(Blogger’s Note: Every Friday an excerpt from the soon to be published book, Faux Pas is French for Restaurant appears in this space.)
Joan Helfman, Bill´s sister, was a walking Quick Books program before QuickBooks was invented. She knew every customer personally through weekly phone conversations. She set their financial terms, memorized their payment history, and since she began doing the books decades earlier she was the Crocus Hill Market’s corporate comptroller years before we took over the company. We had a "Joan" operating system, with no hardware. The software certainly had some bugs in it.
It wasn´t until I finished my initial financial course with Joan did I quickly realize our receivables and clientele were disappearing rapidly.
If I didn´t act quickly, change the course of the market and the business, people would soon be reading our obituary in The Pioneer Press. I thought of purchasing key man insurance on all of our charge customers but Kranston wouldn´t go along with that plan. I would have to think of another solution. But without any experience in grocery operations, solutions didn´t come quickly. Was there a course in the art of culinary canned goods?
Aside from the diminishing customer list, the cost of delivery was adding to the negative cash flow. Expenses for the two old delivery vehicles along with the mishaps that occurred on the road were costing us our weekly profits. One young driver- alternating between high school football star and lady´s man – decided to fill up the GAS tank -with diesel fuel. He complained to his mom, the city attorney, and his father, the assistant District Attorney,.When I demanded he drive the car until all the diesel had run out. A very long and tediously embarrassing task came to an abrupt end when I decided to fire him rather than have him drive to Duluth under adverse conditions. Plus, parental persuasion helped me make my decision about the b oys termination.
With delivery the main stay of our business, we were the original WebVan a decade before the doomed dot com company’s birth. owever, we didn´t realize it at the time. Most of the business at Crocus Hill came from deliveries to those dying. We were a meals on wheels service and that proved to be one of the problems.
Besides Lori, Lindy, Wayne and Joan, – we had two full time delivery men, Arnold and David. Each used one of our old, gas guzzling station wagons to deliver groceries. One delivery run in the morning, one run in the afternoon, both with a delivery area of 53 miles. I should have known better and changed the system immediately but delivering was a tradition in the market. The service was the main reason for our existence. Sick, elderly, shut-in and dying customers who had ordered from the market for years used us not only as their bearer of food, but also as their only connection with the outside world. We were culinary comforters in a world of lingering harshness. In winter we offered warmth, in summer freshness. And, aside from the emotional support we delivered, the conversation that brought them from their darkness to the brightness of the day was the intangible product that nobody could pay or charge for.
These people had been loyal supporters of the market for years. It was now our turn to give back.
Frequently, Al or Dave would be gone for hours, only to return with a story of how they helped Mrs. Johnson re-arrange her living room or had changed the light bulbs for Mrs. Scanlon. Although a money losing proposition, the customer service we offered was the best in the grocery or any other business in St. Paul.
The customer list shrinkage was a concern and the cost of delivery was robbing us of any possible profits. We would need a marketing miracle to keep the business afloat.
The financial juggling was beginning. We were under capitalized for a grocery store, and definitely didn´t have enough cash on hand to act as a bank. The slow pay customers were slowly depleting our cash. With grocery bills coming soon from the large wholesale grocers, whose trucks pulled up outside every Thursday, and the remodel costs, plus the payroll, the future looked as bright as a January day in Bemidji, Minnesota.