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Small Business

Mary Tennis - Saturday EssayScrolling through files on my computer at work, I can pretty much trace the progression of the business through spreadsheets, price labels and photographs (candid and professional) of events, company parties, and breaks in the action behind the counter. Families have grown, ex-staffers have gone to rehab, become police officers, found god, and earned master’s degrees, prices have more than quintupled, and previously experimental recipes have been honed into lexicon. When I say “progression,” I mean pile: an amorphous mass of guesswork, troubleshooting and triage that has taken shape and could be temporarily (like for the purposes of this essay) deemed linear.

I work for Northern Waters Smokehaus, a small business gone large. The retail side of the enterprise started out 15 years ago with the idea that we were going to offer a small, specialized service (smoked fish and imported cheese) to a specialized audience (those with the monetary means coupled with the proper palettes). We had five employees counting the owner himself, who took care of pretty much everything besides front-line sales (though he did that as well from time to time, and was utterly expert at it — I think a dozen bored housewives fell in love with him that first year we were open, charmed irresistibly by his earnest and passionate obsession for good food).

Our shift was one person at a time. We did not have a printed schedule. I would hang a sign on the door to take smoke breaks on the loading dock with the cooks from the restaurant across the hall: “Carpe Diem, Back in 5 Minutes.” I would call my boss if we broke $500.

During the days after 9/11, we had a small black-and-white TV in the corner of our tiny 500-foot storefront. There my few customers and I would watch grainy loops of the fiery towers, the concerned falsettos of newscasters chattering away as bodies fell from the windows, and we would share chunks of aged gouda and smears of Fourme d’Ambert together, for once wordlessly, savoring the foreign flavors while savaging our psyches. There were few sales that first week after, but the quasi-communion was a fast-track for business bonding — many of those people are still customers with us, despite our decimated cheese selection and the throngs of newcomers who flood our slice of a storefront and sometimes terrorize the locals every season. It is these faces that I still look forward to seeing through the crowds, in the back of the line, peering through the windows — they are a rare sort of family that almost completely exists in the realm of the delightful, whose shared experience is temporary and sensual, and whose tongue-deep intimacy is exceptional but predictable. In other words, we don’t ever let each other down.

I used to write a restaurant review column called “The Hot Dish” for a local alternative weekly newspaper called the Ripsaw, and I would work on it every week from the store, using the company’s computer. The office featured an old oak hulk of a desk with a trick drawer that unlocked when you pulled a separate drawer — a gesture toward privacy (or maybe propriety?) that was otherwise non-existent. Speaking of privacy, there was a half-hearted wooden screen propped up to separate the office area from the retail area, and the gaps in the screen were wide enough that I could easily look through them to spy incoming customers. There I would sit, senses trained for visitors, typing snarky, poetical critiques of local restaurants for the paper, and generally enjoying the hell out of it. I had previously worked as a short-order cook and briefly kitchen managed at a truck stop but had gone on hiatus to have an untimely baby. All I wanted for my lifestyle was food and art, and this tandem activity was right on.

I would sit in the little alcove, typing away on the Dell with one eye on the door until someone happened to drift in. It’s October 2004 and my subject is the Vietnamese Lotus Inn:

It’s a new restaurant that looks as if it’s been there for years, with charming, subdued signage and quiet brickwork — devoid of any faux pagoda entrance or golden pillared clap-trap. Inside, the atmosphere is more austere, less organic — in need perhaps of experience to leave the dirty fingerprints and scuffed woodwork that add up to “cozy.” Every tense first date, family meal nightmare, illicit rendezvous, and across-table argument leaves behind a ripple or two, contributing to the general tone of an establishment, augmented by the bigger cannonballs of food, ownership, scent, and noise of the place.

… and then I’d separate from the keyboard to sell fish.

“Hi there, can I help you with anything? You gotta try the Reblochon — it’s astonishing (and I think it might be illegal)! We have the most perfect baguette to sell with it, and the smoked Lake Trout is still warm from the smoker.”

Writing, customer, eating, writing, customer. Reflect, project. Food, food, drinks, more food. I thought about going to culinary school, but knew it would be devastating for me as a mother. I wound up getting English and art history degrees instead, which some peers half-jokingly will tell me are more useful than culinary school. The newspaper I worked for imploded. I experimented with blogs and poetry, but never really found the right outlet for my voice — I had been marked by the critic’s unique point-of-view, which indulges in a balance of authority and intimacy that eludes most journalism and prose. I was in and out of some really unproductive relationships. I volunteered at my daughter’s wonderful elementary school. I had crazy roommates. All the while, the tiny shop was changing.

Our smokehouse, the heart of our production, moved onsite from 15 miles away, enabling us to make and store more product, and granting my boss the freedom to experiment with recipes that heretofore had been fantasies. He began to make smoked sausages, like plump, garlicy Polish sausages that expanded and split on the grill, or coarse-ground Andouille, whose cayenne and oregano two-punch qualified as exotic in our small Midwestern city. The customers were intrigued. Soon came ham, which I now see was the gateway to everything — its sweet, meaty depths, perhaps in their simplicity, yielded inspiration for so many other products: bacon, pancetta, pastrami, pork loin, salami, and most profoundly the sandwich. Regular customers would come in, expecting to try an aged chevre or smoked salmon tail, and we would eagerly wag a slice of saucisson sec or smoked turkey breast at them. Some would buy a half a pound of this, quarter pound of that, cut inexpertly on a 30-year old Hobart. Most would rave about it and carry on with their usual chunk of Humboldt Fog. Sandwiches, my boss reasoned, would be a great marketing technique for our deli meats — a showcase of our product that was carefully curated with the right crusty (and unsalty) bread and local sweet cream butter. “Try the salamini sandwich, only three bucks!” If a customer acquiesced, we each independently and discretionarily would slice a portion that we thought was adequate, spread one to five (my boss has a heavy hand) knifefuls of butter on a third-to-a-half of baguette, and hand it off, perhaps nested in a sheet of deli paper (but perhaps not), hoping the customer was smart enough to know how special this was. And they did, and it was.

It’s been 15 years since we started slinging our luxury foods. We are still in the same tiny storefront, we still use the same brine times and smoke schedules for our fish. We remodeled the space to accommodate a bigger sandwich line and moved our offices a couple floors up in the same building. We learned to portion, to train, to communicate, to write menus, to take pictures with our phones and brag about our specials on Facebook so we won’t have to throw any of our precious proteins away. We learned to never be afraid to charge enough money for our product and to pay our vendors on time. We learned how to order, write down recipes, and take inventory. But we take with us what we opened our doors with: we never underestimate our customers, we never abandon our co-workers, we never dumb our food or culture down, and we never let the dark side win. We always look to our food as the beacon — the answer to most questions, difficulties, and problems our business faces. The pure flavor of a tender flake of smoked lake trout, fresh from Lake Superior, brined gently and then smoked for five hours is undeniable in the face of hate, tragedy, madness, and chaos. As long as we honor this, we’ll be OK.

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