(Blogger’s Note: Every Friday an excerpt from the soon to be published book, Faux Pas is French for Restaurant appears in this space.)
The day after New Year´s Day the market was empty. We had begun our cash depletion cycle. The phone kept ringing as winter hibernation rapidly increased delivery calls, which meant charges were soaring. Constantly shelling out money for the grocery warehouse I knew I had to get control of the bleeding. We were delivering ourselves out of business.
The grocery ordering system was the same systemto the Web Van model used when the Internet company began almost ten years later. I assumed Lindy had gone on to be a consultant for them.
Each morning, customers would call either Lindy or Lori, place their orders, and chat about the weather, their health, and the new changes at the store. They would expect their groceries delivered by early afternoon. If the order was called in by eleven, groceries were guaranteed by five.
Promptly at eleven o´clock Lindy would make up the grocery warehouse list- a tabulation of everything we didn´t have for the customers. At times it was lengthy. Continually doling out cash for the daily trip raised my frustrated curiosity. I asked Joan why we didn´t have credit at "the warehouse" only to get an odd glare in response. I was told they didn´t offer credit.
Finally, I decided to go along on the warehouse trip to ask the owner about credit terms.
"Vince, I´d like to go to the grocery warehouse with you today if you wouldn´t mind." I said to our new delivery driver who had replaced Al, or Bob, or maybe Martin.
"Sure, let´s go" he said.
Looking at Vince rather strangely as he walked out the front door knowing all the cars were in the back I suggested we take my car.
"Oh, we don´t need to drive. We´re just walking to Knowlan´s."
"Knowlan´s, what are you talking about?"
"That´s where we go to get the things we´re out of."
Knowlan´s was the competing grocery store one block north on Grand Avenue. As we took the list, divided it, and filled two baskets full of groceries, I knew that the system had to change. We needed to redefining who we were, where we going, and how we were going to get there. Our accounts receivable were growing, our delivery business was growing, and our cash reserve was being depleted, daily. I realized that when we bought the market, I had begun a bank. I was financing the elderly´s grocery purchases by letting them charge their purchases.
We quickly developed a "grocery menu´- a product list of what we offered. We sent it to every delivery customer.
Policy was initiated that if we didn´t have it, we could get it, but it would be ordered through a wholesale vendor.
We narrowed our product line and eventually alleviated trips to our competition. The experience taught me you never open a restaurant that isn´t in walking distance of a grocery store. During a period of crisis, you always run out of something. And, you can usually get it at the neighboring grocery store.
Our marketing and promotional ideas for our newly remodeled baby were percolating with each new day. We had to increase customer sales rapidly. Walk-in traffic was almost non existent in the store even though Grand Ave. had been going through an early 90´s yuppie resurgence. We faced a few problems which the remodel hadn´t resolved. We needed to get the word out that we had remodeled. We had to let people know that suddenly we were customer service oriented and people were welcome in the store. We also had to educate Minnesotans to the fact that home meal replacement, as it was being called, was a good thing.
Although light on the talents of cooking, or so I thought, daily I would don my starched white chef´s coat and hat and walk through the market as though orchestrating a kitchen of culinary wizards. In actuality I had three magic roasters filled with the day´s daily dishes.
On Saturday´s we would accumulate an abundance of chicken legs. Since the butcher´s never told me you could purchase skinless boneless chicken breasts, we continued to bone out breast of chicken. This proved beneficial to the leg lovers of the neighborhood. On any given Saturday we had over 200 surplus legs in the meat department. I developed three recipes that tantalized the palates of the St. Paulites.
This is where many chefs will begin to cringe, but you must remember I wasn´t a chef. I was in charge of the meat department and deli cases.
When I introduced Chicken al´Orange, Chicken Chardrionne, and Chicken Ginger the staff thought I was crazy. Previously the case had sgowcased Bush´s Baked Bean´s, fresh from the #10 can doctored with ketchup and brown sugar. The recipes were simple and meant to be aromatic. By eleven o´clock the store would fill with wafting waves of orange, ginger and champagne. Each time the front door would open, Grand Ave. would warm a bit and as though pulling them in from the avenue, soon to be regular patrons we had never seen before would step through the door and into our culinary work in progress. Frozen nostrils rarely perform well until thawed, then the senses heighten.
Realizing people eat with their eyes, taste with their noses, and savor with their mouths, the world of fragrant flowers, freshly baked herbed Foccaccia bread along with the scents of roasting, flavor infused chicken, was only captured if sampled by the customers. Viola. In 1990 before the aisles of grocery stores had turned into big brand small cup food courts, we were rewarding entrée to our world with pulled chicken al´Orange sandwiches. The lines beginning to form.
The success of the chicken legs began our culinary expedition. I conquered meatloaf next. Mountainous amounts of meatloaf. Twenty pounds of sundried tomato meatloaf would be prepared every Wednesday. A mid-week sell out. By spring we were selling 60 pounds of meatloaf a day as the magic roaster counter continued to grow. We had yet to be approved for a stove. Or a kitchen for that matter. We were flying under the radar and cooking along the way.
We found a niche. We marketed our prepared foods to the elderly. We couldn´t compete with the large grocery chains on real grocery products, and, elderly people do not want to cook. We sent prepared food menus to our delivery customers and increased prepared food sales by 200 percent. On top of that, the mothers, grandmothers and fathers would tell their sons and daughters about our home meal replacement program. Without knowing it we had begun a catering department. And we would eventually come to realize it would be he financial saviors of the business.