The Hunger Games

Why being broke is the best start-up strategy there is.

Sean Sherwood, Nickler

Startups are hard, but not because entrepreneurs don’t have an appetite for hard work.  Rather, it’s the constant rejection, the inability to convince people of your glorious vision, and the ever present threat of failure that make pushing forward seem like reckless insanity.  The secret to startup success is in embracing that insanity.

I look back to opening the first restaurant, at a time when I had no money, no network, a few close friends, and a cat named Monty, so named for his awkward resemblance to one Mr. Burns.  He wouldn’t win any beauty contests, but he had the kind of human personality to make you think twice about the possibility of reincarnation.  Opening day of the restaurant, after pulling a complete 30 hour work day to get it open, Monty got hit by a bus.

I got the call at the restaurant as I was doing the books trying to figure out how to manage the ridiculous amount of debt we had just put ourselves in.  I was alone in an empty building, sitting in an empty kitchen, and felt like the last part of anything beautiful and hopeful had drained out of me for good.

I saw that memory as a tragedy, a sad time in my life, but recently I found my thoughts drifting, and the memory wafted into my mind for a moment with a different perspective.  I remembered the terrible crushing sadness, and then the cold, clear certainty that followed.  If there was a fate, destiny, or karma, it was trying to push me down, kick me in the junk and make me quit.

Obviously I did what any male in his 20’s would do, and promptly gave fate the finger and did my level best to make sure it couldn’t see me cry.  Fuck fate, I’ll make this shit happen until it throws me in front of a bus, too.

We did, eventually, make it.  It was hard work, and we were young enough to know everything, which meant we had no idea what we had to learn.  The lessons came fast, and were unforgiving.  Every single mistake cost us precious money, and they came like waves, so that just as we caught our breath, another was upon us.  We were destined to drown, and saw it clearly.  With no moves left, we just started trying to earn one customer at a time.  It sounds simple, even cliché, but it forced us into a mentality that analyzed every single second of our customer’s experience, what went well, what needed to improve, and what they really wanted.  Not surprisingly, it worked, and after three weeks we saw a huge increase in sales, most of our new customers had become regulars, and we hadn’t done a lick of advertising or promotion.  Six months later we were playing to full houses, a great staff, and some of the best years of my life.

It taught me that my best work comes when I’m seriously fucked and out of options, and maybe I’ve been ignoring that lesson for too long.

Success does funny things to entrepreneurs.  At some point they lose the ‘entrepreneur’ mentality and become businessmen and ‘managers’.  Some of us get nervous, like we got lucky, and if we don’t fight like badgers to keep it, we’ll be right back in the kitchen crying over a dead cat.  For me, each new venture required slightly more capital, was slightly more ambitious, and required hiring more and more staff to manage them.  I was trying to build a fortress, as if the rolling tide of mistakes would keep crashing forever, and the only defense was bigger walls, more sales, more cash reserves, and more venues.

When I sold, I remember feeling that I had lost the spirit of who I was, and the spirit of what had created the success to begin with.  I had become a manager, and it was a betrayal of the philosophies that had brought me this far.  It was time to divest.

Starting Nickler was a perfect tonic, not only was it something I was driven to create from over a decade of hating paperwork, but it was in a completely new industry, technology and accounting.  It was pretty clear I was about to get schooled like the new kid in gym class, but the deep end of the ocean was beckoning, and this time I was wearing water wings, and had developed a taste for brine.

The learning curve was just like the last time, except fate was kind enough to spare my cat.

I still had some bad habits, like hiring fast, pushing to product, and pitching before we were ready.  I tried to raise investment like we did with the restaurants.  This time, however, the investors weren’t impressed by a nice bottle of wine or a cute bartender, and selling them the dream got me kicked out of too many meetings to mention.  I was sure the quickest path was the best path, and that meant raising enough money to hire a big team.

So I spent, and pitched, and hired, and pitched, and bitched, and pitched some more.  I knew I needed to learn how to pitch better, and relished the opportunities to practice, but we were about to be out of money, fast, and I was running out of moves, and investors.  Finally in February, I sat down with the team and we had ‘the talk’.  March 1 was the end of the money, and it was up to Don (our CTO and my co-founder) and I to take it the last 10 yards.  We stared deep into the abyss that day, and questioned every decision that had brought us here.

And then we jumped.

It was time to embrace the insanity.  Don sold his car, dropped every expense but his phone, and moved in.  I started looking for odd jobs to keep the coffee flowing and the internet on (thank you ayoudo.com!).  Shit just got real.

The world changes when you have no goals left but to get yourself fed, survive, and make it until the next day.  Your heart gets hard, but your mind gets focused.  There isn’t any question of motivation, because the luxury of choice is removed.  There is no think, only do.

Two weeks ago, after getting rejected by Ycombinator, we sat down and chose one of our beta customers.  This will be our first customer to earn.  We took apart the entire app and rebuilt it, piece by piece, in a painstaking process of perfecting what our users want from Nickler, and removing everything that didn’t make the workflow smoother, simpler, and relevant.  It was gut wrenching to delete features we’d spent weeks building, but we need to eat, we need to continue, we need to earn the first one, so that we can move on to earn the next one.

I heard a quote from an old movie on Paul Gaugin, who, upon learning his neighbour who worked in government was also an aspiring opera singer, told him quite succinctly “you’ll never make it as an artist, because you don’t have to make it as an artist”.  Basically, feed yourself with your craft, and you’ll soon learn whether you’ve got the stones for it.

I’ve never been happier with our company, its goals, and the vision of where we’re headed.  I’ve lost ten pounds, I’m running every day, and can just barely hear the Rocky theme going on constant loop in the back of my mind.  Our partnership has never been stronger, as we support, motivate, and challenge each other to get through another day.

Sure, I’m broke, but I’ve never felt more alive, more focused, and more determined to make this happen.

I’ve never felt more like an entrepreneur.


“All women are squirrelly”

“All women are squirrelly” a very close friend of mine once told me, “but the trick is to find one that’s the kind of nuts you can live with”.

I had become so obsessed with this restaurant life and achieving success, that weak attempts at a personal life had become a distant distraction.  An enviable string of beautiful, intelligent, yet ultimately disappointed women had passed through my life, and I soon discovered that I was becoming a stereotype, and not a good one.

I’ve always loved women.  The kind of spellbound, obsessive sort of love that cherishes tiny details, subtle hints, and the magnificent power of persuasion they can toss about whimsically, like giggling despots keen to test the loyalty of their subjects.  I was always extremely particular, but there was always at least one thing about each one i met that could make me weak, and I revelled in it.

I learned over time that this wasn’t at all something to make my life easier, but instead a living curse.  To have 52% of the population with an unreasonable amount of control and power over me, an uncanny ability to convince me to make poor decision, or simply to leave me struck dumb with fascination as i gawked at the latest target of my attention.

I asked the question so many times, ‘why would I be made to be so in love with women, why on earth would I have needed this evolutionary glitch in my DNA?’  The answer, it seems, made perfect sense.

When I met Susanne, she was my server at an East side joint run by a young aspiring restaurateur named Andrew Wong (who went on to famously build Wild Rice, with a second location opening soon).  Susanne was one of those rare types that you find in the business.  Carrying herself with a coy confidence, holding court over the entire dining room, and barely concealing the bounce in her step as she moved seamlessly from table to table.  I wasn’t simply smitten, I was entranced.

When we eventually collided some months later, I was ravenous for her. She matched me strength for strength, and had as little time for me as I had for her.  Within months, I ambushed her with a public proposal that she awkwardly accepted.  It was clear that while I had managed to trick her into biting the lure, there would still be quite the fight before I could bring her into the boat.

She was strong, stubborn, and willing to fight, and I loved it.  I was about to build a second restaurant, I had a beautiful, strong woman by my side, and the future was looking bright.  I had no idea what was waiting for us in the coming months and years, but I would come to love and hate her stubborn will to fight, although it would eventually save both of us.

Shortly after LMB opened, Susanne stepped in and took over the reins at Fiction.  She was a natural leader, and the staff, regulars, and locals embraced her immediately.  As LMB grew, and overtook my life, she became the steady hand for our relationship, organizing the tiniest of details as I ran around town trying to cover the broad strokes.  She managed the PR for LMB and fulfilled my dream of landing in the pages of Wallpaper* magazine, and brought us the press and coverage that eventually saw us earn Conde Nast Traveller’s coveted Top 50 New Restaurants in the World.

When she was diagnosed with breast cancer some months later, neither of us were ready for it, but knowing her fighting spirit I knew the cancer didn’t stand a chance.

Life got harder, and so did we.  We fought a little more, and as the chemo started taking its toll, depression kicked in.  Her hair started coming out, she lost weight, and still refused to stop working 6 days a week (one day off for chemo treatment).  She explained that it was the only distraction she had, and sitting at home with chemo drugs running through her was making her certifiably insane.

She kept fighting, we shaved her head (very sexy, by the way) and I was inspired to do the same (sadly not sexy on me).  We kept fighting, and for years she battled cancer, we battled each other, and the battles at the restaurants continued.

She started to throw charity fundraisers at the restaurant, to raise money for other breast cancer patients to get spa treatments so that they could have one day of feeling pampered and pretty.  She did work with a company that made wigs for women whose hair was falling out from chemo, and she did it all while running the restaurant, working 80 hours a week, and taking one day off for chemo.

She was a fighter, but she was getting weaker, and more frail, and prone to fits of depression.  She wasn’t winning this fight, despite putting everything into it.

After a few years the doctors were out of solutions, and it was clear that it was time to fire everything we had at it.  The bouncing step, easy smile, and honest, hopeful eyes had all faded, and she had the steely silhouette of a shipwrecked survivor.  Her hope had faded, and she looked at me simply and asked ‘why bother?’   I loaded up the credit cards and flew us to Mexico, desperate to find some way to bring some sunshine into her life and restore the optimism and hunger for life she used to personify.

We made a plan, to take tiny little happy steps.  We swam with dolphins, we para-sailed (she peed), we snorkelled in caves, and we lived only in the moment.  We got as greedy as we could with every hour we had, and started to fight a different fight, a fight to answer just that question, ‘why bother’.  When we returned we looked at everything we could do, and changed our diets first, and then started removing anything that might be a negative presence in our lives.  There was a lot, it turns out, and it was time to clean house.

Six months later, she received a clean bill of health.

The doctors didn’t seem to care what had changed, but it had worked.  Her cancer had literally shrivelled up and disappeared, and the last of her chemo treatments blasted the last bits away.  (I still maintain that the tequila did all the hard work, but so far big pharma is keeping that miracle cure under wraps). We were stunned, and relieved, but the good news was dampened when they let her know that the damage of years of chemotherapy had ruled out any chance at becoming pregnant.

We kept on the path that brought us there, and proceeded to sell the restaurants (there were three by this time) and take some time to re-evaluate.  For the first time in our lives since either of us were young teenagers, we weren’t in the restaurant business.

I was lost, and spent a year trying to find a job that would give me the sort of fulfilment I had gotten out of building the restaurants, and never really did.  I found consulting work, and renovated the house, and started trying to figure out how to fix the world’s problems.  Sue got work with a career coach helping people change their lives for the better.

One year into retirement, I couldn’t help but notice that Susanne had been sick every day that week, and a dark cloud entered my mind.  Panicked, I forced her to go to the clinic and get herself checked out.  In my mind I imagined the worst, and started preparing for another long battle with cancer.  I did my best to keep my thoughts to myself, but I knew she was probably just as scared.  The look of concern on her face when she came home from the doctors told me things were not quite kosher, and she was having a very difficult time starting the discussion.

It turned out she was pregnant.

33 weeks later, Evangeline Victoria was born 7 weeks premature while Susanne was visiting me on a work trip in Victoria.  It was an emergency c-section, and it happened in seconds, but when they opened up her guts and pulled out that tiny little thing, I knew instantly the answer to both my lifelong questions.  I was built to love women, their quirky bits, their silly bits, and their batshit crazy bits, so that I would fight the world for them, and not stop fighting even when it gets so hard that I think ‘why bother’.  They are why I bother.

Both my girls are squirrelly, and they’re the kind of nuts that can drive a man crazy, but this is the kind of crazy I’ve been trying to find my whole life.

My crazy girls


Mad Men….

Matt Walsh was Michael’s partner in the Crime Lab, and the willing straight man to Michael’s crazy.  The first night I met Matt was when he and Michael held their staff Christmas party at Fiction.  That night, he personally polished off a bottle and a half of crown royal, and the rest of their staff were right behind him.  I had dealt with some drunks in my day, but these were more than your average heavy drinker, these were professionals.

Matt was tall, lean, and reminded me instantly of Will Ferrell as Frank the tank.  Despite that, he had a steely, calculating intelligence lurking beneath his boyishly unkempt hair.  He was the kind of guy that looks through you, searching your face, your body language, and your words for a twitch, a lie, or a weakness.  There was a reason, as I was discover later, but he had a presence, and whereas Michael was a volatile mix of emotion and chaos, Matt’s silence often said far more.

People are always relegated to two sides, the thinkers and the do-ers.  Matt was a do-er, by every definition.  Shoot first, ask questions later, and worry about hiding the body in the morning.  We all like do-ers, for the simple fact that shit gets done.  It may not be as you like it, but it’s done, and we can fix it later.  He and I differed on many things, but we were absolutely on the same page on the do-er side, and agreed that every do-er needs a do-over-er right beside them to help things get to where they need to be.

Mike and Matt were partners in crime, literally.  Their first venture together, aptly named ‘The Crime Lab’, spent its first 2 years of existence moonlighting as an all night booze can.  This quickly earned its way into the hearts, minds, and livers of every service industry pro, concierge, and moderately shady character in town.  Cash only, intimate, and everyone’s little secret, the Crime Lab quickly paid off its initial investment and ran a great dinner service to boot.  The perfect joint, you could take your in-laws for an elegant dinner, drop them off, and be back in time to do jager bombs with your server, some local film talent, and anyone else looking to blow off some steam at 4am.

I learned quickly that Michael and Matt had each other’s back.  They shared everything with each other, and seemed genuinely happy that they’d found in each other a willing partner in the dance through the moral ‘gray area’ of the restaurant world.  That being said, neither of them seemed unwilling to rat out the other’s shortfallings or weaknesses, especially if there was a way to profit from it.  In the first two weeks I learned far more about either of them than I ever wanted to know, the good, the bad, and the very ugly.

While they were close confidants, their relationship seemed to be one of a mutually beneficial manipulation.  Matt famously bragged about how he tricked Michael into building the Crime Lab for him and let him run it, Michael bragged about how smart he was to have a guy running his other restaurant for him and doing all the work.  Their partnership was a perfect paradigm of the win-win, and while they were both winning, times were good, and the liquor flowed.

At this point I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d been tricked as well.  It was perfectly possible for them to have engineered the same deceit on me as they had on each other, and it was obvious I was going to be no exception to the rule.  With this in mind, our location seemed even more perfect.  Designated as a future park, the lot we sat on had a shelf life, giving our partnership an expiry date that looked to last no more than 3 years.  I was convinced that the worst case scenario would be to shut the joint down, walk away, and let the wrecking ball cover up any mistakes our partnership might endure.  It was thought to be a commitment free partnership, a restaurateurs ‘friends with benefits’ sort of affair that let us all keep our main projects but could dabble guilt free in our collective goal of creating something at the highest level of execution, debauchery, and craftsmanship.

The allure of creating something that was, by design, finite, was compelling.  We literally sought out to capture the magic of a ‘flash in the pan’, here today, gone tomorrow joint.  Everything about Lucy Mae Brown was a polar opposite of every smart business approach I’d had, but I couldn’t look away, I couldn’t stop, and no one could talk me out of it.  She had become too powerful, the momentum and ego and pure enthusiasm for awesome had become like rocket fuel, and soon I was obsessed about every tiny detail, completely engrossed in the idea of creating something that no one had seen, experienced, or tasted before.

I had been masterfully manipulated, puppet mastered into creating a monster for my masters.  Lucy Mae Brown had never been one person, but was a collection of broken restaurant souls, stitched together with the idea that together they could be a cohesive thing, a whole person, a single vision.  She was a freak, and inherently flawed, and so broken and damaged from the start that I had fallen for the idea that I could fix her, make her whole, and show the world what I saw.

The truth was that I wasn’t manipulated by my partners, despite maybe their best attempts, but was a willing sacrifice to my own ego, pride, and ambition.  I wanted to be the one to take the ugly duckling and turn it into a swan (and then make a nice foie gras).  I wasn’t a victim, in fact I had manipulated myself despite every logical indication screaming that I should run in the opposite direction, for ego, for pride, for vision, and for my love of Lucy.

I learned more about myself by trying to learn about my partners.  I learned that they weren’t as good at masking their weaknesses, faults, and failings, and I learned that mine stank of the same failings of pride and ego, regardless of how I justified it.

Creating something takes something from the creator, and in exchange fills them with a sense of ownership, fulfilment, pride, and validation.  Creation will attach itself to you, make the process a part of you, make you want to create more than anything else in the world.   Even as it drains the life from your body, it fills your mind with ideas and gratification.  As it alienates your family, your friends, and your colleagues, it introduces you to willing participants, enablers, and partners, all living with their own devil’s gambit as they chase the dragon themselves.

I’ve learned now, that no one else is responsible for the decisions I made, they were compromises willingly made, so that my monster could live.  I’m not proud of some of them, but as any parent will tell you, the gray area tends to get grayer when your progeny is at stake.


Crouching tiger, hidden drunken monkey

I first met Michael sitting on the bar at Fiction.  I was working my usual shift behind the bar, chatting with locals and regulars, blissfully unaware of the insanity that lay lurking in my not so distant future.

I loved working that bar.  It spanned the entire long, narrow dining room, as if over-compensating for the small-ness of the space, and imposed its presence with it’s thick, ancient wooden beams.  It was built to support the weight of 20 people dancing, should the need arise (and it often did), but polished up nicely as a long communal table where kits locals and industry regulars would pull up a stool, dive into a microbrew or single malt, and take down a cheese plate and some yam fries, any night of the week.

The people you would meet working that wood were creative, engaged, opinionated, and above all, thirsty.  You build up a tolerance for personalities when you tend bar, and an affinity for them if you do it long enough.  The crazy ones have better stories, and once you filter out the ones that pay their bills from the ones that don’t, all you need to do is sit back and let the fiction roll in.  After awhile, a bartender tends to think they’ve got a pretty good read on most people, and I was no exception.  In my 25 years in the business I had read very few people wrong, but none more than Michael.

Michael was quiet, soft-spoken, and solitary.  He smiled openly, genuinely, and with a quality that drew you into him.  He ordered a bottle of Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc, for himself.  We chatted at length about restaurants, people, the hard road to success, and all the challenges of chasing a dream.  Michael was loose, relaxed, charming, and engaging.  The topic of opening a restaurant together came up almost immediately, and knowing he had two successful rooms under his belt in the downtown core, I couldn’t help but be entranced by the idea.

As we explored the possibilities, I would eventually find myself at his flagship, Allegro Cafe, where I witnessed the legend that was Michael Mitton.

Memories have a tendency to lean towards the hyperbole, and I’m sure mine are  influenced by the indecent amount of alcohol that flowed freely through that room, but my wonderment at watching him work the floor made me feel like I was witnessing a restaurateur Willy Wonka, a social savant, a genius of geniality.  He never served a dish, and was always drinking, but he knew the name of every. single. guest.

I studied him, both curious and dumbfounded.  Michael defied every rule of restaurant management, he had no systems, no controls, the dining room wasn’t even sectioned off.  Servers were managing tables from all areas of the dining room, running the length of the room, making their own drinks, and finding ways to deal with their chaos as best they could.  The place was an asylum, and it was awesome.

I was watching all the rules get broken, and seeing it work.  Not just surviving, it was thriving, packed full at 10pm on a Monday night.  The room was filled with spenders, and Michael played them to perfection.  This was the old school method, a lost art, and the approach that all the chains had beaten out of me years before, and I had a chance to learn it.

I became an eager student, and thus a willing drunk, as I spent more and more time at Allegro, picking up the intricacies of his process.  I adopted many of them, and rejected a few.  I wasn’t about to disregard a decade of study on business fundamentals, marketing philosophy or operational and management systems, but damn, a full restaurant all the time sure fixes a lot of budget issues.

The entire restaurant was entirely guest focussed.  If the guest smoked, there was a stash behind the bar so they never go wanting another pack.  If the guest had a girlfriend, they would never tell his wife.  They knew their names, their kids names, what they did for a living, and what they drank.  They worked as a team, passing a series of whispers and notes whenever a detail was forgotten. There was no database, no list, simply the hive mind that could be counted on to collectively remember the tiny details.  All too often Michael would see a guest after a year had passed, and ask if the kids were still studying law, or if they got that promotion, all to the amazed faces of the guests who immediately felt important, and part of the family.  The hive mind was uncanny, all trained by Michael to remember every last detail of an interaction, and pass it along to the hive.

Michael’s training methods were as classic as it gets.  No training, no teaching, no information.  Trial by fire, if you last the week, you’ve probably made it.   He would snap at a passing employee ‘listen to me’ before issuing any order, and it required immediate follow through.  Typically, the ones that survived were big personalities, impact people with thick skins, A types that knew the cash in their jeans at the end of the night came with a bucket of crazy, and it was simply the cost of doing business.  Pablo Picante, Doug Hanson, and the many others I met were some of the most charming sons of bitches you’ll ever meet, and had livers of impossible capacity, with a wit to match.  I learned quickly not to play poker or drinking games with any of that crew.

Michael had another secret weapon, his chef.  Passionate, driven, humble, and beautiful.  Barbara Reese was the kind of woman you expect to find in a classic film.  A mix of Julia Child and Katherine Hepburn, she stoically navigated the kitchen through the nightly tempests, and often I was surprised to see her emerge from the kitchen to bring us fresh-baked scones , as we polished off  Heinekens at 3am.

With her last name being Reese, and a signature dessert that included chocolate and peanut butter, I couldn’t resist asking if the two were linked, and indeed they were.  Barbara explained that her previously wealthy and luxurious life did very little to fulfill her, and the culinary craft beckoned.  Her husband refused to allow his wife to work, and she promptly divorced him, choosing the craft over a life of leisure.

Michael had created a machine that perpetuated itself purely on personality, and an unmeasurable force of will.  It was a sight to behold, and I considered myself fortunate to be able to open a restaurant with him as a partner.  Clearly, any venture with his charms involved would be a success, and any adjustments to process, systems, and organization that were needed was simply a matter of convincing him of the values of management.  After all, I had learned all of those values from Jeff and Stan Fuller, the founders of the Earl’s and Cactus Club chains, numbering in the hundreds of stores, with hundreds of millions in revenues behind them, it would be ludicrous to toss all that experience in favour of chaos, right?

No artist wants to be told how to hold their brush, and Michael was no exception.  It wouldn’t take long to discover the other side of Michael, the one that required the thick skin, the pocket full of dollars, and freely flowing alcohol to tolerate.  I eventually adopted all three, but they weren’t enough to stem the tide of insanity that was set upon me as we set about building the next great Vancouver restaurant.

Mike Mitton

Michael Mitton, genius, restaurateur, social savant


A Different Kind of Crazy

Chef Andrey and I had numerous chances to wax poetic on so many random topics, and I embraced every one eager to peel back layers of the onion on his bombastically crazy, wickedly talented, and deeply philosophical mind.  It was often an interplay of questions on questions, a bit of a jousting, as both of us worked hard to prove to the other that a deeper culinary purpose was worthwhile pursuing, and that somehow there could be found a strand of it in the nuthouse we had created.

I’m pretty sure that the entire time we worked together Andrey and I never really got each other, but it wasn’t from a lack of trying.  We called each other on our shit, and probably listened to each other most over any of the other noises.  Andrey was eager to have a hit, show the city he had some street in his cooking, and teach the cocktails and silicon crowd a thing or two about food.  I was pushing hard to earn some real critical cred, prove the chops were there, and represent a new way at looking at fine dining.  Despite our differences, we both understood deep down that we needed the other.

We fought (passionately agreed to disagree) more than either of us would have liked, over the stupidest shit.  Placement of the water station was a three day debate.  The aforementioned coffee battle became our Korea, as neither of us budged, and thus neither of us won, or lost, and to this day, the mere mention of if might renew full scale hostilities.  The result was that we carried illy, one of the top coffee brands out of Italy, and horribly expensive to boot.  In the end, the guests were the real winners in that debate.

Andrey had a signature shrug, as emphatic as a shrug could ever aspire to be.  It meant many things, depending on the concern at hand, and you could often find yourself disarmed by it.  At first, it seems humbling, as if to say ‘hey it’s a fucked up world we live in’, but once you get to know Andrey you start to realize it’s more often ‘I could tell you to go fuck yourself but you wouldn’t listen now, would you’.  Those that know Andrey know this shrug well, it’s his signature spinorama, and it’s gold.  Being on the receiving end of ‘the shrug’ enough times, it eventually evolved to a mutual, unspoken agreement that we’re all just rats in a maze, being rewarded with cheese for getting through the shit.  In Andrey’s view, it made sense to just ensure it was really tasty, artisinal cheese.

I learned a tremendous amount from Andrey, and made a point of listening when he spoke.  When we first spoke on food, he explained his philosophy simply, and as the words stuck with me to this day, I can recall it verbatim.

“Duck and lentils are a perfect pairing.  They’ve been a perfect pairing for hundreds of years, so why would you try and change that?  Go and find the best duck on the planet, and pair it with the best lentil’s on the planet, and you’ll have a fantastic dish.”  – Andrey Durbach

Simplicity.  Excellence.  Integrity.

I could distill him down to those three words.  Although, while his lack of compromise was philosophically endearing, it sometimes stopped business in its tracks.  He said no more than yes, swore more than Ramsay, and had befuddled servers running, crying, out of the kitchen.  He made our lives hell at times, and had ridiculous demands, and pushed his staff as hard as I’ve ever seen.  He was on a crusade, waving a flag of  culinary righteousness, hoisting infidels on his petard, and spit roasting them to perfection.

His unique brand of crazy was rooted in a pursuit of perfection that isn’t tangible, and exists only in the mind.  This is the kind of crazy that makes people exceptional, to ignore the masses, go against the grain, and reach for something beautiful and dangerous.

Every true artist is tormented by their art.  They aren’t crazy because they’re eating the paint, or high on mescaline (both very good excuses for being crazy), but because they have a vision in their mind that wont subside until they’ve seen it realized before them, by their hand.

I know this crazy well enough to recognize it in someone else.  Andrey was my kind of crazy.

Speaking of crazy, did I mention my partners?  Yeah, let me tell you about crazy…but before i do, you should check out one of Andrey’s outstanding restaurants.

www.pied-a-terre-bistro.ca

www.labuca.ca

www.cafeteriavancouver.ca

photo credit Scout magazine

Andrey Durbach, courtesy Scout Magazine


Laws of energy, and entrepreneurs

Momentum is an awesome power.

Newtonian Laws weren’t written to explain entrepreneurial inspiration and perspiration, but they may have been influenced by the same understanding.  The idea that a body, once set in motion, will continue that motion until otherwise impeded is also a fundamental law of entrepreneurialism.

Often when you meet an entrepreneur, you’ll immediately notice one thing about them.  They don’t shut up.

The momentum of one idea turning into another, and another, is the gas in our tank.  It propels a thinker to think of more, and rewards them with further ideas, which have potential, potential to disrupt, to change, to improve, and to excite.  Dreamers are dreamers because they’re high on the heroin of the potential of their beautiful ideas.  There is no room for logic, no room for mathematics, schematics or pragmatics.  Chase the dragon, chase the dream.

At the beginning of Lucy Mae Brown, we had drank the kool-aid.  Hell, we spiked it with whiskey and redbull for good measure.  Admittance to our coven required it, and if you too were a dream junkie, we had a home for you.

The thing we all know about dreamers is that momentum tends to trump organization, planning, and basic business fundamentals.  Boring and mundane, those tasks are relegated to the ‘less visionary’ and deemed unnecessary to savants like ourselves, who can iterate elegant (and affordable) solutions out of even the most obstinate of problems (that’s sarcasm, FYI, we’re optimistic idiots, tricked by our own dopamine addled brains into thinking ‘we’ve got this’).

So, drunk on dreams, propelled helplessly by the momentum of what we had started, we cannonballed into the deep end of the pool, and started smashing the place up.

My partner Matt, the owner of the Crime Lab, was one for whom the laws of momentum were specifically written.  He was a man of action, regardless of direction or motivation, and took to the demolition like a hooker in a cocaine snowball fight.  Eyes wide, a wicked grin on his face, he would hurl framing hammers at shamelessly tacky arched mirrors from across the room.  He held anywhere from 3-6 hammers at a time, laughing, cackling, as he whipped each hammer at the offending mirrors.  It was a Tarantino symphony of destruction.  The crashing of debris, the dust clouds building, italian stucco snowing from the roof, and a lone man, surrounded by mirrors, fending them all off armed only with his insanity, and Estwing framing hammers.

Weeks and months went by, as they do, and the dream was getting constantly beset by distractions.  Michael, the other partner, was busy running Allegro Cafe, Matt was running the Crime Lab, and the guy that I had brought in to fill the void at Fiction was turning into a drunken disaster.  While Matt and I were busy destroying and building the LMB, our other projects were suffering, and Michael had lost patience long ago for the lack of instant gratification this long term rebuild was delivering.  Our personalities were starting to wear thin on each other, and the added stress of our other projects exerted further unneeded pressure.

We were fully in entrepreneurial momentum withdrawl.

The symptoms of withdrawl include blank stares at empty stud walls, heavy drinking, and a manic search for inspiration.  Each addict has their own way of dealing, and we were a horrible support group for each other, so we went our separate ways.  Matt and Mike were drinking buddies already, and that kept them sated, but I needed the good stuff.  I needed big beautiful ideas.  Magazines, art, films, New York, San Fran, Paris, grafitti artists, dancers, musicians.  I needed to freebase the inspiration directly.

Another law of entrepreneurialism, the law of conservation of energy, states that energy may neither be created nor destroyed.  In the face of so much destruction and chaos, one could find it hard to believe, however, one should never argue with science (unless of course, you still think the world is 6 thousand years old.  In that case, have at it).

Our momentum had done something special, it had transferred itself to the team around us.  The dreamers we had assembled together had picked up the torch, and were fervently spreading the word, enlisting recruits, and telling the story of Lucy.  It may not have been a beautiful dream anymore, a sad, tacky old building in the awkward stages of renovation, a partnership fragmenting, and all focus lost, but in their minds it was still beautiful, and they were still fighting for it, even when we had lost faith.

People conduct electricity and energy with a frightening efficiency, and if you don’t believe me go stick your finger in a light socket.  Our staff had become the more willing host for the optimism and momentum, and nature followed the path of least resistance to those who would more efficiently carry the energy.  While we had burdened ourselves with our staff’s and each others expectations, we had created a toxic environment for the momentum, and it had found a better host.

Ben Franklin, the guy with the kite and the key who tried to prove that lightning wasn’t simply God punishing you for touching yourself (science still can’t fully dispute this theory, part of the reason I never go out in a thunderstorm), surmised that “from electric fire thus obtained spirits may be kindled”.

How right he was.

Our momentum then, once set in motion, stayed in motion.  Even when we felt our energy had dissipated, it had only transferred to a more willing host, following the path of least resistance, and that energy, once collected, kindled the spirits of all of us, and created momentum anew.

Science is so cool…

The Science of Entrepreneurialism


Debauchery, thy name is Lucy…

Restaurants are typically families more than they’re businesses.

Dysfunctional, flawed, self-destructive families held together by a common desire to be better than themselves, by nature of their best intentions, passionate pursuit of ideals, and righteous opinions on what makes the perfect restaurant, but families nonetheless.

So many of us ended up in restaurants out of a search for passion, meaning, and craftsmanship in our lives.  The barrier to entry is better described as a steeply walled pit.  Avoid it as best you can, but should you inadvertently step within the event horizon, you’ll find yourself slowly and helplessly being pulled into its warm embrace.  Don’t resist.  Like a college romance, it’s best to enjoy it for what it is.  A momentary adventure that gives you the freedom to embrace new ideas, new cultures, and a nearly consequence free opportunity to express yourself in new and interesting ways.

This new restaurant partnership had highlighted so many of our differences, and highlighted the divisions so much that philosophical lines had begun to be drawn.  We were all quick to ignore the problems, as the optimism of our new venture was carrying us forward each new day, refusing to let us be distracted by our differences.  There continued, however, to be alignment on both sides, as we all collected our soldiers and staked our territories, just in case the shit should hit the fan.

On one side, my other two partners.  Both of whom had been successful in their own right, building unique restaurants of their own, that while never enjoying critical success, were filled nightly with the type of sobriety challenged glitterati that loved a good time more than a good year in bordeaux.  Each of their restaurants, while lacking the systems, consistency, and professionalism of a typically successful venture, made up for it in spades with personality.

On the other side, I had a loose collection of proud loyalists to the craft.  We were all united by the unflinching vision of creating something awesome.  It wasn’t enough to create something successful, it had to be free from the trappings and bullshit of all the typical hot places in town.  We wanted to stand for something, and were willing to compromise on so very little to achieve our vision.  We mixed old world and new world, taking the best, independent, and forward thinking out of all of it.  We didn’t want to fall into a niche, and thus made avoiding a niche, our niche.

United, we stood, divided.

All of us involved knowingly accepted the flawed fellowship of unlikely team mates, knowing full well the potential for disruption of the local market.  The only thing left to do was to take a deep breath and jump in.

We had an ugly duckling for a location, we had a trio of owners with wildly differing views, demographics, and fully validated successes behind them, we had a brilliantly talented chef with everything to prove to a city he’d left behind after it failed to get behind his own restaurant, and we had enough blind faith to blissfully ignore the inevitable train wreck we were about to create.

What we didn’t have, was a name.

Marketing experts will always tell you that great marketing is really just great storytelling.  Telling the story of your restaurant, however, can sometimes be challenging.  Is your story the food, the location, the people?  We struggled for weeks with this.  There were endless meetings, a long list of rejects, and the inevitable arguments as we cheered the current favourite around the table.

Many name candidates got tossed out quickly, (too ethnic, too trashy, too dirty), others survived much longer, until we would discover a horrible word that rhymed with it, or a definition of it in urban dictionary that even we hadn’t heard about.  We eventually started brainstorming around the words that we felt would be great descriptors of the place.  Sophisticated, hedonistic, elegant, and debauchery.  We realized at that point that it sounded more like we were describing a person, instead of a place.  Frustrated, we pushed on.

Building continued, as we wrestled with the naming process.  We let it fester in our heads as we tore out the guts of the building, rebuilding it inch by inch, covering the decades of dirt and shame with paint, plaster, and polish.  The old beast fought us every step of the way, giving up the secrets of its past, one by one, exposing more and more problems for us to overcome.  Electrical, plumbing, structure, everything about this poor wreck was a mess, and no quick makeover would cover them up.  We needed to start from scratch.

One of our many trips to city hall ended up yielding a hint to the building’s provenance, in a cryptic reference to one of the building’s past occupants.  Under the listing ‘boarding house’, the occupant/operator was listed as one Lucy Mae Brown.  Subsequent searches revealed that the boarding house was actually a brothel, and there were suggestions that Ms Brown was a French madame hailing from New Orleans, who had disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

The story told itself after that.  We realized that we had indeed been describing a person, and she had envisioned a house of sophistication, elegance, hedonism, and debauchery as well, fifty years prior.  Perhaps her approach was different from ours, but as the previous tenants had proven, the attempts to capture that magic had endured, and we were the latest to try to give her memory a lasting legacy.

The tragic and beautiful story of Lucy Mae Brown had just begun.