Bliss and Vinegar: A Culinary Memoir

Chapter 1: Things Can Only Get Better From Here

On the bleakest day of the bleakest year in the bleakest part of town, I arrived at the Commissary Kitchen, a nondescript building in a run-down warehouse district on the wrong side of the railroad tracks. Career-wise, it was debatable whether this was a vertical or lateral move, or perhaps a downward spiral. It certainly did not feel like a promotion.

I parked next to a food truck with “Spaghetti Eddie” emblazoned on the side. The parking lot was filled with banged-up Suburus and Volvo station wagons, a rustic pick-up truck, and a white van that could be used for either a catering job or bank heist. The unmistakable scent of reefer hung in the air (turns out the commissary was surrounded by cannabis grow houses). Tractor trailers barreled down the nearby service road. Every building within a one-mile radius was fifteen shades of gray.

The Commissary Kitchen was built as a business incubator for fledgling caterers, food truck operators, wholesale bakeries, and restaurant pop-ups — in other words, for people short on cash but high on hope. It attracted an eclectic mix of foodie entrepreneurs — young men with thick beards and savings pulled from their barista tip jars, holistic new mothers on a mission to heal the world with vegan ice cream and lactation cookies, and burrito hawkers selling out of Styrofoam coolers on busy street corners. In the midst of these newbies and wannabees were hardened restaurant recidivists, grizzled chefs with a gleam in their eyes and burn marks on their forearms, gearing up for one more shot at The Next Big Thing.

The food business is known for three things: glamour, hype, and spectacular meltdowns. For every darling, media-savvy chef on television, there are a thousand cooks with pipe dreams of celebrity endorsements and lines out the door. The sad reality: seventy-five percent of new ventures will fail within three years of opening. Start-up costs for food businesses are exorbitant; if a banker sees you coming in the front door, they go out the back door. Unless you’re famous or a trust fund baby, no sane person would sink hard-earned money into a restaurant. And when things go south and you hear crickets in the dining room, liquidation is the exit strategy (take note: used restaurant equipment fetches ten cents on the dollar.) Given this financial quagmire, a business incubator like the Commissary Kitchen offers determined entrepreneurs the chance to start-up while minimizing investment, risk, and heartbreak.

While the Commissary serves as a safety net of sorts, there’s still a huge pressure to succeed. The message is clear: if you can’t make it here — with all the amenities of a fully built commercial kitchen, affordable rent, and measly overhead — you should pack your bags and get on the next bus home. To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, in life there are no second chances. For many at the Commissary, this was not only the second or third chance –it could be the last chance.

So it was on the bleakest day of 2016, on the bleakest side of town, I left my past behind in a desolate parking lot and opened the door to a new tomorrow. I arrived at this stage of life with hopes for one more age-defying, reality-denying Rocky Balboa moment, in the last round of an all-out street brawl of a career. If gambling was your thing, if you took one look at my weather-beaten knuckles, calloused hands, and nasty gashes on my forearms, you’d run to the bank and lay it all down…on the underdog.

All Past is Prologue

I spent twenty-five years in the restaurant business — that’s roughly 500 years in dog years. I opened and operated over a dozen establishments (and mastered the thousand-mile stare to prove it). In the best of times, restaurants can be prosperous, exciting, and life-affirming. In the worst of times, the food career can be emotionally debilitating, financially draining, ball-busting, and soul-crushing. It is often the best and worst of both worlds.

The life cycle of a restaurant mirrors the arc of life. The birth (the opening) is filled with exhilaration and promise, every day feels like walking down a ticker-tape parade. The food is “fabulous,” the atmosphere buzzy, the service “precious”, and compliments and accolades shower down like confetti. Newspaper and social media reviews give you a standing ovation. Life is good, work is fun, you drive a snazzy car, and best of all, your bank account is plump. You’re swimming in a river of champagne

The adolescent years arrive filled with a mixture of embarrassments, temper tantrums, broken plates, and falling out of love with everyone — your customers, staff, your family, even your pet. The excitement of nurturing and creating is superseded by the mundane and underwhelming responsibilities of managing day-to-day tasks. The dish sink’s backed up? Great — call the plumber again. The air conditioner’s not working? Crap. This is not what I signed up for. Before you know it, you enter the mature years dominated by introspection, rebranding, regrets, and an aching wistfulness. Is there more than this? At times the stench of mediocrity fills the air like an overripe cheese gone from ‘maybe bad’ to definitely putrid.

Finally, you enter the twilight years, characterized by five stages of grief: denial, anger, negotiating, depression, and grudging acceptance. Except there’s a lot more denial, anger, lashing out, bouts of depression (and drinking), and very little acceptance. The dining room feels like a morgue, the kitchen feels like a prison. It’s come to this: you’re pining for a fresh start….you’re ready to divorce your restaurant.

Back in 2016, my once prosperous and bustling flagship café (which I opened twelve years prior in what was then an undiscovered part of town called Old Highland) had pushed through the twilight stage and gone straight to life-support. For years my cafe thrived in a trendy, regentrified part of Denver, but a decade later it all the symptoms of imminent demise: faded paint peeling off walls, refrigerator doors held together by duct tape, a hole in the kitchen floor covered by a sheet of plywood. Commercial kitchens do not age well and those with owners under financial duress age particularly badly.

There’s never just one thing that dooms a restaurant, like a champagne cork exploding and putting someone’s eye out. It’s often a diaspora of disasters. There are obvious macro failures — skyrocketing rent, competition from flashier concepts with Instagrammable chefs, or a surly/apathetic/incompetent staff. Behind-the-scenes there are micro calamities — grease traps overflowing, espresso machines blowing up, dish machines breaking down. Every day brings a new fire to put out.

When the hammer finally falls, it falls down hard. One morning I woke up and decided to put the sign in the window… and close the doors for good.

Unfortunately, closing a restaurant does not provide closure. There’s still a mess to clean up, bills to pay, equipment to dispose of. My dilapidated refrigerators, deli slicer, and the ancient oven didn’t stand a chance at auction; I paid a guy to haul them to a junkyard. The artwork on the walls went to my basement for storage. Knowing that my beady-eyed landlord was notorious for keeping every penny of the security deposit, I scoured the floors, baseboards, and grungy pipes beneath the sinks. I scrubbed the walls and slapped paint over spots beyond repair. This drudgery went on for days — and at the end of each day, I went home and took two showers, one to wash my body and another to cleanse my spirits.

On the second to last day, a loyal customer stopped by to pay his respects.

“You moving to a new location?” he asked.

“Why yes, yes I am,” I said. “Looking at two or three great locations, not sure which one yet.” Truth be told, I had no idea where I was going but when you’re on you're hands and knees scrubbing the floor, it’s easy to fib.

“Hope its close by. The office is going to miss your food,” he said.

“Thanks. I’d like to stay in the ‘hood, we’ll see,” I said. That was a blatant lie. When I first opened twelve years ago few knew about the awesome potential of this location, the booming traffic on the block, the burgeoning development that was about to hit, the picture-postcard view of Denver’s downtown skyline. It soon became the hottest neighborhood in the city, but trendiness comes with a price. Rents blew up, street parking became scarce, and every new business was either a funky bar, a glorified sandwich shop or high-end coffee joint. The quaint clothing boutique, the used furniture and tchotchke store, and my old-school café — all eccentric owner-occupied businesses that imbue character to a neighborhood — were driven out. Regentrification takes no prisoners.

The customer looked around at the stripped-down kitchen, buckets of mop water and cleaning rags, the soiled towels on the floor. “Can’t you pay someone to do this?” he asked, not in an unkind way.

“Yes and no,” I replied. “This is a form of penitence.” We both laughed.

Even the ugly underbelly of a restaurant’s calling hours has a tickle spot.

On the last day of my lease, my teenage son and I rented a U-Haul and loaded up the remaining fixtures that were salvageable — a beverage cooler that would find a second home in our garage, a vintage Italian espresso machine, and an outdoor grill from the patio. The cleaning supplies and disgusting mop were spear-chucked into the dumpster.

Lastly, there was one more thing to take down: the one-dollar bill taped to the wall. A gift from my uncle some twenty-five years ago, it arrived as a crisp Federal Reserve note and hung at my first café and every new establishment I opened in the ensuing years (twelve in all.) It was a talisman for promise and prosperity but now, tattered, battered, and splattered from errant soups and exploding double espressos, it was the last remnant of a happier bygone era.

I tucked the worn-out dollar into my wallet, took one last look around the sad, soulless shell, closed the door, and left behind a decade of memories.

To Begin Anew

I spent the next month on the living room couch wallowing in my own private pity party. My wife worked from home as a grant writer for a non-profit organization. Our kids were about to enter the college pipeline. Father Time was not on my side. Closer to the truth, Father Time was my arch enemy. I wanted to take my sweet time but was desperately running out of time. My pit stop on the couch would not last long.

I was transitioning — to what? I was hardly employable. Since leaving college I hadn’t worked for anyone else besides myself. Opening another restaurant was a remote possibility — I’d made a career of finding cheap up-and-coming locations that hadn’t yet been discovered by speculative developers or glitzy food chains. (I opened up old-school cafes in restored historical buildings long before the term ‘regentrification’ was invented.) Still, in business, as with love, a quick rebound is never a good thing.

I needed a halfway point, a middle ground between a low investment/makeshift concept (food truck?) and scary-ass, put-your-house-up-as-collateral for an outrageous loan reboot (full-service restaurant?) I knew from my recent past that off-the-grid offices were popping up in revitalized urban neighborhoods. Shared workplaces were luring techie start-ups with low budgets and big dreams. Coworking offices offered flexible spaces to work, low overhead, and pooled resources.

A lightbulb went off; I Googled “shared kitchens”. Scrolling down, the listings included a church kitchen, a tattoo parlor with a common kitchen sink (yuck) and a catering business located in a suburban strip mall. The Commissary Kitchen appeared; I vaguely recognized the address as being just north of the interstate — land of warehouses, aging fast food outlets, and monochromatic low rise office buildings.

Fear and desperation strike like a pot of water coming to a full boil over a heavy flame. At first, nothing appears to happen as the surface seems calm and tepid, but as the heat intensifies tiny bubbles slowly rise to the top and before you know it, the timid simmer breaks into a rolling, raucous boil.

My state of being was at the low simmering stage on the verge of a vigorous rollicking boil. I double-clicked on the link to the Commissary Kitchen and set up a tour.

Ready to read Chapter 2: Off the Couch and Into the Fire? Click on it!

Writer, satirist, youth sports coach, dad, and owner of www.JAYS2GO.com, a dinner delivery service in Denver, Colorado.

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