing approach of some bands. Particularly The Gates Of Slumber. Sounds like a real pick-me-up! I think I'll go to that show! Or BFS & The Crappy All-Stars Karaoke? Or The Spit Brothers? Or We Are Country Mice? I don't see these as big marquee names. Perhaps a little self-sabotaging. Maybe ironically self-sabotaging?

Several bands seem to have used the Free Online Random Band Name Generator to no good effect: Mammoth Grinder, Spleen United, Codeine Velvet Club, Yourself And The Air, and Peanut Butter Wolf were just a few.

Well, let's move on to the final round of judging. In no particular order, these are the band names that floated my boat: Hammer No More Fingers, John Dear Mowing Club, Hyperpotamus, Bass Drum Of Death, Banjo Or Freakout, Flosstradamus, Plastician. I'll have to say that my runner-up for this year's prize is a self-styled "Thrash/Classical/Glam" band whose music sounds as though it was beamed digitally to Earth from Alpha Centauri and then decoded incorrectly: Computer Jesus Refrigerator! Come on down to claim your prize!

And this year's winner, a combination of sheer timelessness, genre-crossing brilliance, and great Scrabble point value all rolled into one: Foxy Shazam! You are the 2010 Soup Peddler SXSW Band Name Analysis And Award Ceremony Award Winner! Huzzah!

Next Week's Menu: Hotcakes, Zesty Southwestern Tuscan Crispy Bacon Melt

Soupies,

We have a lovely menu for you next week! First a few business notes to attend to... One of the things we've been struggling with for the past few years is how to manage the growth that we've been experiencing without sacrificing the quality of our service. To that end, we have decided to adopt the decimal calendar, first instituted by the Coptic Christians in Egypt and also the Ethiopian Church in the 4th Century. With a ten-day week, we are able spread our weekly delivery schedule out more efficiently over our ever-expanding service area.

As you can see, the first seven days of the week are conveniently named Sunday through Saturday, then it moves onto Octoday, Nonaday, and Deciday. We have provided an iPhone app available on iTunes that will translate your existing calendar functions to the new decimal calendar. Sorry for any inconvenience and please let us know what we can do to assist you in this transition.

OK, onto the menu... please lettuce know what we can prepare for you!

After much head-scratching here at Product Development Central, we had one of those "Aha!" sort of moments. I posed the following question to my staff: "What can we sell that will sell like hotcakes?" And then with a wry smile... "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Soup Peddler's fluffy, warm hotcakes are prepared in the traditional disc-like shape that you've come to know and love, each one just a little different, just like mom used to make! (Serves 4) $10

There is no shame in our game. How better to capitalize upon our culture's food fascination than to design a dish around the most compelling menu adjectives known to 21st Century (Wo)man? After hours of whiteboarding and also a little tinker-time in the kitchen we offer our latest and greatest. Enjoy! (Serves 2) 11.9**

**studies show that removing the dollar sign and adding a single decimal representing tens of cents subtly dissociates the menu item from the dollar amount

The culinary arts are rife with traditions of frugality. In fact, some of today's most valued foods were at one time throw-away items... ribs, trotters, clams, crabs... the list goes on. Ever-rising food costs compel us to think creatively in menu design, thus this clever riff on our famed Penne Alla Vodka. Ah, sweet memories of those Everclear nights! (Serves 2) $4

Have you ever wondered what they do with the rest of the nauga after they remove the hide? We asked our meat distributor and found our answer... nauga nuggets are among the most economically-priced proteins available to man, and what's not delicious battered and fried I ask you? Served with our Original Genuine Ersatz Sauce and Spurious Slaw. $10

Do you ever tire of the unalterable drone of "crisp on the outside, tender on the inside"? It's almost as if the measure of a food is entirely reliant upon its external crispness and internal tenderness. I feel like many important textures have been lost or endangered as a result. We bring you a dish based upon one of the lost greats: squishiness! $12

Innovative, out-of-the-box thinking is hard to accomplish in an industry where thousands of creative minds are pounding the virtual cognitive pavement for the next great idea. The Austin Cakeball movement is well afoot, but we are proud to unveil what we think is the next level: Cake Trapezoids! Where spherical forms of food say "I'm old. I'm traditional. I'm rolled by someone's questionably sanitized hands," angular forms such as trapezoids say, "I'm fresh. I'm edgy. I'm precision-cut. I am the next level and I am here to stay." $9

Order early and often! Thank you as always for your continued soupport, and I feel I would be most remiss if I did not wish you and yours a joyous, happy April First.

Your friend,
The Soup Peddler

Further Thoughts On Soupmaking


Addie Broyles of the Austin American-Statesman recently interviewed me for a story on improving your soupmaking skills. Unfortunately I didn't have my thoughts entirely, cohesively together, so I'm re-cobbling them together here:

Cook Longer: Just because it takes longer to make doesn’t mean you have to work harder. Soups perform very well on autopilot. For example, with ten minutes of attention a stock can be put on before bed and be ready without another thought for dinner 18 hours later. A vegetable soup can be put on Sunday morning and stew all day with scant attention and be glorious by dinnertime. This is the #1 way to make your soup taste better, it’s the secret behind the alchemy of soupmaking.

Don't Shop For Soup: all the essentials for soup have great shelf life and your home should never be without them: carrots, onions, garlic, celery, potatoes, rice, noodles. From there you’re never too far away from having soup. All the great soups of the world are cucina povera, from the poor kitchen, using the scraps. This should be the spirit behind your soupmaking. Look at the larder and figure out what soup can come from it. It's that alchemy again... How to turn lead into gold.

Cook Like Bob Ross: Don’t paint by numbers. Develop a feel. Choose where you want to put that happy little tree. You start with a big brush, setting the background, the mood, with your stock and aromatics. As you move along, you add layers to the painting, you move to smaller brushes, adding details like featured ingredients which may be highlighted by a separate or shorter cooking process. Then you finish with a tiny little detail brush, adding those little shimmery bright spots like lemon, parsley, salt, finishing oils, etc.

Take Recipes With A Grain Of Salt: Soup is a particularly tolerant medium, so recipes are great for inspiration, but they should be thought of as a lead sheet in music. The chords are there, the melody line is there, but the song can become realized an infinite variety of ways. Think about interpreting a recipe as if it’s a piece of music. That parsley is in the recipe to freshen up the flavor, right? You happen to have only cilantro and mint on hand (shame on you for not always having parsley)... go with what you’ve got. Those shallots and leeks are there to provide a deep savory flavor, but you’ve only got garlic and onions... go with that.

Be Like Michael (Pollan): Don’t Put Anything In Your Soup That Your Grandmother Wouldn’t Recognize As Food". Use only whole ingredients. With the exception of pasta, canned tomatoes, maybe a can of coconut milk here and there, your ingredients shouldn’t come from boxes or cans. This provision is primarily intended to enforce against use of store-bought stock/broth, which is with VERY rare exception pure trickery.

Vessel


LONG-AWAITED SOUP PEDDLER PRODUCT RELEASE FALLS FLAT

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Anger erupted in the state capital today as citizens claimed that fraudulent marketing practices created a media frenzy around a new product release, codenamed "Vessel" by accused soup monopolist The Soup Peddler.

"It's just a big bowl of soup. It's the exact same thing as their previous soup, but bigger," said a visibly disappointed Soupie Carol Hatfield. "It doesn't even come to you warmed up."

The "Vessel" product unveiling on Wednesday afternoon at Jovita's was a who's who of insider media and foodies jostling for position to be the first to catch a glimpse of the new product. Expectations were stoked by nebulous guerrilla marketing stunts like soup spoons dangling from overpasses and clattering by the thousands down the capital steps.

To the raucous cheers of the expectant standing-room-only crowd, Ansel exulted, "Welcome to the next generation of soup. I bring you... Big Soup!" A stunned silence and quizzical expressions spread throughout the room. "Is this thing on?" asked Ansel.

"I feel like I've been played for a fool, I mean I used to trust The Soup Peddler to be a customer-oriented innovator but now I'm not so sure," said Blair Fox, a longtime customer.

Local marketing expert Laney Catledge said, "There's always a bit of smoke and mirrors involved with crafting and conveying a brand image, but I think The Soup Peddler went way too far this time. There was a sense that they were insulting the intelligence of the public."

As of press time, the owner of The Soup Peddler, David Ansel, is reportedly in retreat at his private island hideaway in Town Lake after the debacle and could not be reached for comment.

Good Buddy

I have some sad news to share this week. Though many of you are fairly new to The Soup Peddler, there's a whole lot of back story that I've kind of stopped sharing over the years. After all, you can't really keep telling the same story for too long or you'll find people avoiding you at parties and so forth. But back in the early days I lived in a house just up the hill from our shop and a Collie/Aussie mix named Alex lived there too. We were roommates for six years and she kept me company a lot when I was cooking soup and riding my bike. She became a regular here at the kitchen and sort of the de facto mascot of The Soup Peddler. She was in Soup Peddler: The Movie and also a major character in Soup Peddler: The Book. Over time, I got busy with life, moved out, got married and had a kid. We still borrowed her frequently and took her for hikes and stuff. She was even in a photo with us in Life Magazine. Eventually, we adopted a bad little orphan kitten and he made her visits to our house miserable, ambushing her fluffy tail from the couch or piano bench. She was slowing down, and I guess we got too busy with the kid. We didn't see a whole lot of her in recent years. But she kept hanging in there, to the ripe old age of 17 years. I guess you can see where this is going. Alex was put to sleep in her front yard surrounded by loved ones on a beautiful day last week. I have a few photos to share from those early days...

Numerical Cues

Busy days here at The Soup Peddler. Nothing we can't handle, mind you. An auspicious 1066 quarts of soup sold last week. Is it folly to ignore the numerical cues that hint of links between the hidden and the seen? The cat leaves six pieces of dry food in his bowl, scratches his cheek twenty-four times with his back foot, turns around eleven times before settling into a cozy spot (your black coat--upon which he deposits exactly thirty-one individual white hairs). After forty minutes he meows forty-five times at the door, and those six numbers hit on the powerball the following day. But what do we do with 1066? Invading a small island nation is out of the question. Massacre a scapegoated ethnic minority? Not in this day and age! Hire a guy named Norman? Perhaps. We'll keep our eyes open for opportunities.

Numerology

Busy days here at The Soup Peddler. Nothing we can't handle, mind you. An auspicious 1066 quarts of soup sold last week. Is it folly to ignore the numerical cues that hint of links between the hidden and the seen? The cat leaves six pieces of dry food in his bowl, scratches his cheek twenty-four times with his back foot, turns around eleven times before settling into a cozy spot (your black coat--upon which he deposits exactly thirty-one individual white hairs). After forty minutes he meows forty-five times at the door, and those six numbers hit on the powerball the following day. But what do we do with 1066? Invading a small island nation is out of the question. Massacre a scapegoated ethnic minority? Not in this day and age! Hire a guy named Norman? Perhaps. We'll keep our eyes open for opportunities.

Edible Austin - Robert Kraft

“My guitar is under the bed, next to all the rifles,” said Robert Kraft, manager ofAustin’s Vital Farms. It stands to reason that an egg farmer-short story writer-carpenter-voiceover specialist-fugitive recovery private detective-jazz singer-heavy equipment operator-guitarist would stash all his long, thin possessions under the bed of his two-room trailer. Kraft’s factotum job history is all true. You could know his voice and face from anything from a ubiquitous Time Warner commercial to live shows with Glover Gill and Tosca. I asked him why he’s with Vital Farms. “This is my first steady day job in about ten years,” he said. “I wanted to get into something different than ad work, something that was tangibly beneficial to the world as opposed to making pretty music, something that helps people and educates people about where our food comes from.”

You find Vital Farms onBrandt RoadinSoutheast Austin. Austinites who may, in their checkered pasts, have sufficiently angered the parking gods are likely familiar withBrandt Roadand associate it with memories of dodging the pit bulls that protect Assured Towing in order to recover their vehicles. My recent visit toBrandt Roadwas decidedly more bucolic than the previous one. Flocks of Bovans and Hy-Line Browns clucked with what sounded to this reporter’s untrained ears like chipper unconcern. It may have been wariness or conspiracy but decidedly not angst. The farm is a long, sparsely-treed field that spreads along the tree-lined floodplain of Onion Creek.

Upon my arrival, I hitched a ride across the field with Mr. Kraft on a lipstick-red Kubota en route to witness the most important function in a pastured chicken operation: moving the birds to fresh pasture. “The whole crux of the pasture raising operation is the grass,” Kraft told me on the bumpy ride across the field. “The grass makes a special product, the dark colored yolks, the viscosity of the yolks, the flavor, it all has to do with the birds eating grass.” The forage component is only about one third of their diet—the other two thirds is an organic “layer ration” made primarily of corn and soy.

He was quick to point out that “pastured” is distinct from “free-range,” which in the egg context has very little if any legal definition and is often employed primarily as a marketing term. In this context, a “marketing term” is a marketing term for a “lie that may be printed in good conscience” on a package. “Free-range,” according to Kraft, “signifies that there is an outdoor area available to the birds which is seldom used.” Whereas “pastured” birds, while also lacking legal definition, is sort of the opposite: birds that live outdoors but have access to indoor space.

“This is nativeTexasgrass. What comes up now is buffalo, winter rye, fescue, and various winter crops,” continued Kraft. “There is a slight variation of the flavor and color of the eggs during the course of the year depending on what the chickens are eating. The French chefs have a term for a winter pastured egg. It’s something that’s really sought after. They know an egg that has been on winter pasture is distinct.”

What this means for the farmhands is that they spend their days conducting a veritable game of musical chairs for the birds, where the pens are moved around every few weeks in order to provide fresh grazing. Each pen consists of a solar-powered low-voltage fence (for the birds’ protection from land-borne predators), about 400-500 hens, a shade shed that looks like a small set of bleachers with a roof, and a MCU—don’t you know, a Mobile Chicken Unit. The MCU looks like a verySouth Austin, galvanized version of the Jawa Sandcrawler droid factory where Luke Skywalker purchased C-3PO and, reluctantly, R2-D2. The MCU is the “coop” where the hens lay their eggs. Why? “They have a special set of specifications in their mind as to where they want to lay their eggs, and we try to make sure the nesting boxes fulfill their requirements,” said Kraft. Part of that is removing other options, like low bushes or other cozy, inviting spots inside the pen.

When the pasture inside the pen has been taxed, Kraft and company enlarge the fence to encompass a fresh, adjacent pasture area, drag the shade shed and MCU into it, then chase the birds somewhat comically in that general direction and close the fence off behind them. The used land then has time to regenerate, and the birds have a few weeks’ worth of forage at their disposal. Voila. Pastured eggs.

We adjourned to the processing trailer, a truck trailer housing a Rube Goldbergish egg-sorting machine. “The eggs get candled then go through a solution of organic egg wash and water, then it rinses, dries, sorts and grades them,” said Kraft. “These little kickers kick them out according to weight. It’s an old piece of junk—we get several months of good work out of it and then it breaks down for a month while I run around the country looking for parts.” What then? “We just get a few pairs of nice ladies’ exfoliating gloves that are available at your finer establishments and hand-wash the eggs in a bubbler I made from a freezer compressor and perforated piece of PVC.”

He cracked open an egg. “See how the white holds together like that?” Kraft said proudly. “Grass makes these really thick orange yolks. Dessert chefs like these very much. The yolk stands up a little more. If you treat the birds better and you feed them the right things, you get this premium product. Our ethos is if you’re going to ask an animal to give you food, you owe that animal the best possible living conditions you can provide it.” He paused. “You hear how quiet it is here? If you’ve ever heard the egg farms like down in Gonzales, the birds are just screaming. It’s like something out of Dante.”

We adjourned to Kraft’s home, a mud-spattered trailer. The juxtaposition of eggs and trailer trash brought to mind the sadly overlooked Oscar-grade performance of Edie Massey merrily warbling “Oh, the egg man, the egg man!” in John Waters’ 1972 classic Pink Flamingos. Alas, it was Cloris Leachman’s year. Inside the trailer preenedAndorra the cat. I suggested that this was acush assignment for a cat. “She has a pretty good life if she can stay out of the clutches of the coyotes,” said Kraft. The same could be said for the chickens. “The object is to allow the birds to live as natural an existence as possible. There are downsides to that, they have to sleep outside in the cold but it’s not anything they can’t adapt to. They sleep in big groups and their body heat keeps them warm. The electric fences keep 95% of the predators away. We had a coyote who figured out how to jump the fence and he killed a lot of chickens until I was able to hunt him down. The large hawks will occasionally take a chicken. That’s the balancing act of letting them live naturally.”

“We’re the only provider of this product in the country—a real organic pasture-raised egg that is available in various markets. We’re in about 200 Whole Foods stores, about to be coast to coast.” Something didn’t add up. Kraft had said that the Onion Creek farm would max out at 2,500 birds, producing some 2,200 eggs per day. How could such a small farm with a built-in production ceiling play ball with UNFI, the Whole Foods distribution company? It turns out that Vital Farms considers the Onion Creek farm to be a “flagship” farm—true enough, the next day Whole Foods was coming to film a short segment. The vision of Vital Farms’ owner Matt O’Hare is to set up a network of small farms across the sun belt—the only region that allows for year-round pastured eggs—to service various regions, effectively adding sales range without adding food miles or over-scaling the farms. They already have a satellite farm inArkansas, a large egg farm that primarily supplies Wal-Mart which Vital has contracted to set up a 5,000 bird pasture operation according to their specs. Two additional contract farms are coming online soon nearBastropand Lockhart.

Kraft indicated that Vital cares about theAustinmarket as well. “We want to service the community that nurtured us. We had a lot of local accounts but due to the drought our production went down and we weren’t able to service them properly. We lost some clients and I’m in the process of re-building that.” Vital Farms has recently re-joined both theSunsetValleyand Downtown Farmer’s Markets and their eggs are available at Wheatsville Co-op, Asahi Imports, and Farm To Market.

Sun-Kissed Reflection

I was thinking the other day. I was laying on the carpet in my slippers, warmed by a shard of sunlight angling through the window. I was listening to Bonnie Raitt's Give It Up on a little record player and I realized that nothing since the time in 1972 when those hippies got together to record that record really needed to happen... nothing since the advent of windows and sunshine and carpet and dust motes and record players and Bonnie Raitt's Give It Up needed to happen to make that moment happen quite that excellently. Except of course my birth. But do you know what I'm saying? That makes one of us... Sometimes it's all already there, the perfection is just around the corner and you can't see it till it hits you, you needn't even seek it. But the years keep ticking by and we have to keep ourselves busy. Let's hope that 2010 is one of balance between satisfaction and seeking newness.

Tis The Season


Case study in marketing here. Tis the season for advertisement. We're all subject to them, no matter how much we try to steer clear. Those of us who are business owners or marketing types think about them a whole lot more... we want to get our messages across but (at least speaking for myself) we don't want to be a bother. Entertaining while selling is a great means to that end. I came across this example last night.

This, I believe, is my favorite advertisement of all time. It 's Mark Twain's advertisement for his first public lecture, and it's obviously from the pen of the man himself. I love how it simultaneously honors the intelligence of the reader, reveals the humility of the writer, and describes the spirit and humor of the enterprise. The tasty bits are transcribed herewith for your convenience:

A SPLENDID ORCHESTRA! Is in town, but has not been engaged.

A DEN OF FEROCIOUS WILD BEASTS! Will be on exhibition on the next block.

MAGNIFICENT FIREWORKS! Were in contemplation for this occasion, but the idea has been abandoned.

A GRAND TORCHLIGHT PROCESSION! May be expected; in fact, the public are priveleged to expect whatever they please.

May we all strive for such genius and humor in our lives!

Saying Grace For The Saving Grace Of An Austin Day

Autumn springtime, crisp dewy longshards of morning roselight garden strafe while cool moonface slides down the blue westdome. Arms goosefleshed bicycle ride into the purple-blinding sun, I say isn't it a great day to Green Pasture peacocks straying across Live Oak for breakfast peckings. Warm human interminglings trickle through the day, a sense that the loose-limbed life is ours. We have a secret betweenst us, we know the special handshake. Warmth colours the afternoon deep palette, spare no hue, after all that sere summer drab drubbed our eyes. Whistlesnapped niggun tune to welcome the down arc, then creekside dapple sunset numbmaking trickle, and who is Gus Fruh anyway? I sure do love his pool. A stranger wonders aloud isn't it amazing and I wonder what part she means.

The Calendar And The Roller Coaster

Soupies,

The pages flip by one by one. When we tell our children and grandchildren about the days of books and magazines, we'll describe to them how calendars were once made of paper, which cultures used for many centuries as a well-loved version 2.0 of papyrus. You would turn the pages and the turning would be a metaphor, a realization of the passing of time. Some calendars you'd flip every day, some just once a month. You would write little reminders of what you had to do each day with a pen or a pencil. Pencils had to be sharpened with a hand-cranked tool that was specially made for the purpose, or you could just use a knife to sharpen it, like people did with sticks to help make fires. When people felt like an appointment was approaching, they would consult their watches, which were small mechanical devices often strapped with a leather band and metal buckle to their wrists, then make their way to the appointment.

The pages do flip one by one. Seems like we slide down a fast slope to Christmas as soon as the Labor Day grill smoke clears the air. I've already been wished happy holidays (yes, those holidays) and been unable to purchase swim floats because Christmas displays had displaced them. The march of the calendar, which has always seemed inexorable, now seems a little faster. The slow ratcheting up the big hill of the roller coaster is over and now we hover, perched with expectancy of the weightless descent.

And then there is the Big calendar and the Big roller coaster, but I'll save ruminations of those for some other time.

Going Mobile Article from Edible Austin Fall 2009


EDIBLE ENDEAVORS

GOING MOBILE

By David Ansel
Illustration by Matt Lynaugh

The summer sun had not yet shone its first rays into the third-story windows along Congress Avenue, but Delphino Martinez had already worked up a sweat. As he struggled to pull his tamale cart onto the sidewalk, the hot water in the steamer sloshed back and forth. His six-year-old son, Matt, keeping him company, helped by fanning the brazier of coals. The year was 1923, and though the work was hard and the pay meager, the seed Delphino planted in the dusty ground of itinerant commerce eventually took hold, sent down roots and grew a strong tree. You can still see it on South Lamar: the restaurant his little boy started called Matt’s El Rancho.

Just next door, a woman who owned a failing gift shop spent her 1996 income-tax return on a taco trailer and equipped it with Tupperware and cheap plates from her house. She worked 16 hours a day to get the business off the ground. These days, you can see an oversized papier-mâché bust of her—arms outstretched—reigning over her own little taco kingdom. Her restaurant, perhaps the epicenter of the nascent global breakfast taco revolution, is Maria’s Taco X-Press.

If this established style of restaurant incubation is nothing new, why are food trailers popping up all over Austin like hackberries along a fence line? Let’s begin the answer with a popular riddle among restaurateurs: What’s the best way to make a small fortune in the restaurant business? Start with a large one.

It’s well known that the restaurant business is a risky one, but even more so among bankers who are, hopefully, polite enough not to laugh out loud in the presence of loan applicants. The infrastructure costs are staggering and generally require a gaggle of risk-seeking investors sewn together in a high-return partnership. Additionally, there are several forbidding operational line items in the restaurant business model: high rents, high maintenance and labor costs and a wildly variable cost of goods. Every restaurant needs to combat the gravity of these costs with the lift generated by a yield on square footage. When your square footage is taken up by people, the only workable strategy is to turn and burn—get those diners to chew and swallow faster because they're taking up valuable real estate.

So what’s an eager, doe-eyed foodie dreamer to do? Hit craigslist and plunk down a few grand for a kitchen trailer. All the cool kids are doing it.

Inspired by a crêpe trailer in Galway, Ireland, Andrea Day-Boykin and Nessa Higgins of Flip Happy Crepes knew that delicacies other than tacos and sno-cones could be successfully discharged from a trailer window. They thought it would be a smart way to move forward. “We bought the trailer for about three grand,” says Higgins, “then put eleven or twelve into the kitchen.”

As with any cultural shift, the idea had already been percolating in the minds of many. But there are only so many people willing to be the first to dive off the cliff and test for rocks—and the rocks are many and varied. Would Austin support such an endeavor? Would people be reluctant to take trailer food seriously? Would they be willing to share their dinner with the mosquitoes at picnic tables on a 100-degree evening?

Those murky depths have been plumbed, and the floodgates have opened, of course. It seems every foodie with a strong back and a smidgen of savings has made the now-much-smaller leap into mobile culinary entrepreneurship, and the game is on to see who will last and whether the public will support the movement.

Popularity aside, some issues remain, like the public perception of street food safety. “If you've got a conscientious operator who’s following all the rules and doing everything like they’re supposed to,” says Mark Parsons of Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services, “there’s absolutely no difference in food safety between a restaurant and a mobile vendor.” Arguably, due to their visibility, street food kitchens are under greater public scrutiny than the mysterious backroom workings and unwitnessed scalp rubbings of your favorite brick-and-mortar restaurant.

And there’s something different, amusing—even romantic about eating at a cart. Diners are participating in a public space—allowing people of all stripes to rub elbows and create a vibrant, diverse tapestry of culture. The late urbanist, writer and activist, Jane Jacobs, wrote that as “lowly, unpurposeful [sic] and random as they may appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow.”

This reporter recalls the coffee vendors of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Every morning they roamed the streets with pots of coffee on burning embers and trays full of porcelain cups and simple candies. When they stopped at a corner, an impromptu coffee shop convened, with several businessmen in conversation sipping their coffee through the sweets. Just as quickly as it had arrived, it was gone.

“Urban streets at their best are celebrations of public life in all its forms,” notes Austin City Council Member Chris Riley. “When there’s a constant ongoing explosion of human activity on the street, you always see people enjoying food.” But does that mean street food is the proverbial chicken or the egg? “I’m honestly not certain whether [street food is] a cause or a symptom of an active setting,” continues Riley. “If you go to Sixth Street on a weekend night, you’ll see all these vendors on the street because it’s such a busy place—there’s a natural client-base. I would love to see more active street experiences like that, but how you get there is a complicated thing. I'm not sure you could just take street vendors and put them on Burnet Road and expect to see it create that setting.”

In the book The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, acclaimed sociologist William H. Whyte writes, “If you want to seed a place with activity, put out food. Food attracts people, who attract more people. Vendors have a good nose for spaces that work. Very quickly, the space can become a great social interchange for pedestrians.”

Austin lies somewhere in the middle in terms of its welcome to street food operators. While there have been difficult chapters—like the so-called East Riverside Taco Wars in 2006 which pitted taco stands against the city’s Planning Department—city code has caught up, and Parsons notes that it’s actually easier to get a permit here than in many other cities. Austin has a much more liberal policy as far as where a vendor can set up, as well. When compared with Los Angeles’s Draconian regulation requiring mobile food vendors to relocate every hour, Austin’s rules seem quite laissez-faire. But when compared with the cart-culture Promised Land of Portland, Oregon, we’re wandering barefoot on the Sinai. Portland’s “food cart pods”—semi-permanent gatherings of three to twenty food trailers—are springing up throughout the area.

Lizzy Caston—the force behind the foodcartsportland.com blog—has cataloged and reviewed Portland’s burgeoning scene for years. “We have lots of creative types that live here and want to stay here. They say, ‘I’m tired of working for someone else, but I don’t have the capital to open a restaurant.’” And while the city is concerned with food safety, the food and zoning restrictions offer a little wiggle room. Many municipalities require vendors to visit their commissaries daily, and even GPS-tag their carts, but Caston notes that most of Portland’s carts never move—remaining in one place sometimes for years. The county health inspector and the city administrators have been very supportive of the carts as well.

Portland’s Bureau of Planning recently commissioned a study entitled Food Cartology: Rethinking Urban Spaces as People Places which reported that “food carts have a positive impact on street vitality and neighborhood life and advance public values, including community connectedness and distinctiveness, equity and access, and sustainability.” And with a lively cart culture in place, formerly weed-choked lots morph into destinations and owners of unimproved lands are able to collect at least nominal rents with nearly zero investment in improvements.

For a city in search of workforce development strategies, the food cart concept couldn’t come at a better time. As Austin’s community development corporations struggle to find ways to promote individual wealth creation without incurring the high risks associated with microlending, a vibrant food cart culture in Austin could provide an answer. As Taco X-Press’s Maria Corbalan notes, “you can spend a few thousand dollars and if it doesn’t work out, you can sell it. It’s the safest way into the food biz.”

In Austin, some are dubious about the viability of the cart model. “A food trailer is like my ex-girlfriend,” says Bob Gentry of Torchy’s Tacos. “It’s really high maintenance.” And while his South First Street trailer holds its own compared with his two traditional restaurants, Gentry says that as much as they love the trailer park concept, they feel pretty strongly that trailers are not the direction they want to go. Flip Happy Crepes, though, has matured to become a sustainable model for Higgins and Day-Boykin.

“We’re both moms, we haven't given up our lives—it’s worked out well,” says Higgins.

There’s been much ado about restaurants vs. carts in the media lately. Restaurateurs feel they’ve made great investments in infrastructure, and times are tough for many segments in the sector, forcing many to tighten their belts—the L.A. regulations were set in motion by restaurateurs, in fact. But, as with many things, it might be a little different here in Austin.

“I think the more the merrier,” says Corbalan. “I wish that everyone is successful, then the world will be a happier place.”

Undoubtedly, the world is a happier place when people are able to combine their passions and their vocation—the goodness ripples. Local filmmaker Nils Juul-Hansen says of El Primo taco trailer owner Humberto Reyes: “I was having a rough day. I was really questioning myself, my career. So I went to get a taco. The way he made the taco, every movement so precise, his concentration so exact, his aura so confident, so placid—it blew me away. I said, ‘Wow. If he can create an artist’s haven in ten square feet, I can do my work, too.’”

A Byte Of Austin

(from Edible Austin Summer 2009)

EDIBLE NETWORKS

A BYTE OF AUSTIN

By David Ansel

Photography by Jenna Noel and Logan Cooper

New technologies always change the game. One can almost imagine two medieval calligraphers drowning their sorrows in mead, lamenting the advent of the printing press. (“Now any old jester with a bucket of ink can stamp out a sonnet, Benvolio!”) This could well be the attitude of the traditional journalist currently under virtual assault by legions of bloggers. True, the blogosphere may have destroyed the last remaining entry barriers into journalism and blurred more than a few lines along the way, but it’s also ushered in new ways to unite causes and communities and democratized publishing for the masses.

Meet Addie Broyles, hip but down-to-earth, urban but with garden soil under her fingernails, around-the-town professional schmoozer but laid-back mom. Certainly not the first food blogger in Austin but universally accepted as the ringleader of the bloggers. Broyles is the food writer for the Austin American-Statesman and blogs at austin360.com. In today’s food world, much of the local beat is claimed by the Internet—bloggers and other review websites such as Yelp, Dishola and Chowhound have helped render Wednesday’s hard-copy food section less relevant. Yet competition isn’t the mindset that Broyles brings to the job.

“I like to think that we’re all doing this together,” she says.

Broyles has united Austin’s food-blogging community into a noshing, sipping, photo-snapping, keyboard-tapping, opining gaggle of gastronomic sophisticates. She began by hosting a series of “eat-ups” which has helped the disparate group coalesce into a community.

“Addie’s the reason it has become a community,” says eat-up member Jodi Bart of tastytouring.com. “She’s so open with these events, not proprietary at all.”

Food blogging isn’t new, of course—few topics escape the blog radar—but who are these local food bloggers? And what’s the motivation behind this genre of guerilla journalism? Logan Cooper of Austin’s bootsintheoven.com offers one pragmatic, purely selfish reason to blog.

“A lot of food businesses don’t make it,” says Cooper. “If you find someplace that is really special and amazing, but they don’t advertise and people don’t know about them, you get out there and try to angle people their way.”

One such push was recently directed toward far North Austin’s Chen’s Noodle House.

“They use a cleaver to cut these delicious noodles off of big blocks of homemade dough…whittle them right into bubbling Northern-style Chinese soups,” says Cooper. “The place only seats about 10 people and I’m terrified the guy won’t make it.”

Other local food bloggers are using the medium to grow their businesses and create opportunities. Food writer Beth Goulart uses her texaslocavore.com as a scratch pad for developing larger stories.

“I never would have thought I was entering a food mecca when I moved here,” she says. “I was astounded by all the great food, and I wanted an outlet. The most power we have is as consumers…I’m a writer and I can’t sell a story to a national magazine about every little thing I discover.”

Jam Sanitchat of Thai Fresh uses her blog to engage customers and entice them to enroll in her cooking classes, and also as a little Thai Cooking 311—some customers have made their way to Jam’s store following confusion in the kitchen.

“They say, ‘I found you on your blog.’” Jam says. “‘I was trying to cook this Thai food, but I have a question.’”

Christian Bowers of austinfoodjournal.com uses his to log culinary efforts at home, show off his food photography and inspire others. And Mando Rayo started blogging as a way to share details about a trip to South America with his friends back home. Currently he blogs at tacojournalism.com as one of the self-appointed taco czars who seek out and share with loyal readers the best tacos to be had in Austin.

“Everyone has such a different perspective on what they’re blogging about,” notes Broyles. “The voices are different, where they live in town is different…there are so many ways you can write about food.”

And for some, a blog might be the first step in a new direction. “Professionally I think it could lead to things because you’re out there and people can see another side of you,” says Bart. “I have my blog on my résumé.”

“I’m meeting people I wouldn’t have met otherwise,” adds Goulart. “The blog has given me a community of like-minded people.”

It’s been said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Couldn’t the same be said for writing about food? Isn’t all of this blogging about personal minutiae simply self-aggrandizing foolishness? Perhaps, but according to the bloggers we spoke with, it’s more about a means to a human end; another way to reach out and form community. And with many national food bloggers being offered book deals, blogging appears to be seen as more than just ego-journaling.

The same holds true for our local food bloggers. While they’re out rubbing elbows at restaurants and taco trucks, and twittering meetings, culinary book clubs and potlucks, chefs and restaurant owners are beginning to see the group as a marketing force. Several local restaurants have recently invited Broyles and her blog-roll buddies to exclusive tasting events.

“Members of the media are treated like royalty when it comes to marketing, but they don’t do that for bloggers,” says Broyles, who feels blogging is a burgeoning legitimate tier of the media. “Some people think I’m shooting myself in the foot by giving everyone the same access that I have,” she says. “But I ask that bloggers be invited to things like preview media parties.”

Of course such perks have the potential to harm a blogger’s objectivity and compromise integrity—risks, according to Goulart, that are especially pronounced in a realm with little-to-zero editorial control and a similar paucity of journalistic training. “A blogger could cross the line if she just gushed about everything a restaurant or chef did because of one of these marketing events,” says Broyles. But risks be damned, Broyles supports the restaurant-blogger relationship, noting that attending bloggers aren’t obligated to write about the tasting events, though many do—both promoting the meals they loved and cautioning readers about poor experiences.

Tyson Cole, head chef at Uchi, recently hosted a blogger invitational and was mightily impressed with the return on investment.

“The labor’s not much, the food is not much, the results we got from it were incredible, almost instantaneous,” says Cole. “Within a week, my PR department had 12 articles online with photographs. It’s priceless.”

As with many chefs, Cole has concerns about the “untamable beast” aspect of blogging, and says that reading unfair or unfounded blogger opinions feels like having your hands tied. But he still thinks the restaurant-blogger relationship is of value.

“You know they’re going to be in your restaurant anyway,” Cole continues. “At least instead of staring over the fence worrying about the monster, you just go around and shake hands and say hello.”

As with any community, Austin’s food bloggers are a heterogeneous bunch not only in terms of style, but also professionalism. But the best of them aren’t your mama’s bloggers, yammering on about what they had for lunch or trying to score free appetizers—they’re a not particularly amateurish group of amateurs enhancing Austin’s status as a foodie city and raising the bar for paid journalists like Broyles as well as for chefs and restaurants around town.