Tag Archives: Larry Sherwood

Confessions of a Grinch

Ninna Sherwood, Western Living Magazine, 1974

Ninna Sherwood, Western Living Magazine, 1974

1999 was the year Christmas and I broke up.

I was 6 months into opening my first venture, a tiny, bootstrapped little winebar in the college area of Kitsilano, Vancouver.  It had been a hard start, fueled almost entirely by blind enthusiasm, long hours, and the relentless fear of failure that only crippling debt will instill.  I was Facing the coming January February shoulder season which had the potential to bankrupt us, and decided that was the year I just plain didn’t have time for Christmas.


I had been spoiled by Christmas growing up.  Fantastic family outings, a fully decorated house, mom’s celebrated feast (famously featured in Western Living ’74), and a month of seasonal baking that carried well past the holidays.  The Sears catalog was always handy in the months prior for us to circle and dog-ear our wish-list, and even when we were struggling to make ends meet, the tree always went up and would be bursting with perfectly wrapped gifts for me and my brother.


Christmas was a sure bet in our family, when 364 days of attempting good behavior had a guaranteed positive result.  When you’re of the age when you measure happiness in toys, candy, and cartoons, it’s become the benchmark by which all other holidays are measured, and found wanting.


All of this is why I could never understand why one year, everything changed.  I had long since transitioned from toys and candy to aged cheese and brandy, quite happily, and being on the first step of a journey I’d spent 10 years preparing for, I still had a dreamer’s optimism percolating through me.  Maybe it was that first year of being truly too broke to buy anyone a present, or the year i rolled my jeep in the mountains on Christmas eve and found myself with a sleeping bag full of presents trying to find a way home to be with the family.  Maybe it was just that time in my life when I thought I’d outgrown it. I never really could pinpoint it, and year after year I found myself drifting further from the yuletide spirit, until one year Sue came right out and said it to my face.


‘You’re a grinch’


Dealing with me and my Christmas hate had started to grow thin, to the point where i think i was wrecking it for her as well.  She grilled me, and I mumbled out the regular ramblings about commercialism, money, the religious hypocrisy of appropriating pagan holidays for their own, cabbage patch dolls, barbie, Walmart, Hallmark holidays, yada yada yada, and it started to turn into a rant.  Accumulated years of angst and watching what i had thought was this pure magical holiday turned to shit started a cathartic vomit from me in such a tirade that even I hated me when i was finally out of breath, out of words, but still not out of anger at my once favourite holiday.


I understand now, 15 years removed from the first time i quit Christmas, why it happened, but it wasn’t for any of the reasons I sputtered on about, even though they were straight legit reasons to quit.  I’m embarrassed to admit it, but for 15 years I’ve wanted only one thing, one thing i know I’ll never get, and i’ve been in a 15 year temper tantrum ever since.


I want more time.


In only 6 months of entrepreneurial life I had learned that time was more valuable than anything else, and it might be the one thing i could never afford. That first year I needed one more week of revenue out of a month that would see 6 days of holiday shutdown, and I didn’t know where to find it.  In following years we honed the science of maximizing holiday sales with party bookings, gift cards, New Years events, but we worked like dogs every December to make it happen.  The holidays became a crucial time for execution, and there was no time for shopping, friends, family, trees, baking, snowball fights, or holiday parties.  I vividly remember sitting alone at the bar after closing one Dec 23rd, pouring a baileys on ice and watching the Grinch.  Exhausted, stressed, and hoping we had done enough to carry us until Valentines day, Christmas had become one hell of a business disruption, despite being a great excuse to drink baileys at breakfast.


That year I decided it would be different, and as I scowled at the TV Grinch with Bailey’s breath, I turned my back on Christmas past, and decided to build a Christmas future.


The restaurant business is famous for Christmas orphans.  Staffed predominantly by travellers, students, artists, and dreamers, a restaurant becomes a family around holidays, and ours was no different.  That night, inspired to change, I called upon every cherished holiday memory, and decided to cook a feast for my new family.


I invited any who would come, staff, regulars, people off the street, friends, for a Christmas Eve dinner, just like my Mom used to make.  I painstakingly recreated her signature red cabbage, and Danish almond pudding (the single whole almond hidden inside nets a marzipan pig to whoever finds it!).  I had a commercial kitchen at my disposal, an empty restaurant, and loads of people around who might otherwise not get a feast of their own.  I cooked for a day and a night, straight through, and 40 friends, staff, and strangers had a family for Christmas that year.


Year after year I picked up the knives and the apron and would cook for my restaurant family after a grueling Christmas season, and spend Christmas day passed out, blissfully sleeping until noon and skipping the typical ceremony.  Year after year we skipped the tree, decorations, and even instituted a ‘no gifts’ rule with the family.  Socks, underwear, and booze, of course, were all gratefully accepted.  It seemed I might be able to vanquish the Grinch within me, albeit mostly with alcohol and work.


Selling the restaurants in 2007, however, introduced a significant stumble to the 12 step program, and soon I was back to my old Grinchy self.  Everywhere you go during the holidays, people are lining up to buy shit they don’t need with money they don’t have.  If you stand back and watch Christmas as a spectator, it’s genuinely horrifying.  Black Friday brawls, parking lot road rage, offshore factory worker suicides, Monsanto hormones in the eggnog, factory farms churning out Turkeys by the truckload…and the band plays on.  Jingle all the way you crazy bastards, thanks for shopping at Walmart!


That was it, I was finished with Christmas for good, and was glad to be done with it.  No presents, no tree, no lights, no goddamn way I’m getting caught up in that bullshit.  With no other Christmas orphans around to cook for, I was free to wallow in my own Grinchitude.  Bah Humbug, damn rights.


Now listen, anyone can quit Christmas, it’s easier than quitting any other vice.  You can cheat a little, with minimal consequences.  You might find yourself enjoying some gingerbread, absent mindedly humming a carol, or indulging in an eggnog latte, but come January you can go right back to ignoring Christmas for another 11 months.  Christmas is so forgiving, because you can sneak a little of it one day a year, and you know you won’t be shaving 10 years off your life for one bad decision.


My problem wasn’t quitting Christmas, that was easy.  Like any breakup, I’ve done my best to hold on to the great memories, remember what brought us together in the first place, and focus on all the things that mattered.  I still keep those tucked away in the part of my brain that refuses to believe I don’t have superpowers (I just haven’t figured out how to unlock them), the part where the excitement and curiosity I had when I was 6 has built a blanket fort to keep the cynicism and harsh reality at bay.  This is the safe deposit box that my entrepreneurial brain dips into when it needs a spark, and needs to believe that a great idea can succeed in the face of insurmountable odds.


Rifling through those memories as a new father, though, I started to see them through a new lens.  I imagined being in my parent’s shoes, struggling with the same entrepreneurial stresses, financial troubles, and problems of their own, and facing a couple of brats like me and my brother.  They rocked Christmas hard every year, and every year we lost our minds with excitement.  Lego, handmade clothes, hand baked cookies, and the best Christmas dinner you could imagine.  They never mailed it in, not even once, and they had every excuse to do so.


I realized a torch had been passed.  I had been on the receiving end of so much awesome Christmas, and I was in danger of breaking the chain.  My daughter deserved to love Christmas like I did, she deserved to believe in magic, and fairy tales, and make believe, and just because life got hard for me shouldn’t wreck the holidays for her.  If I had any respect for the sacrifices my parents had made, I had a duty to pay it forward.


So, last year I closed my eyes, gritted my teeth, and dove in, jingle bells deep, to Christmas.


It didn’t hurt, not even a little, despite being broke, bootstrapping 2 new companies, and completely stressed for time.  I dare say I even enjoyed it a little.  I still had issues with Christmas, but I kept them to myself.  I  stopped paying attention to how everyone else is doing it, stopped being a spectator, and started taking it shift by shift.  Every day was about giving my family the best Christmas they could have, and it was awesome.  I spent two months building my daughter a custom dollhouse that she never plays with, but her face on Christmas morning was the face that every parent plays the game for.  That was the day I started using Christmas again.


I didn’t discover that my mom’s Christmas dinner was actually famous until we were sifting through old pictures and Dad pulled out the 6 page magazine spread from 1974.  If you look closely, you’ll see the red cabbage and almond pudding, and I kid you not we still have those same serving dishes 40 years later.


This year, Christmas will be just the three of us, and for good reason.  Next year we’re opening up Christmas dinner to the public again, at the house, so if you find yourself without a date on the 24th of Dec. 2015, give us a ring.


15 years after I quit cold turkey, and I’m not ashamed to admit I’m off the wagon, and high on my own supply.


Happy Holidays Everyone!

Happiness is a slippery fish

Pray for a difficult life

By

Years ago I read a study that said one of the most stated regrets of people on their deathbeds was that they hadn’t built a better relationship with their parents.

The oft repeated quote ‘no one on their deathbed wishes they spent more days at work’ has also been slyly directed my way more than once, enough that I might even start to listen.  The other regret, however, weighs heavily on me.

I’ve watched with some concern as my parents get older.  As a kid, time passes so slowly that you take everything for granted.  Your parents have all the answers, I was sure my dad could beat up anyone else’s dad, and it just seemed like they’d both be around forever.  Watching them age, even as gracefully as they have, has been a stark reminder that those regrets are rooted in a harsh reality.

I’ve had a front row seat as they both crafted entrepreneurial ventures from the ground up.  They took big risks, worked hard, and eventually those ventures grew strong enough to pull us out of crippling debt.  Some years later, they co-signed a loan to help me start my first restaurant.

The circle of debt continues…

My folks are the people I aspired to be.  Self-made entrepreneurs who pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, and still found a way to achieve their dreams, they were proof that you didn’t need charity, or luck, or a silver spoon.  Coming from an Alberta farm, my dad’s solution to every problem was hard work, and my mother, fresh off the boat from Denmark, was always crafting, innovating, and thinking of new ways to approach old problems.  Together they were a formidable pair, and watching them flip the bird to the corporate establishment and do it themselves felt like the greatest ‘fuck you’ to a world that I was just starting to realize wasn’t built to be fair.

A few years after they co-signed my first business loan, I had three busy restaurants, a social calendar filled with wine dinners, fashion galas, poker nights, wrap parties, and all the other bullshit I thought was cool at the time.  I barely saw my folks in those days, I couldn’t manage to find the time to cross town and have dinner once a week, and was losing touch despite living a 30 minute drive away.  It couldn’t have been any easier to stay in touch, and yet, I didn’t.  I started to realize why those regrets would be on the lips of every person as they took stock of their existence.  It was just so damn easy to take it for granted.

Forever isn’t forever, and time is a thief that distracts you, so that it can more easily steal your most precious moments.

I could see myself following in the footsteps of millions who came to regret their apathy, and I resolved to do something about it.  Something drastic.

I moved into my parent’s basement.

It started off as awkwardly as you can imagine.  The house was in a quiet suburb, populated by lousy chain restaurants, with nothing but raccoons and a long commute to keep you entertained.  Restaurant life was hectic, social, and wildly unpredictable.

It seemed like I was walking away on a life that had enough booze and badly behaving people to stay interesting for quite some time.

After working for years to build the lifestyle I wanted, I had traded it in for the hope that I could avoid that single regret, the lingering wistfulness of memories that were never created, the opportunities forever lost.  In retrospect, it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Today is my father’s birthday.  He is turning 74.

I’m broke, completely invested in a new business adventure, and I can’t afford to buy him a gift.  I find myself quite humbled, and I’ve justified to myself that perhaps the better gift has been this time together.

It’s a lie, of course.  That gift was a gift I gave myself, and keep re-gifting without guilt, year after year.

My father was my first mentor, my first business advisor, and the best sounding board I’ve ever had.  He built Canada’s first microbreweries (Granville Island Brewery, Upper Canada  Brewery) with a group of friends, starting one of the greatest movements the modern world has ever seen, craft beer.  It was an impossible dream, an unlikely success, and was beset by obstacles, challenges, and an unproven market (there was beer, and light beer, brewed to taste ‘cold’…seriously, wtf does ‘cold’ taste like).   That he did it at a time when our family was struggling with the fallout from the housing crash of ’82 is a constant reminder to me that our family is at its best when our backs are against the wall.  I can still remember at 9 years old stuffing beer bottles into six pack containers to help out opening week, and getting my first hangover off batch #1 of GI lager (parenting was a little different back then).

My father’s father, Farley Sherwood, was rather persuasive about him getting a college education, so he came out west to earn a degree in forestry from UBC.  He went back and landed a job on the radio, leveraged that fame to marry the local hotty, went on to sales (Imperial Oil), and eventually became the Marketing Manager for McDonald’s in Western Canada.

That was the job he quit when I was six, and to this day it remains a vivid memory.  He checked out, mid way through a great career, in his prime.  I remember him telling me and my brother that he was unhappy, his job wasn’t fulfilling, and he hated the politics.  Confused, I struggled with the notion that your job was something you could enjoy, not just a paycheck.  I was also more than a little concerned that we had just broken up with McDonalds.  Even in the pre-nugget era that place had a grip on my heart, and I was pretty stoked to have happy meal connections.  I was literally on a first name basis with the Hamburgler.

At six years old, I was served a reality check that indoctrinated me into the entrepreneurial ranks, and I had no idea.

We flirted with bankruptcy.

Actually, it was more of a long, drawn out affair.  My folks had bought their dream house, and, counselled by their realtor into keeping the old one as long as possible to ride the rising market, they got caught in the crash.   They owed twice as much as the houses were worth, and were getting crushed by 24% interest rates on two mortgages.

Just like that, happiness became a luxury we couldn’t afford.

We moved into the basement, and rented out the rest of the houses to help cover the mortgages, and Dad called a family meeting to craft a plan.

My brother and I got paper routes, lots of them.  We stuffed flyers, mowed lawns, and did other odd jobs.  My mother pulled a page out of the 3 Amigo’s script, and when asked what she could do to help, she said ‘I can sew’.  Her little craft business grew into a sportswear business that grew into a national fashion company with an impressively innovative distribution model.  It was the precursor to companies like Indochino, long before the digital age, and as my dad tells it, it was the rope that pulled us out of hell.

He was good at what he did, and he picked up gigs as a marketing consultant.  Then, maybe because crazy plans were something he’d grown far more comfortable with, he and his friends came up with the idea to build a brewery, using the fresh Vancouver water, with all the heart and soul of being for locals, by locals.  There were three large brewers at the time, and they paid the little upstart no mind.  Within a year, however, they saw market share escaping, and combined forces to crush the microbrewery movement hard.  It was too late, the market had gotten a taste, and soon small craft breweries were opening faster than Molson’s, Labbatt’s and O’Keefes could squash them.  Unionizing plants, controlling bottle regulations, even excise and production limitations were successfully lobbied for, but microbreweries found a way to make it work, something that’s easier when you have customers clamoring for your product.

Happiness was a fish he had once tossed back into the water for being too small, and now he had hooked the big one.

My dad’s tolerance for risk had put him in deeper waters, and we almost drowned, but I’m convinced it was going through the struggles which gave him the hunger to appreciate every opportunity he had, and land that big fish when it counted.  With my mom’s business thriving as well, they had pulled off the rare double, and there wasn’t a doubt left in my mind who my heroes were.  The seed had been planted, my mind had been made, I saw the difficult path as the most attractive, with the biggest payoffs, and I was determined to be an entrepreneur just like them.

After 50, he started to look tired, and sometimes I wondered if he had grown a little weary of the world.  He was supposed to be pushing retirement, and seemed to be genuinely considering it, even though there seemed to be lots more left in the tank.  His signature glint in his eye didn’t appear so much, and I was wondering if it would ever return when the colleges came calling. That started a change.

I’d like to believe that being around young, idealistic students who still hold the notion that the world is theirs to change, was the reason he sparked up, and maybe it was just that he could stand in front of a room full of cute college girls and they’d believe every word he said (…and, I just realized I want to be a teacher), but he had a renewed energy, and the glint that had lived in his eyes for so many years was back, and brighter than ever.

He taught marketing and sales all the way up to 65, when they forced him into retirement.  It was an outdated union rule that would end up being changed a couple of years too late, and I think he would have continued teaching to this day if they’d let him.  The amount of his former students who still come up to me to tell me how much they learned from him, how important he was for them, and how much they loved his stories, is staggering.

I had one of them doing his best to vigorously convince me of how cool my dad is, and all I could do was nod, smile, and think, you don’t even know the half of it.

My dad’s retirement party was bittersweet.  He didn’t want to celebrate it, as much as everyone wanted to celebrate him.  He was getting pushed out, just when he was having the most fun.  I remember thinking how odd it was, how broken the system, that its greatest contributors are removed when they’re at their most effective.

A man provides.  He contributes.

We measure our worth by our ability to be the mind or muscle that moves mountains, even if it’s only a single stone at a time.  We measure our lives by what we did, our contributions, and our impact. Take that away, and you take a fundamental part of our identity.  We need purpose, and when we have it, we will build, we will act, we will overcome.  When we don’t, we start losing our curiosity, our ambition, and our willingness to tackle anything but a ham sandwich and an afternoon nap.

When my dad retired, his signature spark, the glint in his eye, started to fade again.  Without the regular influx of young idealism, boundless energy, and world changing ambition into his daily routine, I think he struggled to find a reason to give a shit.  The chores around the house became the problems he needed to solve, and everyone knows that trimming the hedges doesn’t solve sweet fuck all.

I think often about carrying on the family name, of doing it justice.

My brother and I both have daughters, and that means the surname attached to our future generations won’t be his. I’m ok with it now.  His surname has power to me because of who he is, who his father was, and all the fathers before him who worked their asses off to move the sticks a few yards further.  They had different surnames, with different meanings to the sons and daughters who bore them on.  The name represents those men, their sacrifices, their risks, their failures, and their successes, and while the name will change, their legacy will not, because of what they invested in their children, who invested it into my father, who has since invested it in me.

I’ve realized now, that as I was building my companies, my family, and my career, I thought I was creating a legacy.  I wasn’t.  I’ve inherited his.   It has made me even more determined to measure up.  I inherited a legacy from a long line of people who struggled and sacrificed to move the sticks a little further, and I’ll be damned if I’m the generation that fucks it all up.

The birth of my daughter was unexpected, and life changing.  I’ve never been more scared of anything than when she first stopped breathing, seven weeks premature, and I was completely helpless to do anything about it.  My parents were there for every minute, and without them I’d have been a complete wreck.  (I was still a wreck, just with the support to ensure I could fake it appropriately)

From that moment on, my father’s choices in life made perfect sense.  It wasn’t ambition, or pride, or even greed, which fueled his decision to chase happiness.  He had learned the stakes of the game, that once you have seen how frail and impossible happiness is, how delicate and improbable its survival, you realize you need to fight for it.  You need to put the bullshit on the line, the houses, the cars, the jobs and the fancy titles, and you need to put all that shit on red and spin the fucking wheel because the cost of having it far outweighs the cost of reaching for it.

I know my parents would like me to learn from their mistakes, I just can’t.

I ignored their mistakes, I forgot the times they yelled at me for fucking up (there were more than a few of those).   I wrote over any memory of my father not being the man I wanted to grow up to be like.  I saw every challenge he endured only through the successful outcome he wrestled from it.

It sounds naïve, but it isn’t.  I studied everything he did that made him my hero, and tossed the rest.  What do I need to know about mistakes he made?  I know enough about pain and struggles, I’m a fucking connoisseur of the curveballs life can throw, and the only shot I’ve had of overcoming those is from studying someone with a demonstrated expertise in overcoming them.

I’m lucky, I know.  Perspective is everything for me now.

I’m lucky that my parents would put up with my shit, give me a shot at avoiding this one regret, and teach me how to bait the hook and reel happiness in.  Evangeline, our daughter, has inherited her Grandfather’s signature spark, and in turn, rekindled his, and they’ve formed a two person, cookie-snatching conspiracy.

I don’t know that this was the happiness that my father had in mind when he quit his job to start us on this adventure.  I do know that on my deathbed, I will have one fewer regrets to list off before I pass on the torch to Evangeline.

Today is my dad’s birthday, and when I grow up, I want to be just like him.

Go post a dirty joke on his wall, he could use some new material.  https://www.facebook.com/larry.sherwood.50

You see the glint, don't you...

You see the glint, don’t you…