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.


To slay a dragon…

Ignorantly convinced that I could ‘change’ my partners, by slowly and subtley impressing upon them the values of fair dealings, honesty, and integrity, I pressed ahead.

Nobly, they stuck to their guns, resolute in a stubborn resolve to prove that the path of short term gain could perform better under the daily stress of the restaurant business.  I was outnumbered by one, and their track record with the coke-snorting broker crowd trumped any cachet my Kitsilano hipster following when it came to spending.

Soon, I found myself fighting a two front war armed only with the best intentions and a moral indignation, like bringing a spoon to a gunfight.  The only real weapon I had was the fact I was willing to outwork the two of them, thus, keeping myself useful, and relevant.

What i really needed was a champion.

We agreed on very few things, but one of the those very few things was our chef.  Andrey Durbach had just returned from Europe after closing his own critically acclaimed restaurant in town a couple years before.  Durbach’s cooking style was rustic to a fault, overflowing with flavour, and dripping in integrity.  He was the absolute worst possible fit with our team, psychologically, but was luckily blind to that when we brought him on board.

I had found my champion, and would soon send him in to battle.

I knew Andrey had the mental fortitude for epic battles when we engaged in a four hour debate on coffee.  It travelled to three different venues, never skipping a beat, picking up followers as it progressed.  It reminded me of ‘The Quiet Man’, or for those not so cinematically versed, the chicken fight in Family Guy.  Either way, neither of us were wrong, but I’m pretty sure neither of us were right either.

That, however, was beside the point, as it usually is in debates as asinine and semantic as this one.

Durbach had the passion, the punch, and the ability to outlast his opponents, just with sheer will, on any topic he felt deserved his righteous support.  With Durbach in place, we could even the odds, turn this into something bigger than all of us, and do so with integrity.  In my mind’s eye, I saw my little red balloon, somewhat worse for wear, bobbing it’s way slowly back home.

Soon, we would be united again…


Optimism begets more optimism…

One restaurant begat a second.  This one the saddest of buildings in a sad, forgotten little wasteland of a block.  Every building around it had been torn down, and this little thing was sitting all alone in the middle.  It had no architectural charm to speak of.  It was the kind of ‘old’ that doesn’t carry any weight with either the rustic old antiquers or even the ironic hipsters.  It had nothing, not even potential.  It was the kind of pathetic you have a tough time feeling sorry for.

It had a basement with rust coloured carpet, a fishtank that probably never had fish in it, and streams of fake plastic ivy throughout.  Some well meaning future decorating failure had used lime green paint and a sponge to add texture to the old stucco walls, as if somehow trying to convince the universe that two wrongs can make a right.

The top floor had been converted for use as a clandestine massage parlour, affectionately called a ‘rub and tug’ in the business.  They spared every expense, and were kind enough to leave the used mattresses and reading materials for us to dispose of.  Every day we sank deeper into the stank of this place, and still, you couldn’t kill the fire burning inside.  I was desperate to prove that the first hadn’t been a fluke, and that truly, anything was possible.   If no one could make this  little rat infested, stank sullied, fire trap of a box into someplace that people wanted to go to, then that was just the kind of impossible I wanted to try.

I managed to convince a couple guys with other restaurants in the region that a combined effort would help to overcome the obvious challenges, and we managed to strike a deal over several bottles of wine.  I had also come to learn that liquor makes any negotiation smooth, be it in business or whatever you wanted to negotiate.

That was probably when things started to get all Goodfellas on me.  Remember the awkward moments with Joe Pesci, who was clearly out of his mind?  I started to find myself on the receiving end of a few of those.  It was something you shrug off to stress the first couple of times, but after awhile, you start wondering what you’ve gotten yourself into, how do you get out, and frankly, why are my partners so batshit crazy?

Have you ever been totally smitten by a girl, who 90% of the time is fun, affectionate, and totally down to earth, and then you get those random times where she’s literally vomitting blood and speaking in tongues?  You find yourself covering for her, as if the pleasant times you enjoyed the previous weekend could somehow erase the hate and insanity that would possess her and lead her on a violent crime spree.  Sadly, I was always attracted to those girls, and perhaps that’s why I ended up with business partners who were masters of the mindfuck, criminally minded, and powerered entirely by alcohol.

This is when the optimism balloon I’d been toting around, tied with a ribbon around my wrist, slipped away somehow and floated out to the sky.  I watched it wander in the wind, in no hurry to escape, but never, ever returning.  I felt sad for the loss, but convinced myself that it was time to grow up, face my demons, and fix the mess I had found myself in.

But the demons, they have candy…


The idea started simply…

The world needed a better way to organize it’s life.

I hadn’t really thought of it, you know, as a big problem.  i hadn’t really thought of it much at all.

Only thing i knew was that life had been simpler before, easier to understand….  smaller.  And most of us liked it that way.

All that was about to change…. isn’t that how most stories start?

This story starts with an ending.

I had spent 10 years fulfilling a dream.  i had successfully built and operated 3 kickass restaurants/bars and i was pretty damn pleased with myself during the run.

Actually that’s not true, I was miserable most of the time, but it sure looked like I was having a blast.

Anyways, on to the beginning.  The ending started ending when the cancer treatment started ending, and the beginning of our new life looked like it had a shot at working out.  We didn’t have a long term outlook.  We didn’t have a plan.  We had a ‘put your head down, grit your teeth, and get through today’ approach that had gotten us out of the cancer, out of debt, out of partnerships with addicts and assholes, and out of the everyday shitty feeling like there’s something looming on your horizon about to kick you back down the hole you just crawled out of.

That was working great for us, but it was a far cry from where we started a decade before.

In the first year, success came slowly, fidgetting it’s way nervously towards us as we fumbled awkwardly towards it.  When it finally hit, it wasn’t smooth or romantic, but a clumsy and awkward accident.  Like horny teenagers fearful of catching an std from french kissing, or getting pregnant with a dry hump, success and I did everything wrong, and still ended up holding hands and smiling uneasily at each other, imagining a perfect future in a soon to be perfect world.

Optimism strapped itself on my back like a rocket pack, and i took off in exploration of a world where anything is possible if you just have the right pluck and determination, and the eye for people that dare to dream, to pick up along the way.

Some that I picked up were just as awkward with success as i, and as much as i tried to ease them into it, everyone’s first time is always weird, and scary, and gloriously exciting.  Enthusiasm makes up for so much when you’re playing with impossible outcomes, and sometimes even then it’s only worth it if you’re chasing something impossible.  The romantic in all of us is a sucker for staring at night skies, imagining that somewhere there must be someone as scared, as hopeful, and as tragically doomed to failure as themselves.

That romanticism saved my soul, as we negotiated booze addled poker nights of the industry’s most debaucherous card sharks, or cocktail soirees with ballerinas, champagne purveyors and wild mushroom foragers.  The people who were drawn to us, were the same romantics as us, believing beyond rationality (and probably influenced by a healthy appreciation for our wares), that the impossible was indeed possible.  We all hitched our wagons to each other as if to say, we’ll outnumber the bastards, and fuck em if they can’t take a joke.

I miss that place, a lot.   I miss the people far more…