Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Inflation / NYT

We have been feeling cost inflation since January, and it seems the Fed may likely overshoot its interest rate cooldown in an effort to tame it. When staples like bread and eggs go up in price, a market cooldown of assets like housing or the stock market is not likely to bring down the price of these essentials due to their demand inelasticity. I expect we will see 6-10% inflation year-over-year for at least another nine months.

Here in the New York Times, there is a great description of the bread inflation costs and prices happening globally.

Here at the Ezra Klein pod, we hear about the devastating international effects of US interest rate increases due to a dollar-denominated global economy.

Monday, October 17, 2022

Pledge of Allegiance


 

One Must Ask

"There’s nothing holy about Babka to me, but if it’s like a salami and cheese Babka why bother? “What is the integrity of the food?” One must ask." - MFK Fisher

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Covid Diary 10-1-21 to 9-30-22

10-15-21

Sociology to the rescue (Zeynep Tufekci):

Research on the unvaccinated by KFF from this September showed the most powerful predictor of who remained unvaccinated was not age, politics, race, income or location, but the lack of health insurance.

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/15/opinion/covid-vaccines-unvaccinated.html

10-18

It's been a slog, but it's going to get better.

10-19

Our downtown fate has been sealed: https://www.zillow.com/homedetails/400-W-Main-St-2605-Durham-NC-27701/2067850157_zpid/

10-22

The bakery can no longer get cake boxes due to: Supply Chain Woes: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/22/business/shortages-supply-chain.html

10-29

The Great Resignation: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/29/style/quit-your-job.html

11-2

Everything is Conditional

11-3

Workers are scare and empowered: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/03/business/jobs-workers-economy.html

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Guaranteed Income

 On August 20th, we had a social to celebrate Excel and Durham Neighbors, two organizations dedicated to the idea of guaranteed income. The following piece of visual art was created by Jaclyn Gilstrap as the event went off. Click to enlarge.

Friday, August 19, 2022

Wild'n Out

Niceties Averted

Much has been make of the seeming breakdown of the fabric of society during Covid. Shootings, robberies, homicides, domestic violence, road rage, flight rage, etc. If morality is more like a language, and less like an inherent biological code, we seem to building a Tower of Babel. I have had numerous testy exchanges with customers, vendors, and staff over the years, but nothing quite prepared me for this deranged coffeeshop owner from Raleigh who ceased doing business with us and then refused to pay his remaining bills.

Go into your average food service establishment today, and you see chaos and dysfunction. Hiring, retaining, training, and supervising workers has all become exponentially harder. Is it because of the Great Resignation? Is it because workers are now paid more and have more power? Is it because our cell phones and social media have made us both productive and distracted to the point of schizophrenia? I'm not exactly sure. But a brief look into this conversation will convince you that we live in a scary society that is capitalism on hyperdrive. The toughest moments for me are when we have a wholesale customer that has clearly lost touch. I tried to reason with them, but this one really hurt and stuck out in my mind as emblematic of this period in time. I was really shook. I post here for future researchers and historians of the 20's. A is the owner of the Raleigh cafe, and R is his wife and co-owner.

On March 20, 2022 at 9:36:22 PM EDT, Ninth Street Bakery <info@ninthstbakery.com> wrote:

Good evening,

We've attempted to run your card on file, but it was declined. Please call us with updated payment information at your earliest convenience. Thank you for your business! 

- S

Thursday, August 18, 2022

Everybody cries

In March 2020, the world tipped upside down, and no one knew if Covid was going to kill us all, and quickly. One employee, K, decided to take it upon herself to stop Bakery production and shut things down to save us all. She felt like unless we closed immediately, people would die. I tried to reason with her, but her heart was steadfast. At 2pm on Monday, March 16th, she began banging together pots and pans and collecting staff around her. Her voice would not be stopped, and I couldn't get a word in edgewise. She continued to rant about the dangers of Covid while I pleaded with her that we should try to discuss this in a more civil, reasonable manner. Our head artisan baker walked out. Customers watching from the cafe were scared. Eventually, we locked the door. Finally, we had to call 911 to have her removed from the premises, fired, and given a trespass. Having a background in social action, I suppose she was prepared for this, or maybe this was the statement she wished to make. We carried on with our day, but I was shaken up. The possibility of hurting our staff or customers was indeed great. We had little information on how the virus was transmitted (this was pre-masking), or how prevalent it was at the time in Durham (very low). It was when my head of artisan came back and we debriefed in the office that I broke down and cried from the stress of it. Not great big gobs of tears, but little ones, a muffled sob. "Everyone cries in this office," I said, "And now I suppose it's my turn."

Bon Appetit

Bon Appetit ran a story by a hip 24-year-old Durham grad student potter and waitress who shops at the Co-op making $18K/yr. In many ways, this story is as aspirational as the rest of the magazine's glossy food photos, but does it say something about our collective future as broke gourmands? Do we have to scrimp and save and wait for Daddy Warbucks to take us out to Dashi for a nice weekend meal?

 https://www.bonappetit.com/story/food-diary-durham-north-carolina-18k-salary

Service surchages

With inflation hitting owner's budget waistlines, hard, it appears many restaurants and cafes are trying to find ways to make a buck / save a buck. Not surprisingly, it is on the backs of laborers, their front line staff.

In place of tipping, they have installed service surcharges to bring effective wages in line with expectations of workers. This is the new service charge economy. They do it saying that this provides a more steady source of income for their previously tipped (and sometimes untipped) workers, but in reality, it is just an angle to subsidize wages without paying more. To my mind, wages should be increased by the employer, and tips should be taken. Employers often do this because they fear raising prices, but that is what they effectively do via the surcharges, only under the guise that it is so the employees can make a more livable wage. With tips, our front line workers make approximately $21/hr currently, sometimes more depending on the day.

Another way owners pass off the labor costs is by paying low, sometimes as low as minimum wage, and "guaranteeing" a base wage paid via tips, again effectively shifting the labor cost to the consumer as in a traditional waiter/waitress model.

On Canned Seltzer

In the Fall of 2014, I thought LaCroix was only a drink for hipster ladies. Little did I know seltzer (is it seltzer, is it sparkling water?) was about to invade America. Let's break down the major brands:

Chief criteria: Carbonation strength; Artificial flavor vs natural; Real Juice vs flavoring. 

Bubly: Very medium carbonation, with not overly artificial flavoring. My favorite of all the seltzers for its balance.

Food Lion brand: High carbonation, weird flavoring, not thoroughly integrated into the water prior to carbonation, but added almost as an artificial afterthought. Pretty trash overall. 

Harris Teeter brand: Remarkably crisp, not too artificial tasting. Maybe the best of the store brands. Medium-high carbonation.

LaCroix: The OG. Very crisp and refreshing when ice cold, after a workout, very high carbonation. In great enough quantities could take the enamel off your teeth. Flavorings are artificial-tasting.

Spindrift: With "real" juice, Spindrift is the juiciest and most natural tasting of the seltzers. Strikes me as weak tea though, and leaves one unfulfilled both on the refreshment and juice sides of things. It is liquid that you pour down your gullet when there is nothing else, that is all.

Topo Chico: I went to Austin in 2019 and learned Topo Chico was catching on, fast. With citric acid, Topo Chico and its flavored varieties have that kind of slightly effervescent mouth pucker that makes you want another sip, but inevitably leaves you thirsty afterwards.

Polar: Back in the old days, this is what flavored seltzer was. It is a true seltzer in the sense that the (lime) flavor is very very subdued. medium carbonation. A very mild, inoffensive drink. It's likely not updated in profile since the 80's.

Do you remember in 2011 when everyone wanted to open a food truck?

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Music spotlight: Corin L.

Many of you know Corin as the highly excitable baker in the background often singing, dancing, or just generally goofing off (he has a whole barnyard of animal noises at his disposal, including an owl, and a rooster), but you might not know that he is a music lover and guitarist and singer-songwriter (a man of many talents, not just baking!). In any case, Corin has fully taken over DJ responsibilities at the Bakery, so for the last couple of months, and perhaps into the future, it will be all country and bluegrass, all of the time.



Sunday, March 13, 2022

So many cranes, so little time

 https://downtowndurham.com/new-development-map

Ingredient Costs and Supply Disruptions

As ingredient and materials costs have increased 40%+ since January, it has become increasing difficult to manage, not to mention periodic shortages of basic items, like cake boxes, hazelnuts, even cream cheese. We have also seen increases in wages to keep staff on their jobs during Covid, and now these inflation-related costs make me fearful of what the future holds. With our ingredient costs running over half a million dollars a year, 40% is hundreds of thousands of dollars, while our profit margins typically are no more that 5%. Doing the math makes me scared. Hopefully the pain will alleviate soon.

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Thank you

There are many reasons to buy local. From the bottom of our heart, we thank those customers that chose to support us and other local producers through these last two years of the pandemic. Your support has made all the difference.

Saturday, February 12, 2022

No More Black Boxes

In 2007, at age 28, I made the very characteristic, but very fated move to go into business with my best friend. It failed, as one might suspect, and we broke up as friends, also probably suspected.


It was a silkscreening business. He was the printer and artist, I was the business muscle. No matter what kind of smarts I brought financially, I could never actually print the shirts, and if my friend had a procrastination and organization problem due to his bipolar disorder, which influenced, or was self-medicated by his weed addiction, the shirts never got made, or got made poorly, or were late for our customers. He needed me on the team to help him, he said. But what he really needed was $12K to get a better printing machine, a six-table setup that he thought would springboard the business to success. We rented a U-Haul and drove it from New York City to Bethlehem, PA to pick up our brand new machine at Vastex. I made peanut butter and banana sandwiches for us for the ride down. We left at 6am. We lived together, sharing a one-room studio in the Bronx, no A/C, sleeping on side-bys-side futon mattresses on the hardwood floor. I left the business three months later. The business was going nowhere. We could barely cover our rent. I wouldn't talk to my friend for three years.

What I vowed after that experience was that if I ever owned another business, I would learn how to do everything myself, so I wouldn't have to rely on anyone. Looking back, I should have learned how to print the shirts, if I really cared enough to save the business.

When I owned my second business, a baking business, I did just that. I could do, or figure out every position in the bakery, from bread mixer to slicer to pastry to financials. No longer reliant on other people, I trained all of my own employees on every position. I currently have thirty of them, and we do about $2 million in sales a year.

But the linchpin, the bottleneck of my business, are the machines. Without a working spiral bread mixer, we cannot produce dough. Without a working oven, we can't bake bread. As much as I have tried to learn everything about my business, I've never been a mechanically minded person. When a refrigerator or an oven broke down, I always called a guy, and how quickly we could get up and running depended upon his skill and availability. Over the years, I've probably spent over $150K in mechanical repairs alone. We have a lot of old machines. Our mixer, a Kemper, probably dates back to 1960. I love these old machines, for their simplicity. They are a window into a simpler time in mechanics, before everything became digitized and computerized. Our mixer's electronics, if you could call it that, is just a set of physical switches. There is not even a digital readout. There is something about machines born before the handheld calculator and the digital watch. They have souls.

But I digress. Two days ago, our mixer went down. Fully locked up. The dough hook, that curvy metal thing that looks like a corkscrew, would not turn. At all. We were dead in the water. Our normal mechanic was booked up for the week. No mixer, no bread. I called a neighbor who was the retired mechanic for the bakery. He agreed that if I provided the muscle, he would show me how to break the machine apart (thanks Gene!!). We started with the dough hook, then the flywheel, inspecting the drive shaft, the pulleys, and the bearings. Finally, we found the culprit. The aging motor had locked up. It had done so once before, in the aughts, and been rebuilt. I disconnected the electrical. With assistance, we hefted out the 150-pound motor, placed it on a cart, and brought it to a local motor shop. Understanding my plight, they broke the motor apart, replaced the worn bearings, and put it back together. The motor went back in the machine, and we re-assembled it from the guts on up. When the flywheel and the belts magically turned, I was ecstatic, elated, and that's saying a lot for a depressed person like me. I've never read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but I imagine that euphoria when seven hours of hard labor turns into a working machine is likely what the author was going after. I was intensely grateful. I had a newfound appreciation for the complexity and importance of technology. I never thought I would ever be able to repair a machine like our mixer. What it showed me is that there is no such thing as black boxes.

Every family has something they call a "junk drawer", or something like it. It's a loosely organized area that requires some fishing to find anything. Maybe it is a closet. Maybe it's an attic, or a crawlspace, or a shed. But everyone has some place that is disorganized and exists only as an abstraction of mixed up parts. That is what machines are to me, and what they are to many people. Many folks go to their auto mechanic without the faintest idea of how to repair their cars. Their car exists as that black box, and the prospect of a lengthy, involved, or expensive repair fills them with dread and anxiety. But whether it is replacing brake pads, rotors, a muffler, or dropping an engine, these are just mechanical things that either fit together, or they don't, and the skill of the mechanic determines how fast or how well it will be replaced.

For me, it doesn't make economic sense to learn to repair my own car. I have a bakery to run, a family to raise, and perhaps more importantly, I don't want to do my own car repair. I don't want to learn, I don't want to buy the tools, and I don't want to spend the time. I don't want to get dirty. So I pay a guy, and whether I drive or not is fully reliant on him, just as I would otherwise have been fully reliant on my mechanic to fix my mixer.

We live in an interconnected world, one now on steroids due to the influence and rapacity of global capitalism. There was a time when ordinary people did home repairs. Less so now. In the outsourcing of everything, we are fully reliant on someone else for virtually everything, from the clothes we wear, to the food we eat. We were generalists. We are now a nation of specialists. Humans used to make and mend their own clothes, and they used to grow their own food. No longer. Now all we have is a loose system of "junk drawers", people we can call when things go awry to fix everything, and hope the job gets done right. We even have therapists and medications to fix our besotted brains, which just don't seem to function as well as in prior generations. Maybe they're overloaded with images and thoughts of our cell phones, and out of RAM or disk space.

What I am saying is that the agency I felt in taking apart that Kemper mixer can be applied to everything. We know enough about the human mind to say that there are truly no more black boxes. If we want to fix something, we can fix it, it is only a question of our determination.

Politics is a great, and curious example. I despise Trump, I find him to be a vile human being. He decidedly was one of the worst presidents on record by any measure, and left our nation reeling and feeble after just four years of proto-facist chaos. Yet half of our voting public voted for him. How could that be?

Rather than write off those voters as black boxes, one would have to understand their brains, perhaps even at a biological, neuronal, or hormonal level, to understand how Trump could hold attraction for them. There is no shortage of academics and pundits who have tried to explain away Trump, but until we have a better handle on the self-annihilating (suicidal?) voter, we'll never have the opportunity to remedy the situation so we never have another one like him. I feel committed to undoing these black boxes. Our future, and that of our children depend upon it. The long list of ills mounts every day. The environmental climate is deteriorating. We must act, we must learn, and if it means breaking apart the brains of those who are greedy and stupid, metaphorically or literally, let it be done.

And then, the mixer broke again the next day, and all my pride evaporated, and was replaced with familiar dread. The motor still worked, but because the driveshaft was bent, we couldn't mix more than 150 pounds of dough. The motor simply wouldn't displace sufficient force. For my efforts, I received not a full solution, but a half-solution.

Ultimately if the mixer goes down completely, we can buy a new mixer.  There is no alternate world we can move to if we destroy the Earth. If we lose a single unique life to climate change, there is no replacement for that human being. People are not expendable, and neither is the environment. There is no Plan B.

Monday, February 7, 2022

Small changes, minimal difference

There is a point at which a soup is perfectly salted. Yet approaching that point, and going over it, there is a band of acceptability.

I remember distinctly a video of chef Angela Dimayuga that profiled the restaurant Mission Chinese in NYC and in the background, poking his head into the frame, was the founder and owner, Danny Bowein. He was adjusting the thermostat. To be successful in the food industry, an almost obsessive attention to detail is necessary, especially when evaluating and adjusting the food.

One needs to know the degree of saturation difference and mouthfeel between a batch brewed coffee that has brewed for four minutes versus three minutes and thirty seconds (bitterness, turbidity on the tongue) if one is going to make a great, or even a half good cup of coffee. 

I remember during my trip to Hill Farmstead, Shaun and the other brewers knocking their heads together about blending in 2% versus 2.5% of another beer. We tasted mini-samples, which were hotly debated over, leading to multiple rounds of tasting. Novice as I was, I could taste no discernible difference if I was to blind taste it, especially if one was to judge its quality.