Monday, November 30, 2009

Forward

The Humbug Bistro is a fictional novel by me, Heather Spoonheim, based on my experiences in opening a restaurant in a small town. Although many of the events are based on those experiences, they are altered with a great deal of creative license. All characters are either entirely fictitious or are composites modified for the purpose of the storyline. The final manuscript chapters follow below, and you can read through by simply clicking on 'older posts' at the bottom of each page to continue.


The infamous working chapters are now being removed.

Introduction

In 2007 I was living in Cuspidor, Alberta, running a lucrative home based business brokering large volume purchases of plastic for a large group of small buyers. That short description may seem enough to bore anyone to sleep, but there is no superlative to describe the day to day dreariness that was my life. I had had enough and was looking for a way out so I made some plans, sold my business and my home, and prepared to set out on a new adventure.

To make a long story short, my plans fell apart in a rather apocalyptic failure that left me with no place to go just three days before I had to vacate the home I had sold. Finding myself on a friend’s sofa, I began to re-contemplate my future and flailed about until, through a series of even more unusual events, I set about to convert a small town coffee shop into a restaurant. That was when the short story became very long.

When I say ‘small town coffee shop’, I’m certain the average reader envisions some sort of diner with chrome framed chairs upholstered in faded blue or red vinyl and a dining area of black and white checkered tiles. On the contrary, however, this place was indeed a modern coffee house with contrasting wood finish for the floors, front serving counter, and table tops. It had matte black framed chairs upholstered in black vinyl and walls painted in autumn colours. It was located in the town of Humbug, just 60 miles west of Cuspidor, and was appropriately called The Humbug Coffee House.

The financials of the business were a mess, although not nearly as ravaged as the owner. I contemplated if his nerve-wracked state was the result of sleepless nights worrying about a failing business or perhaps more influenced by long days fueled on espresso; I decided that it could only have been induced by a combination of both. It was obvious that a small town like Humbug just couldn’t support a specialty coffee house and I felt that switching the location over to a food venue might generate viable sales.

Only fifteen years earlier I had sworn that I would never work in a kitchen again. I hoped, however, that by sticking to a very simple daily menu with limited selections that I could avoid the nightmares of short order work and focus on showcasing some simple, freshly prepared, hearty meals. What I encountered, though, was an experience so bizarre that I often found myself looking around for hidden cameras – hoping beyond all hope that I had been cruelly selected as the mark on some merciless new hidden camera reality show. Every small town has its quirks, but I swear I must have chosen the quirkiest little village in Canada.

I cannot lament the long hours or the hard work, for that is to be expected of any new business – especially in the food service industry. On the other hand, I would like to advise the reader that if ever you should be at a potluck and receive the compliment, “Oh, you’re such a great cook, you should open a restaurant,” please feel free, without hesitation, to turn to the person that just uttered those words and punch them straight in the face. I say this because cooking great food is the smallest part of running a restaurant. They may as well have said, “Oh, you made that vest yourself? You should be a child labourer in a third world sweat shop!”

The following pages are my attempt to convey my first foray into the restaurant business.

Main Street

A good old fashioned main street can be hard to find these days – especially in Humbug; for some reason the Humbug powers-that-be opted to keep their Main Street unmarked. I had been very impressed with the pictures I’d received of The Humbug Coffee House and was ecstatic when I found out it was on an old fashioned main street. In only a four block stretch there was just about every type of business that a small town could support, and the coffee house was right smack dab in the middle.

On my first trip to Humbug I encountered a very typical prairie town. The highway ran straight through the middle of it and was cluttered with a variety of fast food franchises, gas stations, and even a big old fashioned green water tower labeled ‘HUMBUG’. My eyes darted about looking for signs directing traffic to ‘downtown’ or ‘city centre’ but before I spotted any I was already departing, as indicated by a very large sign that read, “Auf Wiedersehen”.

Turning back, I began to look at the street signs themselves. The numbers counted down to three, and then after three unmarked streets they mysteriously began to count up from three. Realizing that I had crossed Humbug’s prime meridian, I once again turned back. I crossed one unmarked street and then prepared to turn off the highway to the right, hoping this prime meridian was in fact Main Street. Upon turning I quickly realized I was heading into a residential area but I also spotted a business district in my rear view mirror. With one more reversal of course I was finally headed down Humbug’s Main Street.

It was glorious. The post office was a big old brick building with decorative concrete cornices and corbels that gave it an incredibly officious finish. On other stores, a mish-mash of facades created the impression of an old west town transported to the 1960’s. There was even an intersection with four major Canadian banks occupying each corner. Bundled up people bustled up and down the streets carrying packages and, to my surprise, there weren’t even any parking meters. If there were a heaven, and it had a downtown, then this is exactly what it would look like.

Realizing that I had completely forgotten to look for The Humbug Coffee House, I reversed course yet again. Upon finding it, I hurried in from the cold to find the owner nervously manning the register. His spastic disposition initially made me nervous but I was soon calmed by his joy at realizing I was his potential buyer. I asked him about the lack of signs for Humbug’s downtown and Main Street, but that seemed to be a question that re-aggravated his nervous side so I dropped it.

Over the course of the following months I inquired repeatedly about the clandestine nature of Humbug’s downtown district, only to receive my first lesson in how Humbuggers think outside the brain. I occasionally received an answer that involved a silly little chuckle followed by, “Well everybody knows where downtown is!” I was certain that everyone in Humbug was fully acquainted with the location of their downtown but had immense difficulty understanding how that applied to the rest of the civilized world. The most common response I got was a non-verbal gesture that I came to call the ‘Humbug Huh’.

The Humbug Huh is a perfect pantomime of a dog tilting its head in utter confusion, and Humbuggers always Humbug Huh to the right. Some Humbuggers actually make a small sound in their throat as they do this, a sound I can only describe as, “ah-roo?” There seems to be no way to continue with the same line of conversation once a Humbugger gives you a Humbug Huh, for once their head tilts to the right they assume the personality of an android with dead batteries. They can be rebooted, however, with a quick change in subject or meaningless comment on the weather.

Eventually people in town started to whisper about my inquiries. I should mention here that Humbuggers don’t seem to have very good hearing, as they are almost entirely incapable of whispering. And so it was that everywhere I went I heard raspy voices hissing, “She’s been asking about signs for Main Street!”

After a few months I was approached by one of the town’s leading businessmen, Lyle Duerr, owner of Humbug Hardware. I was vaguely familiar with Lyle because his store was down the street from my soon-to-be restaurant. His expression indicated that he was a bit embarrassed for me, and his lack of eye contact made me self-conscious and left me worrying that I might have toilet paper dragging behind me.

As he closed in, he took a stance next to me and leaned in to speak. In a fatherly tone he said, “Heather, I’ve heard that you’ve been asking around, and I think I need to tell you a little about Humbug.” He held his fist in front of his mouth as though he was about to cough or perhaps was just searching for the right words to keep from embarrassing me further. “You see,” he proceeded, “we really don’t want all those people from the highway coming downtown. This is a small town, and we don’t need a bunch of city folk coming around here shoplifting and passing funny money, if you know what I mean.” He finished with a knowing nod.

I can only describe my feelings at that point as total disbelief. Here was a leading businessman in town telling me that he didn’t want any more traffic in his store. That was the first time I looked around for someone hiding with a camera because I was sure it had to be joke. Lyle, obviously confused by my darting eyes, looked around a bit as well and then gave me a Humbug Huh. He stood motionless and for a moment I thought time itself had stopped. In utter astonishment I just blurted, “You gotta be fucking kidding me!”

Lyle snapped back to life and his expression turned to one of horrific shock. He spun about on one heel and sped away. I had no idea what had just happened. What I didn’t know at that time was that Humbuggers never swear, under any circumstances. Even while in the Humbug Tavern they will only reference the word ‘fuck’ when quoting the words of an outsider, and even then they refer to the word ‘fuck’ as, “the f-bomb.” Needless to say, I still had a lot to learn about Humbug etiquette.

The Purchase

Purchasing The Humbug Coffee House really wasn’t an option. Aside from the financials not being in order, it was a sole proprietorship in a leased location. This meant there was no way to purchase previous losses, leasehold improvements, or delineate the debts of the owner from those of the business. In short, it just plain didn’t exist as a financial entity unto itself.

The only real option was to purchase the equipment after securing an agreement from the building landlord to ensure I would be able to hold the location. There was a lot of great equipment and the furniture was a must-have because it matched the d├ęcor so perfectly. There had to have been a professional decorator involved, but I didn’t want to pry too much since I was really only paying for the equipment and getting it at a steal.

I had hoped that the coffee shop owner, Dave, would want to keep the espresso machine but he wasn’t willing to sell me a stir stick unless I was buying the entire kit and caboodle. The most awkward part of the purchase was the presence of all sorts of third party property, like the art on the walls and a piano that belonged to a local music teacher. I tried pressing Dave for some details about these things but he began to mumble and shake so pathetically that I just didn’t have the heart to demand that he have them removed. It seemed like a moot point, however, since it would only take a few phone calls to get the rightful owners to come and pick up their property.

Several trips were required to make all the final arrangements. A local lawyer was brisk in setting up a corporation and writing up a very tight purchase agreement for the equipment. A local bank quickly setup an account and point of sale terminal – although the gentleman I dealt with was initially horrified that it was going to be a ‘corporate affair’. Finding an apartment was rather difficult, but a remarkably friendly woman who worked at the post office told me of one that was coming up as she processed my application for a mail box.

Word spread very quickly in town that I was opening a new restaurant and everybody seemed remarkably excited and eager to meet me. I found their line of questioning to be incredibly invasive but wrote it off to small town curiosity. With each trip I became more acutely aware of the differences between Cuspidorians and Humbuggers. When I gassed up, the cashier in the Humbug store would greet me by name and with a friendly smile. In Cuspidor the clerk at the service station rarely took his right hand off the baseball bat hidden under the counter – at least I hoped that his hand was on a baseball bat. Humbug was so friendly that on one trip home I found myself exclaiming, “Fucking-A! This place is exactly what I’ve been looking for!”

On the night before the lease and property were to change hands I made my most exciting trip to Humbug. I was leaving Cuspidor for good and was about to become a citizen of a small town once again. The Humbug Hotel gave me a deal on a room, which I needed for nearly a week as I awaited my apartment, and I settled in to try and sleep. The excitement was almost more than I could bear and I’m not sure if I slept a wink. I just kept thinking about all the work I had to do, about what my final menu decisions would be, and about how I was going to setup my kitchen. My brain just spun like a top inside my skull as all the details whirled around.

In the morning I had a quick breakfast at the hotel and then walked over to the Humbug Coffee House. I met the landlord out front at about 8 a.m. and Dave let us in just a few minutes later. Dave had been there all night trying to clean out personal papers and belongings. I could tell it was very difficult for him, standing there for the last time in his coffee house. He stood by the register in his apron and tapped a few keys in a gesture of good bye. He handed over the keys to the landlord, who then handed them over to me in an awkwardly ceremonious fashion. Dave’s head drooped a bit and I just didn’t know what to say to him. We stood for several minutes in uncomfortable silence.

Then, suddenly, Dave blurted out, “I’m outa here!” and he charged straight down the back hall, hands flailing in the air, and he was gone with a slam of the back door. The landlord shook my hand, wished me luck, and departed almost as abruptly. I stood there in awe. I had some changes to make, but there I stood in my own restaurant; my first brick and mortar business.

I wanted to clean it. I wanted to wipe down all the counters and shelves and cupboards. I wanted to turn the chairs upside down on the tables and mop the floors. I wanted to polish each and every glass by hand. I wanted the whole place to sparkle and for the world to see the wonder that I had created. I paced from front to back and back to front as I surveyed the mighty restaurant that was to be; and it was good.

I was rather horrified when I looked in the deli cooler and found that half of the containers were bursting with mould. Obviously Dave hadn’t had the ambition left to clean everything out. It didn’t matter, though, because by the time I finished even the floors would be fit to eat off of. I was ready to work.

A few hours later, Dave returned sheepishly through the back door to return his apron and retrieve his jacket.

The Flintstone Whistle

While making the purchase arrangements for my restaurant I had traveled to Humbug frequently. It hadn’t occurred to me, however, that I hadn’t actually spent an entire day there. The first full day that I spent in Humbug was the day I took possession of the equipment and location. That was also the first day that I began to learn of the rigid routines adhered to by Humbuggers.

Taking a break from my cleaning and planning, I stepped out the back door of the restaurant to have a cigarette and to survey my new back alley. Across the alley I saw a stack of plywood crates behind the undertaker’s shop. It dawned on me that the crates were about the right size to contain coffins. Then it dawned on me that that was exactly what they contained. I found it strange that they were piled up in the alley that way.

Suddenly a deafening blast came from some sort of siren and I nearly had a heart attack. It was loud and it was long – just a roaring long wail that seemed to go on forever. I was soon to learn that this happened every day at noon. Suddenly people emerged from the back doors of most of the other shops, got into their cars and tried to back into the alley simultaneously. There was a lot of jostling around with some people waving others on but everyone being much more polite about the fiasco than might be observed in the city. I also noted that there were almost no pedestrians at all. In a town so small it seemed odd that every single person had driven to work.

It was this daily stampede for lunch that gave me the idea to call this noon horn the 'Flintstone Whistle’. I imagined Mr. Slate reaching out the window to pull the tail on a giant bird that let out this horrible scream, followed by every single person in town screaming, “Yabba Dabba Doo!” All of this, followed by a stampede of remarkably polite people racing for lunch. I wondered if they had ever considered just wearing wrist watches.

One day, while playing around with the espresso machine, I looked out the front window and saw some municipal workers doing some sort of road repair. Just like in the city, they put up sawhorses, wore reflective vests, and two men stood idly by, watching a third man ply his craft with a shovel. I looked down at my espresso just as the Flintstone Whistle blew. I looked back out the front window and all three men had vanished. The only evidence that they had ever been there was the shovel – all alone and rotating in mid air.

Humbuggers are so conditioned to the Flintstone Whistle that they can’t bring themselves to stop for lunch without its permission. This makes going for lunch quite convenient for all of Humbug’s non-Humbuggers. You can walk into any restaurant at ten to twelve and find it almost completely deserted. It’s wonderful to walk into a restaurant, chose any table you want, place your order, and have your food in front of you before a single member of the lunch rush crowd comes barreling through the door.

One day, during the renovations, I offered to buy the contractors lunch. They were very enthusiastic until I suggested we leave immediately. One of them said, “But the whistle hasn’t gone yet.” I replied, “Exactly!” I waited for this to sink in, but abstract concepts just didn’t seem to ‘sink in’ to Humbuggers. I said, “If we leave now we can have our food ordered before the lunch rush starts.” Another one of them said, “But the whistle hasn’t gone yet.” I replied, “Exactly!” I waited some more.

Finally I told the men that if they wanted a free lunch then they had to follow me immediately. Again, one of them said, “But the whistle hasn’t gone yet.” I pointed out that if they quit fifteen minutes early and then returned fifteen minutes early then they would still only be taking an hour for lunch but they would be saving themselves a lot of time and frustration. Yet once more, one of them said, “But the whistle hasn’t gone yet.” I dined alone.

The number of businesses that closed for the noon hour was astounding. Even the banks seemed incapable of running staggered lunch breaks and usually only had a couple of tellers left to handle the crowds of people paying bills and cashing cheques at lunch. City Hall locked it’s doors at noon as well. I had never witnessed anything like it before in my life.

In almost every town I had ever lived in, the elementary school children were let out ten or fifteen minutes before noon so that those who went home for lunch could do so before the noon rush hour traffic started. In Humbug, however, the children couldn’t leave their desks until that damn whistle blew.

I asked no fewer than a dozen Humbuggers why the Flintstone Whistle went off seven days a week, and how long it had been doing so. The only answer I ever got, verbatim, was, “That’s the noon whistle.” This was one of the first things about the town to creep me out - and I had a pile of coffins across the alley from my restaurant.

The Renovation

Turning a coffee shop into a restaurant doesn’t require a great deal of renovation, especially if you are planning a cafeteria service bistro. The seating and serving areas remain the same, requiring only some changes to the kitchen and enlargement of the dish pit. As small as the renovations may be, however, they leave the restauranteur facing his or her arch nemesis: the contractor. Contractors bring along a particular set of challenges for anyone, but for a female restauranteur in Humbug they can be a special pot of trouble.

Rule number 182 in Humbug etiquette is to never comment on any construction or mechanical error, no matter how egregious, unless you have balls and a penis. When I pointed out to the framer that he had put a door in backwards in comparison with the drawing, he simply said, “Well, it’s in now, so you’ll have to learn to live with it.”

In an attempt to conform to Humbug etiquette, I avoided my instinctual reply which was, “Well I sign the fucking cheques here, so unless you want me to write your name backwards, turn the fucking door around!” I thought for a bit and then opted for the more passive-aggressive response, “Well, I’ll call the fire marshal and ask him if a fire exit can open inwards.” I hadn’t even picked up the phone when I heard a drill gun removing the screws. It was frustrating to have to think of a way of saying what I wanted to say without actually saying it – but I was glad it worked.

As soon as the door was reversed, however, the framer disappeared, never to be seen again. I would like to say ‘never to be heard from again’ but of course he was prompt in sending an invoice and asking me to pay for the half of the work he had completed. Contractor after contractor disappeared after doing as much or as little of the work as they enjoyed, each sending an invoice for the portion of the work they had done. Painters were the worst. Every single painter I contacted promised to come on Monday and when I called on Monday to find out where they were, they promised to come the following Monday. This continued for five weeks and I finally decided to do the painting myself.

Since my renovations were minimal, I only had to paint a small area at the back of the restaurant. I walked down to Humbug Hardware and Lyle, in good Humbug fashion, let me have his master collection of paint swatches so I could match the colours as accurately as possible. After a quick round trip, I presented him with my selection, and asked for five gallons of ‘pepita’. Doing business on Humbug’s Main Street, marked or otherwise, seemed so much easier than the tedious journeys across even a medium sized city. It would have taken me hours to make the round trip to a paint store in Cuspidor, and there was no way that they would have let me have a master ring of paint swatches. On the other hand, in Cuspidor, I might not have wasted five weeks waiting on delinquent painters.

In just a few days I had two coats of primer up and was busy rolling in the first coat of pepita. I had to open the back door to let some of the paint fumes out, and I was quite enjoying the nice cool breeze when I got the uncanny feeling that I was being watched. I looked around and was startled to find a little old lady standing right beside me, watching the roller descend the wall.

“Who are you?” I exclaimed.

“Where’s your husband?” she asked, oblivious to my dismay.

“Who the fuck are you?” I barked at her.

Her head jerked to the right in a Humbug Huh, and I realized I had sent her into a system crash. I didn’t want to change the topic or move onto inane weather commentary but I had to find a way to reboot her. I decided to try repeating the question without the ‘f-bomb’.

“Who are you?” I asked again.

Suddenly re-animating, she replied, “I’m your neighbor,” seeming to think that would make sense to me.

“What neighbor, who the fuck are you?” I demanded.

Once again she crashed into the Humbug Huh posture and once again I had to reboot her.

“What neighbor, who the – who are you?” I demanded, sans profanity.

Once again re-animating, she replied, “I have the boutique next door! Why are you upset?”

“What the – uh, are you doing here?” I further demanded.

“Your back door was open. Don’t you have any children?”

For a moment I was speechless. What the hell did children have to do with her walking into my restaurant uninvited? Nothing was making sense. For the second time I looked around for hidden cameras. This had to be some sort of twisted prank, I was sure of it. I decided to play along.

“I don’t have a husband or children,” I responded.

“Why not?” she asked, completely void of inhibition.

“An open door isn’t an invitation,” I said, “why would you just walk in like that?”

“Don’t you WANT to be married?” she continued, so oblivious that I was gobsmacked.

I decided to just escort her out, and I asked her to please knock the next time she wanted to speak with me. She sort of giggled and muttered, “Knock, ha ha, on an open door, ha ha.” I decided she must be the senile mother of the boutique owner. I later found out she wasn’t senile, and she was in fact the owner of the boutique. As is common of many Humbug women, she suffered from the inability to speak with other women on any topics other than husbands, children, and baking. Sad.

Upon completing my coat of paint, I locked up the back and decided to head out the front and down the street to the bakery. I loved having everything so nearby. I hadn’t gotten three steps down the street when another little old lady beckoned me to stop. After a brief exchange of gratuitous salutations and comments on the weather, as I had learned was customary in Humbug, she turned the conversation to a more serious matter.

“I just thought you should know, a lot of us think the paint you’re using isn’t a very good match for the old paint,” she said. I have to admit I was quite agitated by this and spoke a bit harshly saying, “A lot of us? Who exactly is ‘a lot of us’? Just how many people have been wondering in and out while I’ve been painting?” Defensively she replied, “Oh, we haven’t been inside. We were just looking at the paint swatches over at the hardware store. The colour you picked is too orange.” “I see,” I said, a bit embarrassed that I had been so set on edge by the crazy lady I had encountered earlier, continuing with, “Well I guess you’ll just have to come in and see for yourself when I open.”

I managed to cut the rest of the conversation short but as I walked away I couldn’t help but wonder what sort of people collect in a hardware store to analyze someone else’s paint swatches. Admittedly there likely wasn’t any implied confidentiality in selecting and purchasing paint, but the public disclosure of my choice sort of bothered me. Humbug’s version of small town life had a much slower pace than I could have imagined without experiencing it first hand. The most difficult consequence of this slow pace was the rate of the contractors. The renovation, which should have taken five weeks, wound up taking well over 7 months.

The Undertaker

One of the comfy little arrangements that I had inherited upon leasing the location for my restaurant was a shared garbage bin. The previous tenant had shared the lease of a large commercial dumpster with the undertaker across the alley. I contacted the undertaker to see if he would like to continue such a deal with me and he did. We each had a key to the lock on the bin and the bin was emptied every other Thursday. This seemed to be a very simple arrangement - but this was Humbug.

The problems began almost immediately. As I began to clear the building of the previous tenant’s waste, I found the bin to be completely full. I stacked garbage in the back hall waiting for Thursday. When Thursday arrived I had to spend most of the day on the phone trying to find out where the contractors were because they were already over a week late getting started. By the end of the day I went out to see if the bin had been emptied and it had not, or least I didn’t think it had.

Now one bin full of garbage might look like another bin full of garbage, but the bin full of garbage out back didn’t look at all like it had only days earlier. I couldn’t imagine anything more had been put into it but I was equally perplexed by the idea that it had been emptied that day and filled up before I had gotten a chance to put anything into it. I called the undertaker to find out if he had already filled the bin up, and he assured me that he had not. I was suspicious, but polite.

When the contractors finally arrived the following Wednesday I told them the bin would be emptied the next day so we could just pile any refuse material against the back of the building. On Thursday I checked several times to see if the bin had been emptied and then finally called the waste company. They told me that it had been emptied the week before. I was not happy.

By the end of the week the garbage was really piling up with my backlog of trash and the heaps being quickly generated by the contractors. One of the contractors offered to bring a trailer on Monday to haul it all away – at his usual hourly rate plus $30 for rental of the trailer. I was irritated at having to pay for a bin and then again for a trailer, but his rate sounded fair so I accepted.

On Monday we got almost all the garbage into his trailer, and I just had some loose bags of rubbish in the back entrance. If I was now in sync, then the bin would be emptied on Thursday, so I felt the rest could wait until then. When Thursday came I was quite busy with the contractors all day and didn’t get to taking out the trash until the evening. As I walked out I saw a pick-up truck backed up to the bin, which was now full to overflowing, and atop the pile stood the undertaker jumping up and down trying to get it all to fit.

I couldn’t believe he had managed to fill the bin so fast and I am certain I was more than visibly upset. The undertaker stopped his jumping and stood motionless with an expression of guilt - like a child caught jumping in a mud puddle. We stared at each other for a few seconds then he glanced down at the pile, back at me, down at the pile, back at me, and he blurted out, “Wow, your contractors sure managed to fill this bin up fast, huh?”

All I could think to say was, “Like Fuck!” He didn’t Humbug Huh into psychological hibernation but he was still obviously very surprised and with a terribly shocked expression he said, “What’s the matter?” As I walked towards him I threw the bags in my hands at him and screamed, “My contractors never got to put a fucking thing in there you cunt! I had to pay for a fucking trailer to get their trash hauled away and now you’ve filled the fucking bin up already. What do you fucking think I am? Stupid?”

He took a very authoritative stance from atop his pile of trash and said, “Now look here, you can’t talk to me that way. This garbage isn’t mine. I don’t know where it came from if your contractors didn’t put it here.”

I screamed back, “The bin was locked! Only you and I have keys! You never opened the bin to find it this full because the lid won’t even fucking close it’s so full. You’re standing on the fucking pile of shit you put in there, and that purple carpet under your feet is the same as that piece in your fucking truck, asshole!”

He jumped off of his royal mound of garbage and into the back of his truck, then out of the back of his truck and onto the ground on the opposite side from me. His face was beet red as he whelped, “You can’t talk to me this way. I don’t have to take this.”

As he got into his truck I yelled, “Call the waste company and get your own bin, or get this one off my property. The deal is off!” With that, he sped off - and I only wish I could say never to be heard from again.

Two more weeks went by. Contractors came and went and I paid once again to have someone bring a trailer to take the trash away. Finally Thursday arrived and this time I checked the bin several times to make sure the undertaker wasn’t filling it yet again. By the end of the day it was completely empty and I finally got to throw in three bags of garbage. I didn’t get out of the restaurant until nearly midnight, but I checked the bin again. I was starting to think I was paranoid because no one on the planet would have had enough gall to fill it once more after the confrontation we had just had.

I drove down to the restaurant at about 6 a.m. the next morning. As I pulled into my parking space, to my astonishment, the bin wasn’t just full, it was overflowing and the lid was wide open. On top of the pile was a piece of all too familiar, purple, geometric print carpet – left as a calling card. There was no way to even start closing the lid without knocking some of the pile off of the bin. My head was spinning and all I could think was, “What kind of bastard would do this? What the hell is the matter with this guy?”

At 8 a.m. I called the waste company to find out if the undertaker had undertaken arrangements to get his own bin. He had not. I told the waste company about the problem and to expect a call from the undertaker shortly. At 9 a.m. I called the undertaker. After some gratuitous salutations and comments about the weather, which I had learned was Humbug custom, I set into the matter at hand.

“Ok, here’s the deal. You aren’t using the bin on my property anymore. If you want the bin then the waste company will move it to your property. If you don’t want the bin then I’m changing the lock. You have until noon to make up your mind. At one o’clock I’m calling the waste company and if you haven’t asked for the bin to be moved to your property then the lock will be changed. Are there any questions?”

The undertaker was silent for a moment then replied, “You know, I really only agreed to share the cost of the bin as a favour to you. I really don’t need a bin at all. For the little bit of trash we have here I can just as easily take it home to throw it out.”

“Fine then,” I replied, “I’ll change the lock right now.”

“Now ho’ up there,” he interjected, “there is no need to go getting all hasty about things. If you’ve already filled up the bin again then I’m willing to meet you half way and pay half the cost for an extra dump.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. This guy couldn’t stop lying if his life depended on it. I grew angry, furious, and I screamed, “Who the fuck do you think you are? Obi Wan Fucking Kenobi? What the fuck is this, some sort of Jedi mind trick? You know you filled the bin! You know that I know you filled up the bin! And you have the fucking nerve to suggest that I would pay half for an extra dump? You have the fucking nerve to suggest that you are doing me a favour? Here’s the deal, asshole, I’m changing the lock right now!”

Suddenly he reverted to his authoritative tone again, saying, “Now you think long and hard about what you are doing to yourself here. YOU are going to have to pay the FULL cost of the bin. YOU and YOU alone! If that’s the way you want it then I can’t help you. I’ve done all I can for you, and I’ll thank you to return my padlock!”

I slammed the phone down before the last part had sunk in. Had he actually just laid claim to the lock as part of some sort of conditional surrender? The lock had been on the bin when I arrived, so for all I knew it could be his, and so I was going to return it. I couldn’t help, however, to be reminded of some belligerent drunk being thrown out at the end of a party who turns to grab some bottle containing a couple ounces of stale liquor, declaring it as his victory trophy as he marches out the door. He was going to get his trophy, alright. That night I returned it; I threw it through the back window of his shop.

The fact that to the very bitter end he couldn’t just admit to his transgression was the most astounding and frustrating detail to me. He had been caught red footed. I knew that he was lying, and he knew that I knew it. He was completely incapable of computing what it meant to be called a liar. Eventually I would learn that this was because Humbuggers have a bigger aversion to calling someone out on a lie than they do to actually saying the word ‘fuck’.

This was a phenomenon I would come to know as Humbug rule number one: In Humbug it is a far greater faux pas to call someone a liar than it is for that person to tell a bald face lie to your face, no matter how outlandish that lie may be. This was part of a collection of higher order Humbug rules of protocol which dictated that no Humbugger, under any circumstances, should ever speak their mind directly. I would eventually learn that this was an integral part of the typical business model in Humbug.

Rule number one was greatly exploited by a vast number of Humbuggers. Whenever caught red handed in any transgression they simply made up the most outrageous lie to exonerate themselves. It didn’t matter if they claimed to have broken a commitment due to being abducted by alien beings; nothing could ever be done to re-establish their guilt because doing so would require calling them on their lie, and that just wasn’t an option. There was an old Humbug rumour that the mayor had used this very technique to acquit himself of having an affair, numerous times, by simply stating that the young lady on his lap was giving him a reverse massage for his sciatica.

Location Legacy

One challenge I had not foreseen in turning a coffee shop into a restaurant was the legacy of the location - especially in a small town. The coffee shop had run for about five years under various owners with varying degrees of failure. The problem was quite obvious upon studying the numbers: The door costs (rent, utilities, insurance, etc.) were far too high for a coffee shop to be viable. The store was extremely large, with enough room in the back for a full kitchen and enormous pantry, but this space just wasn’t viable for seating.

The limited number of tables had to turn over much larger covers than even a round of double half-caf lattes could provide, and rural coffee drinkers aren’t known for their high espresso consumption. I didn’t even want the espresso machine but Dave didn’t want to take it with him and it was plumbed in with holes through the counter top. I needed every square inch of counter space to generate revenue but finally acquiesced to keeping the old La Pavoni espresso machine in place until I could find out what, if any, revenue it could generate.

The espresso machine wasn’t all that Dave left behind. There was art on the walls that appeared to be for sale by a local art dealer, a bubble gum machine in the front entrance that had a sticker indicating it was the property of some vendor, and a piano that belonged to a local music teacher. Furthermore, there were numerous boxes of various types of candies and chocolates lined up on top of the baking display cooler and these candies and chocolates all belonged to various charities using them to solicit donations.

A cordless phone became my best friend as I spent several days measuring up the store for the renovations and new equipment while talking on the phone to the endless array of people who were taking more money out of the store than all of the previous tenants combined. Most of the charities required several calls. I would call the number on the collection box only to be told I had to call the fund raising secretary. I would leave a message for the fund raising secretary only to hear back days later that I had to call a local volunteer. I would call a local volunteer who would say he or she couldn’t remove the merchandise without being contacted by the head office. This just went around and around. Some of the boxes never did get picked up and ended up in storage in the pantry with other items that I hoped Dave would eventually claim.

The bubble gum machine vendor was particularly deluded and required several phone calls.

“Hello, Bob’s Confections,” he said.

“Hi, I just leased a storefront in Humbug and one of your machines is here,” I explained.

“Oh, you are the new owner of the coffee shop?”

“No, I didn’t buy the coffee shop, I just leased this storefront.”

“So you are putting a store in there?”

“No, a restaurant, and I was hoping you could pick up your machine.”

“Well a restaurant needs a gumball machine in the lobby.”

“If it does then I’ll put my own in. When can you pick up your machine?”

“I’m sorry, I’ve had that location for years now, and I’m not giving it up.”

“Actually you don’t have this location,” I explained, “I hold the lease and I want your machine out.”

“No, no,” he said, “I do quite well there and I plan to continue.”

On and on this conversation went until I finally screamed at him to get his damn machine out of my store. He huffed and puffed a bit but finally agreed to come and pick up his machine within a week. Two weeks later I phoned to see why he had not arrived yet and he made some feeble excuses accompanied by a further attempt to convince me to let the machine stay. Several more phone calls ensued. Eventually we had one final phone conversation that resolved our little problem.

“Hello, Bob’s Confections.”

“Bob, where the fuck are you?”

“Pardon me?”

“Your vending machine is still in my store, are you on your way to pick it up?”

“You can’t expect me to just drop everything and come and get it,” he whined.

“Do you hear that bell, Bob?”

“Yes.”

”That’s me going into the front foyer. Did you hear that car, Bob?”

“Yes.”

“That’s me, opening the door to the street. Can you hear that scraping sound, Bob?”

“Yes, what’s going on there?”

“That’s the sound of your machine being dragged out, Bob. It’s now sitting on the yellow dotted line in the middle of Main Street.”

“What!”

“Take all the time in the world picking up your fucking machine, Bob. It’s no longer my problem.”

I clicked the phone off and Bob was never heard from again. I assume he picked up his machine but, to be honest, I didn’t happen to look out front again until the next day. Either way, the machine was gone.

The art dealer wasn’t as problematic as Bob but he was even more deluded. Upon being asked to remove his art he offered to come right over to resolve matters. When he arrived he was very personable and claimed to fully understand my situation. He handed me an envelope and said, “I’ve brought this proposal for you to perhaps encourage you to change your mind. It outlines my commitment to the quality of the show and details the rent.”

I was slightly encouraged by his offer of rent. Not one of the other legacy leeches offered any sort of revenue and, in fact, actually drained money from the previous store. The art was problematic because it really created a coffee house atmosphere but I thought that perhaps I could look the other way this once for a vendor actually offering to supplement door costs. I opened the envelope and read his letter and to my astonishment he actually indicated that I should be the one paying rent; $75 per month!

I openly laughed and said, “You want ME to pay rent?”

He fumbled a bit and said, “Well, usually I just take the rent in product.”

I stopped laughing and said, “You want to use my restaurant to sell your art without paying a penny for door costs AND you want me to give you free food?”

Obviously insulted he said, “These are quality shows that I put on. I bring in only the best artists and spend a lot of time choosing pieces appropriate for the venue.”

I replied, “You’re an art dealer, that’s your business. Do you charge people admission to your gallery?”

“I don’t have a gallery,” he said.

“And you not only want to use my place as a free gallery but you actually expect me to feed you in return?”

Needless to say his art didn’t stay on my walls long. I couldn’t believe how backwards things were in Humbug. I would eventually learn that this was only the tip of the iceberg. Before one penny had gone into the register, and while I was still hemorrhaging money for the renovations, several local charities came by to ask me for donations.

The piano was too heavy to drag into the middle of the street and it took the music teacher nine months to get it out. I didn’t mind it that much, to be honest, as it was a nice piece of furniture. The music teacher was a bit more realistic than the art dealer and at least didn’t try rent the piano to me. All she wanted was for me to close the restaurant on occasion so she could put on music recitals, although she couldn’t understand why I would want to charge her anything.

Even in the middle of renovations, a couple of hippy kids dropped by to tell me that they were going to use my place for a poetry reading. They didn’t ask for permission - they just seemed to think it was a matter of courtesy to tell me when they were going to do so. I just told them to fuck off. Further, I didn’t pass a day in Humbug without somebody asking me when I was going to open my coffee shop back up. The location not only had a legacy of being a coffee venue but it also seemed to have a legacy of being the unofficial town hall, available to every citizen who needed a free location for their event or fundraiser. This was a reputation I would struggle with to no end.

It didn’t matter how often I told them that I didn’t own a coffee shop, that I hadn’t closed my coffee shop, and that I was renovating to put a new restaurant in town - all they could ask was when they could get back in for coffee. Several people showed me cards from the coffee shop that said they were entitled to a free coffee if they purchased ten in one month, telling me that I had better count their previous purchases towards their next free coffee when I finally ‘re-opened’.

I made a point of going back to some people who had initially expressed excitement about my new restaurant when I had begun making trips to Humbug. Most of them had reverted to this coffee shop mentality, and when I pressed for a reason the typical reply was, “Well I didn’t know you were just buying the coffee shop.” No matter how I tried to explain that I hadn’t purchased the coffee shop, that I had just bought the equipment and leased the location, the only answers I would get back were, “But that’s the coffee shop,” or a Humbug Huh. Occasionally I wouldn’t even bother to reboot Humbuggers who were stuck in a Humbug Huh, and I just left them standing there as I walked away. I often wondered if, when they finally snapped back into consciousness on their own, it appeared to them that I had simply vanished.

No mind is as rigid as that of the Humbugger.

Plan A

The full expectations of modern restaurant customers are truly impossible to meet. The perfect experience would be to walk into the restaurant, be seated immediately, select ingredients from around the world which are field fresh and waiting, order them cooked in a culinary style selected from any part of the planet, receive the food instantly in portion sizes that Marlon Brando couldn’t possibly finish, and all for a price of under $10. Unfortunately all too many restaurants actually try to pull this off.

As soon as you see a menu that has pizza, souvlaki, stir fry, schnitzel, beer battered haddock and Swedish meatballs - you can be certain that you won’t be receiving fresh ingredients. The only way to serve a menu like this is to follow the deepfreeze to deep-fry methodology. Even the stir fry will be prepared by pulling out a bag of pre-portioned frozen vegetables and dropping them in a deep fryer for a few minutes and then onto the flat top where the meat has been doused with a bottled sauce. If you don’t believe this, you have never worked in a large kitchen that puts out this sort of catalogue menu.

The trick is in knowing from the start that something has got to give. For my menu I decided to cook as fresh as possible while shooting for the lowest menu prices possible. To do this I had to start by limiting the number of dishes available on any given day and eliminating table service. I created a daily menu that would have a soup, salad, hot pot, wrap and sandwich to select from. Along with the daily deluxe salad there would be some extra side salads to go with the wraps and sandwiches. For breakfast I decided on Belgian waffles, muffins, and hot cereal.

To serve this menu I needed someone who could run the cash register and prepare beverages, a line cook who could rapidly plate the meals, and a chef in the kitchen keeping the front line supplied. If we were very busy then a dishwasher could be found easily enough, but I felt that until that time everyone could take turns in the dish pit and bussing tables. I was to be the chef, not just because it was my menu but because I really didn’t like dealing with the public that much.

I began the hiring process by putting up a ‘help wanted’ sign in the front window. If you ever want to have a string of uncomfortable, bizarre and remarkably surreal experiences, just put a ‘help wanted’ sign in your front window. Eventually I did find some viable candidates, and I found one real gem in particular. Warren was a line cook who had worked in hotel kitchens from Calgary to Montreal and he had incredible talent. He suffered from depression and had been on a downswing for the past while, making it hard for him to find work in a town as small as Humbug. By the time he came to me he was getting back on his feet and vowed to continue his medication. Since anti-depressants carried as much stigma as street drugs in Humbug, I was about his only employment option. Beggars can’t be choosers so we settled on each other.

I decided to have him work as hands on as possible with the menu development to give him a sense of being a part of the new restaurant. Every day I set him up with a list of dishes to prep and plate so that we could gauge our portions and set our pricing. I spent most of my time costing out the recipes, ordering equipment, and organizing the front service area. One day Warren told me that he had a friend, Steve, who was working at another restaurant in Humbug but who wanted to come to work for me. I told him to have Steve drop by.

The next day, Warren brought me Steve’s resume. It was a great resume but I wanted to meet Steve first hand so I phoned and left him a message to this effect. The next day, Warren told me that Steve would soon be dropping by. Steve turned out to be rather elusive but I asked around and he did seem to have a very good reputation at the restaurant where he was working. I was glad to find out he wasn’t just Warren’s imaginary friend but I still needed to see him in action.

Warren and I were getting along just great and he started opening up about himself. He was a bit of an odd duck - sharing an attic loft with his friend Bert. It didn’t sound like it was even legally an apartment since they had to use an external set of stairs to climb down to a basement bathroom. I couldn’t help but start to wonder if Warren had a rubber ducky. I think he started to worry that I thought he and Bert were lovers because he soon shifted to telling me all about his girlfriend.

Warren and his girlfriend had been together since he was in Montreal, but she was living with her parents since his last downswing. He said that made more sense since he couldn’t afford his share of the rent on any sort of decent apartment and she needed a proper space to work on her studies. The more he told me about her, the more I couldn’t understand why she was with him. As near as I could figure out, she was working on an accounting diploma to round out her retail management experience while he had devoted his life to smoking pot and playing World of Warcraft.

Steve eventually showed up but said he only had five minutes to talk because of his hectic schedule. When I told him that I needed him to work for at least a few days before opening he told me that he couldn’t possibly do so before he finished his other job. I told him that I couldn’t guarantee him a job until I saw what he could do but he just said, “Oh, don’t worry, you’ll think I’m awesome,” and he bolted out the door. For some reason, I didn’t find his confidence to be contagious.

Later that day Warren told me that his girlfriend just got a great new job in another town. When I told him how sorry I was to hear that, he just smiled and said, “Oh, that’s ok, I think doing the long distance thing will actually bring us closer together.” Plan A was getting very shaky; Steve was a flake and Warren was going to be hitting another downswing as soon as he realized his girlfriend had left him. Sometimes you just don’t need flashing lights to figure out that there is an accident up ahead.

Within two weeks Warren was lost down a hole of despair and Steve was still in the wind. I had called Steve at least a dozen times and left five messages. It was becoming apparent that I was going to have to take a different tack. I spent my days waiting on contractors, setting up equipment, going through horrible resumes, and trying to figure out what to do. About two weeks after Warren disappeared, Steve walked in the back door.

“Hey, how ya doin’?” he said.

“Not so great,” I replied.

“No? What’s up?”

“Well, I’m trying to figure out Plan B.”

“What? What’s wrong?”

“Warren is gone, depressed again, and you obviously aren’t going to work out.”

“WHAT?” he exclaimed.

“Well, what did you expect? I’ve left you five messages and you didn’t call me back.”

“I’ve been really, really busy. I don’t even return messages to my mother.” he said.

“Well I’m not you’re mother. I’ve got a business to open here. I didn’t know where you were so I’m working on a new plan.”

“But I QUIT my other job to work here!”

“That was a pretty stupid thing to do,” I chuckled.

“It’s not fucking funny!” he screamed.

“Well, I don’t know what to tell you. I told you I wasn’t offering you a job until I saw you work. I called to try to schedule you in to do that work. You didn’t get back to me and the only other way I had of finding out if you were still alive was Warren – then he disappeared. How can I possibly rely on someone who remains incommunicado for weeks at a time?”

He stormed out extremely upset. I began to realize that finding reliable staff was going to be impossible. In most restaurants there are at least a dozen staff at any given moment. If one person doesn’t show up, everyone else can just work 10% harder. I was trying to build a wheel with three spokes and that just isn’t a very good idea if you don’t have completely reliable spokes. It was time to reinvent my wheel.

Plan B

Looking back at my first plan I realized that I had relied too much on line cooks. Based on my hotel kitchen experience I should have known this. I can’t tell you how many shifts I’ve had to work double speed because other line cooks didn’t show up. The more line cooks you have, the easier it is to get over one missing. I just didn’t have the seating to accommodate a full kitchen staff, and with my business model relying on such a small menu I made the mistake of relying on a single line cook per shift. To have to close the restaurant just because a single line cook phoned in hung-over was simply unacceptable.

I had to eliminate my dependence on a position that is notoriously filled by skilled yet unreliable staff. This meant I would have to work the front end and do the plating myself; an idea that I didn’t like but that I would have to deal with. With no chef in the kitchen to keep me supplied, I would have to do extra prep work before the doors even opened in the morning. All I needed was someone who could run the cash register and make the odd waffle while I finished cooking lunch. In the event that even that person didn’t show up, I needed a lunch menu that I could complete while still minding the front end. The menu had to be pared down to something even simpler that what I had started with.

I had to decide on either a soup or a hot pot – I wouldn’t have time to cook both if I was alone. The hot pot could be served on a bed of rice with the deluxe salad, or just in a bowl with some garlic toast. If I was going to get working men in, the sort who eat full meals and don’t mind buying lunch two or three times per week, then I needed the hot pot. Piping hot chili con carne or generous portions of turkey a la king would be just the thing to get some hardy men with big appetites swinging the doors. All things considered, the soup had to go.

Without the soup, the sandwich became problematic. Soup and a sandwich is a common combination but without the soup there would be too much expectation of French fries with the sandwich. People who eat wraps are more likely to choose side salads and I could keep those on hand easily enough. Obviously the sandwich had to go as well.

The new daily menu was a hot pot, wrap, deluxe salad and some side salads for lunch. I would serve that Tuesday through Friday. I designated Saturdays as ‘Siesta Saturdays’ and brought the first tacos and burritos to Humbug. Sunday was the crown on the menu, with a full turkey dinner and all the trimmings. Monday I would be closed so I could do banking, pay bills, and deal with other business issues. All I had to do was find the right people to run the register and make the beverages.

After another string of uncomfortable, bizarre and remarkably surreal interviews, I had three people selected. Jeffrey and Anna were all I could ask for. Anna was in high school, so weekdays were out for her, but other than that she was eager to work as many or as few hours as I needed her on weekends. Jeffrey was actually training as a minister with the local United Church so Sundays were out for him along with Wednesdays when he volunteered at the local hospital. Maria was the only one I had concerns about.

On the plus side, Maria was 50 years old so I felt her reliability would be very high. On the down side, she was adamant that she wouldn’t work weekends under any circumstances, and therefore felt she should have all of the weekday hours. I wasn’t crazy about putting too many eggs in Maria’s basket, but I felt that because of her age she would be the most reliable person for those hours.

We did two shifts of training and then started cleaning like mad for the pre-opening health inspection. Health inspectors can be a little lenient about a few missed spots when you are running a busy kitchen, but I had been told that the pre-opening inspection would be incredibly thorough. The inspector came through on a Thursday just as Jeffrey and Maria were putting the finishing touches on the bathrooms. He was a pleasant young man, obviously not very experienced but definitely thorough. He made a couple of notes on things he thought we could improve upon but signed off on my certificate to operate.

Jeffrey, Maria and I celebrated but I don’t think they had any idea how excited I truly was. This was it – I was finally going to have my own restaurant. I told them we would be opening on Tuesday, but asked if either of them could work Friday and Monday to help get things ready for opening day.

Maria blurted, “Oh, I can work eight hours both days.”

I replied, “Well, that’s just about all the hours I have to offer before opening.”

Maria stared harshly at Jeffrey and he turned to me and said, “That’s okay, I wouldn’t mind heading into Cuspidor this weekend to see my parents anyway.”

I was irritated with Maria for bullying him but said to Jeffrey, “Ok, so you are fine with starting next Saturday then? Maybe 10 o’clock?”

“Sure thing, boss,” he said with a big smile. He seemed to get a kick out of calling me boss.

Friday morning I started doing inventory to generate the shopping list. I had a program that could calculate every gram of every ingredient I would need if I punched in expected sales of each menu item for any given period. I needed to know what I had on hand so I could enter that and get a shopping list. This may sound a bit anal retentive but when you are planning the first week worth of meals for a restaurant it can be very difficult to remember everything that you need and even harder to get the volumes in the ball park. I also had a lot of signs to make and put up - from full display daily menus to daily special signs for the front window.

By the time I had the shopping list ready I began to wonder what time Maria was coming in. We had been starting at 9 a.m. but I had meant to ask her to start at 8 a.m. when we decided on an eight hour day. It was getting past 9:30 a.m. and I hadn’t heard from her. I called her and left a message. I didn’t hear back. Plan B was getting shaky.

I called her several times on Saturday, asking her to get back to me as soon as possible. I was beginning to feel glad that I had planned on a cold opening. No one in town knew when we were going to open so, if need be, I could just wait another week. The idea of waiting another week made me angry, though. The contractors had already cost me over six months, and staff was starting to cost me more. I already had a Plan C in place – running it by myself. That was only for a worst case scenario, however. Unfortunately it was starting to look like a worst case scenario. I realized I would never know if any employee was going to show up for sure so I decided to just stay the course.

Monday morning I was running around frantically filling napkin and paper towel dispensers, putting up signs and setting up the displays of herbal teas. I had to make the final grocery run before opening and still didn’t know what had happened to Maria. I waited as long as I could and then put my coat on to go get the groceries. Just as I ran out of my office I heard a knock from the front and looked to see Maria standing with another woman outside.

I ran to the door and opened it and said, “Where have you been?”

“What?” she said, seeming rather insulted.

“I needed you on Friday, and I needed you first thing this morning. I have been calling you. Where have you been?”

She just shook her head and said, “You don’t even open until tomorrow.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and I shouted, “There were fucking signs to set up, supplies to check, and I still need to get the groceries!”

Her friend just tilted her head and went into a Humbug Huh.

Maria stared at me like she thought I was crazy and said, “You really need to relax. I just stopped in with my friend for some tea. Don’t you want to sit with us and have some tea?”

I didn’t have time for this so I just screamed, “Are you here to work or not?”

“Well,” she sighed, “I guess I should go home and change into my work clothes.”

“Do it!” I screamed, “And get back here in thirty minutes. I still have to get out of here!”

She tried, to no avail, to reanimate her friend. To expedite matters I just grabbed her friend by the arm and said, “It’s pretty warm out for November, isn’t it?”

The woman popped back into consciousness as Maria stared in wonder.

“Please,” I said, “just get changed and hurry back.”

They trundled off and I just shook my head as I locked the door and stormed back into the dining room. I paced back and forth, frothing at the mouth. What the hell was wrong with her? Stopping in for tea the day before opening? How clueless could these Humbuggers be? Exactly thirty minutes later I grabbed the phone and called to see what the hell was keeping her. There was no answer. Did this mean she was on her way back? Did this mean she wasn’t coming at all? I decided to give her fifteen minutes. Finally I bolted for the door to get the groceries. Just as I was leaping out the back door the phone rang. I ran back inside and answered.

“Hello,” I blurted.

“Oh, hi, this is Maria,” she lilted.

“Where the fuck are you, Maria?”

“You know,” she continued, lilting, “I just don’t think I’ll be able to make it in at all this week.”

“Fine, fuck you!”

I slammed down the phone and ran. I had no idea what was wrong with her and I had no time to figure it out. I ran through the grocery store like a maniac. By the time I got back to the restaurant and got everything unloaded and put away it was 2 p.m.

I started by roasting almonds, filberts and poppy seeds in three different frying pans on the stove. I didn’t have filbert slices, so I was smashing them with a tenderizer hammer as they toasted. I have no idea what happened next, but there was a huge spark and I could barely see for the next few minutes. I rapidly slid the pans around to distribute the heat and stirred them by feel with a metal spatula. My vision had more or less returned by the time I could smell that the almonds and poppy seeds were done. Why weren’t the filberts toasting? I figured out that there was no heat from that burner. The spark must have been some sort of short circuit. I used another burner, but realized that now I only had 3 left.

I peeled the apples and started the spiced apple compote, strawberry almond compote and blueberry hazelnut compote for the waffles. As I was waiting for them to come to a boil I made the orange poppy seed dressing, coleslaw dressing, Caesar dressing, and a chili lime dip for the veggies. As soon as the waffle toppings were done I started the teriyaki pork for the wrap and got some bacon in the oven for the Caesar salad. In another pot I started the simple syrup, which I could flavour for the coffee syrups or use for iced tea. I started the potatoes boiling for the potato salad, and pasta for the pasta salad. I kept glancing at the clock in fear and chastising myself for having not worked longer hours on the weekend.

By 8 p.m. I was about half way through my list. I figured it would take me until 2 a.m. to finish but I had to take a break. I went to my office and studied my list to try to figure out the most efficient way to proceed. I needed to keep the oven and three remaining burners in continuous use to ensure I wasn’t losing time. Within a half an hour I was back in the kitchen mixing up waffle batter, ramming cabbage through the mandoline, peeling carrots and slicing celery sticks. Using a mandoline for carrot sticks delivers a really nice slice, but it’s tedious work by the time you’ve been in the kitchen for ten hours.

By 2 a.m. I was horrified to see that I still had quite a few items left on my list. I was slowing down and I just couldn’t get back up to full speed. There were so many stupid little things to do! I ran the croutons and parmigiano up to the front and loaded the whipped cream canister with a nitrous oxide charger. I was twisting the nitrous oxide into the whipped cream canister lid at the same time I was screwing it onto the container and the gas burst before the canister was sealed. I got a heavy whiff of the nitrous and felt really good for the first time since getting the license signed on Thursday. This was a different kind of good though, and I dropped to my knees and began laughing uncontrollably.

For a few minutes I didn’t know if it was just the gas or if I had truly lost my mind. I could swear that the espresso machine was my high school principal and he was looking down at me and yelling at me for not finishing my potato salad. Damn! I hadn’t finished the potato salad. Still high as a kite I ran into the kitchen and started chopping green onions, apologizing to them with each chop. My eyes started to wobble in my head, so I grabbed some cilantro and a bowl and headed out to a table in the dining room. I could barely see straight, but I could still pull the leaves from the cilantro and get them into the bowl. Each leaf screamed as I pulled it from the stem. By the time I was done, their screams had faded and I was almost back in the real world.

It was 6:30 a.m. and I only had thirty minutes until opening. I still had to make the coffee and get everything prepared for the turkey a la king. It seemed like I was running in circles and there was no end in sight. I had to set out ice for the cream and get a pitcher of ice water to the front counter. I was glad to have a change of clothes in my office for I was covered from head to toe in various types of salad dressing, fruit compote, and batter. I realized I wouldn’t be open on time, but it was going to be close, maybe only a few minutes late. At exactly 7 a.m. the phone rang just as I was getting changed in my office.

“Hello, Humbug Bistro,” I groaned.

“Hey, Boss! Congratulations on opening”

“Jeffrey. Damn. Where are you?”

“Uhm, I’m in Cuspidor at my parents. I was just calling to congratulate you. You don’t sound good.”

“I’m not good,” I lamented, “Maria never showed up. I’m not open, but I’m really close.”

“I could be there in a few hours, boss, if you need me.”

“Are you serious?” I begged.

“Sure thing!”

And with that I had help on the way. I couldn’t believe that this guy was going to drive over 100 kilometers to help me for opening day but I had to believe it or I wouldn’t have had the courage to go through with opening. It was just after 7 a.m. and winter was well upon the prairie. It was dark and cold outside and I took a moment to stare at the vacant street, wondering what opening day would bring. At that moment, a blustering icy wind drove wisps of snow down the dark, icy sidewalk.

Opening Day

By the time I flicked the switch on the ‘OPEN’ sign I had been awake for 26 hours. The very moment that I flicked the switch on that ‘OPEN’ sign my hopes, dreams and plans coalesced into reality. This is an unnerving experience no matter how many times you've gone through it. Most people will never experience it. This transition from hopes and dreams to reality occurs whenever the entrepreneur finally works through all the dreams and gets to the moment of truth – meeting the customer.

Most people just fantasize about starting their own business. They will sit in a restaurant and say, “You know what would really make this place work?” They walk into a store and think how THEY would treat THEIR customers this way or that. They watch commercials and think how much better they could have made the ad. These people live blessed lives, being able to enjoy these fantasies without ever having their ideas tested. The unaccountability of the wage earner must be very blissful.

The entrepreneur is the person who willingly, even excitedly, throws him or herself to the wolves – and customers can be voracious wolves at times. I have experienced this transition from dreams and plans to reality several times in my life but this was my first brick and mortar business – this was the first time I had an ‘OPEN’ sign to switch on. This time I was experiencing it with the intensity that buzzes through every single nerve after 26 hours of wakefulness. The cold November winds howled down the dark, icy street outside.

Everything was ready. The waffle irons were hot, the muffins were steaming up the dome display on the counter, and the aroma of hot cereal reminded me of sitting by the wood stove in my grandmother’s kitchen. I stood behind the counter waiting, wondering who the first customer would be. Within fifteen minutes the front door swung open and rattled the chimes hung above them. A well dressed woman with coal black hair and brilliant, icy blue eyes walked in.

“Hi there, good morning,” I beamed.

“Good morning,” she replied, “Can you make a white mocha?”

“I can do that!”

I turned to the espresso machine and began creating her white mocha. I was a bit surprised because I hadn’t actually put that on the menu, nor had she even looked at the menu. I had really only been keeping the white chocolate sauce around for personal use.

“So you like white mochas, do you?” I asked.

“Oh yes, and this place has always made the best!” she replied.

“Oh, you mean the old coffee shop. I just opened.”

“Yeah, I’ve been waiting for you to re-open,” she said, to my confusion.

“Uhm, well, I didn’t really re-open – the coffee shop is gone.”

“But you still make white mochas?”

“Yes, but I’ve got a much fuller menu than the old coffee shop.”

“Oh, well I only come here for white mochas,” she said as she paid.

And with that my first customer had come and gone. It was a bit disconcerting that she seemed completely disinterested in the food. It was even more disconcerting that she seemed to completely disregard the change in venue. I comforted myself with the thought that along with the new customer base that I was sure to develop, I would also inherit the old coffee shop clientele. If a lot of them drank white mochas then they might actually contribute towards door costs, or at least the power bill.

Quite quickly more customers rolled in, but one by one they completely bypassed the menu and asked for coffee. I was tired so I have to admit that a part of me was a little glad to not have to jump out of the gates with dozens of orders for the Belgian waffles. It wasn’t long before I started to sense trouble, though. Lyle Duerr walked in and straight up to the register.

“One coffee,” he said.

“Sure,” I replied, “are you interested in trying a Belgian waffle?”

“No, I just come here for the coffee. Glad you finally re-opened,” he said.

“Well, I was kind of hoping to leave the coffee shop behind, actually.”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“It’s just that I prepared a lot of breakfast here. Hot cereal, Belgian waffles, hot fruit compote toppings for both, and muffins as well. I’ve got cold cereal too, or toast, if you’re interested.”

“Nah,” he said, “I just come here for the coffee.”

“Well, I hope you’ll consider a waffle, eventually. They’re light and fluffy inside, crispy on the outside, and layered with the strawberry almond compote and whipped cream they are really quite decadent.”

“Nah,” he continued, “If I wanted breakfast I’ld go to John’s and get bacon and eggs. Are you going to start serving bacon and eggs?”

“Actually,” I replied, “I was hoping to keep this as a designated no-fry zone.”

“Well let me know if you ever decide to cook breakfast here,” he snorted.

He seemed completely oblivious to the food that I had prepared. With each customer I tried the up-sell, but with each customer my offerings were totally disregarded. Some people actually asked what the difference between a waffle and a pancake was. When I revealed the oven roast sausages in hot holding, some people actually balked and just said, “You didn’t even fry them?”

Obviously it was going to take some time to get these people introduced to the idea of a breakfast that wasn’t saturated with grease. At least I had good traffic. A couple of people bought muffins but the rest of the crowd just soaked up the coffee. I couldn’t believe how much coffee they could drink. I could barely brew the stuff fast enough. At about 9:30 a.m. the back door swung open and Jeffrey walked in.

“Hey, boss!” he chirped.

“Hey, there! Wow, am I glad to see you!”

“How’s it going?”

“Busy. No food orders though. You shouldn’t have any trouble running the front.”

“I’m on it, boss.”

The ‘boss’ thing was getting stale fast but I was too happy to complain. I left Jeffrey to mind the front of the store and jumped into the kitchen to start cooking the turkey a la king and rice. Everything was prepared for the Tokyo pork wrap – teriyaki pork, shredded carrot, cucumber, green onions, spinach and the orange poppy seed dressing. Everything was also ready for the Caesar salad; it only needed to be mixed and tossed when the orders started coming in. I set the rice to boil and started chopping the onion, carrot and celery.

In no time at all I had the turkey a la king cooked up and simmering on the stove in the kitchen. I took turns bussing the tables with Jeffrey. The dishes were easy to wash, with barely a plate having been used. By 11:30 a.m. I started anticipating the lunch crowd. One fellow came in at 11:45 a.m. and ordered the turkey a la king on rice with Caesar salad. The minutes ticked toward noon and I remembered that Humbuggers never ate before the Flintstone Whistle blew.

Finally the whistle wailed through the streets, giving permission to the Humbuggers to stop their toils and head for lunch. Minutes later the door opened and a line of people came walking in and, I have to admit, I was horrified. I had been awake for more than 30 hours and suddenly I had to start plating like an Iron Chef. The real bottleneck was at the register, and it wasn’t Jeffrey that was the problem. Customer after customer inquired about the soup – which wasn’t even on the menu.

I should mention here that Humbuggers have a particular way of enunciating the word ‘soup’. They say the word with authoritative force and in a percussive meter, punctuating the end of a sentence like an expletive. To the Humbug restauranteur, ‘soup’ was a four letter word in every sense of the phrase. There came to be a pattern to the exchange and within the first half dozen orders I started looking for hidden cameras, again, to see if someone was playing a ridiculous joke on me. It seemed that the next person in line must have heard the exchange ahead of them and would alter their course, but one after another they stepped up and took the exact same approach.

“What’s your SUPE?”

“We don’t have soup, but we do have Turkey a la King,” Jeffrey would explain.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a cream based turkey stew.”

“What did you call it?”

“Turkey a la king.”

“Is that some kind of French thing?”

“Not really, it’s just the name of a recipe for creamed turkey.”

“So you don’t have any SUPE?”

“It’s like a thick soup. Would you like to try it?”

“Bah, well, I guess so.”

One after another they went through almost identical exchanges. Almost every single one of them had the ‘poorboy’ lunch special – a piping hot bowl of turkey a la king with garlic toast and coffee. Every single one of them seemed completely perplexed that there was no ‘SUPE’. They were also aghast that we had no crackers to offer. Although the dish was lightly seasoned, almost every one of them complained that it had too much pepper. Almost no one ordered the Caesar salad. One lady, of the few that had ordered it, came up to the counter to complain about it.

“Uhm, my Caesar salad tastes fishy,” she whined.

“That would be the anchovy,” I explained.

“Yuck! Why would you put anchovy in it?”

“Well, that’s what’s in Caesar dressing!”

“You made the dressing?” she asked.

“Yes, from scratch,” I boasted.

“Can’t I just get Caesar salad with Kraft dressing?”

“I’m sorry. I don’t have Kraft dressing here.”

“Then this isn’t really Caesar salad, is it?” she sneered.

“This is a REAL Caesar salad!” I snapped.

“Well it doesn’t even have REAL Caesar dressing!” she snapped back.

“Real Caesar dressing has anchovy, lady!”

“Well who made you boss? You think you know better than Kraft?” she chirped as she turned and walked away.

I couldn’t believe my ears. The dressing was perfect, absolutely perfect. I had roasted the garlic in olive oil, squeezed fresh lemons, used a high grade extra virgin olive oil, emulsified it with Dijon and a perfect balance of worcestershire sauce and pepper. I had gone to great expense to use an authentic parmigiano-reggiano and baked fresh sour dough croutons. I oven roasted thick sliced country style bacon and chopped it by hand and selected perfect romaine hearts. This was the first authentic Caesar salad ever served in Humbug and this backward, inbred, mouth-breathing country hick had the nerve to tell me that I had cheated her by not using Kraft creamy Caesar style dressing? I was livid.

By the end of the lunch rush I was starting to feel the effects of going more than 30 hours without sleep. I left Jeffrey to mind the store and started bussing the tables with a service cart. As I rolled the cart back toward the rear entrance to the kitchen, a short red-haired woman started following me saying, “Excuse me!” I braced for yet another complaint, but to my surprise she offered me a compliment.

“That was a great meal,” she said.

“Thank you,” I replied.

“Do you know what would really make this place work?” she asked.

“A customer base that knows the difference between Velveeta and Camembert,” I replied.

With a puzzled look she continued, “Well, I was thinking about art.”

“What?”

“You need art on the walls. It just doesn’t feel like a coffee shop without art.”

“I’m not trying to run a coffee shop, I’m trying to run a restaurant, hence the word ‘Bistro’ in the name.”

“Oh, but you have such a great coffee shop here.”

“I really need to get these dishes done,” I said, lost for any other words.

“What’s your dream right now?” she asked.

“Getting some sleep,” I replied, backing into the kitchen.

She began to follow, “No, I mean what is your vision for this place.”

I had had enough. I didn’t know where this woman was going, but I knew she wasn’t coming into my kitchen. “Excuse me, this is a staff area,” I explained.

“Oh, that’s ok. I’m just trying to get a feel for your vision for your new business.”

“Look, lady, I’ve been awake for thirty some hours and I have dishes to do,” I begged.

“But don’t you want to share your vision?”

“Right now I have double vision. Lady - thirty some hours - I’m tired and I have dishes to do.”

She continued to push into the kitchen and I was getting really frustrated. “Please get out of my kitchen,” I pleaded.

“This place is such a great coffee shop,” she continued as she continued to advance.

“Lady, I don’t want a coffee shop, I want a restaurant, the only thing I want more is to get these dishes done, survive the day, and get to sleep.”

“I would be too exited to sleep on the first day if I were you.”

“This isn’t the first day. I’m telling you I’ve been awake since about 5 a.m. yesterday. I’ve cooked all night and I just want you out of my kitchen.”

“But what’s your vision? I can help,” she persisted.

“Lady, I appreciate that you liked the food, but you aren’t hearing a word I’m saying. I told you I want a restaurant here, not a coffee shop. I’ve told you that I’ve been up since yesterday morning and I just need to get these dishes done and get through the day. I’ve asked you to stay out of my kitchen and yet here you are in my kitchen. Apparently you don’t give a shit about anything I want and you’re just here to push something on me, and I’m not buying any. Now get, THE FUCK, out of my kitchen!”

She huffed and puffed a bit but finally got the fuck out of my face. As I franticly scrubbed the dishes I just kept mumbling, “vision…vision, who the fuck was that bitch?” Jeffrey could only stay until 2 p.m. and I needed to have the back end cleaned up before he left. The rest of the day was a blur to me as my consciousness began to grow more pliable. Before Jeffrey left he gave me a big high five at the back door and congratulated me again on finally being open.

There was a big afternoon coffee rush but once again no one seemed the least bit interested in food. Several more people expressed their joy that I had finally ‘reopened’ and told me how much they had always loved coming in for coffee. Most of them still referred to the place as the old Humbug Coffee House, and not one of them ever made mention of the Humbug Bistro. I was too tired to care. I was closing at 4 p.m. and realized that by that point I would be 35 hours without sleep.

The last customers left, having consumed copious amounts of coffee. I walked to the front and switch off the ‘OPEN’ sign. I stepped into the front foyer and turned the door sign to ‘CLOSED’. I locked the door and leaned my head against the cold glass. It felt so compelling and I imagined my head slowly slipping through the glass as though into a vertical pool of ice water. I began to notice that my nostrils were being filled with a pungent ammonia sort of odour. It burned my sinuses and drew me back into consciousness. As I looked around I noticed that the wall beside me was wet and there was a puddle on the floor. I leaned down and took a whiff and became nauseated as I realized someone had actually pissed in the foyer.

I didn’t have enough intellect left to even begin to ponder why anyone would do such a thing. The only thought that could pierce my haze was that I had to clean it up. By the time I finished and pushed the mop and bucket back into the dining area I had been awake almost 37 hours. I needed sleep but knew I couldn’t drive. I checked the waffle irons and hot holding to ensure they were off and headed towards the back of the kitchen to turn off the dishwasher.

As I shuffled through my galley it began to stretch like someone was pulling the focus way out on a movie camera - I felt dizzy. The dishwasher suddenly seemed to be a hundred yards away. I heard a muffled thud and darkness ensued.

Day 2

Having spent most of my life off the beaten path I have found it extremely beneficial to awaken with great caution. There is a point well before consciousness when I become faintly aware of my surroundings and I am in the habit of using this transitional state to prepare myself for wakefulness. The feel of a cheap polyester bedspread signals that I am in a hotel room. Hot stuffy air lets me know that I am in a tent. Wilderness sounds without hot stuffy air serves as a warning that I’ve slept under the sky – a situation that is apparently uncommon for other people.

Finding myself in one of these pre-wakefulness transitional states, I felt quite disoriented. Something was vaguely familiar but I couldn’t quite put my mind on it. My head hurt and I felt lines pressed into my face. My memory was drawn to college and suddenly it dawned on me: I was face down on linoleum. I peeked through the eye closest to the floor and, sure enough, I saw the bottom of a cupboard. My last conscious memories came rushing back to me and I realized I was on the floor of the restaurant kitchen.

Peeling my face off the linoleum I took a quick mental inventory and was glad to surmise this was not a liquor induced situation. I must have passed out on my way to the dishwasher and hit my head. I searched for a clock. It was 1 a.m. I still had some dishes to do and I had to get the prep work done for day 2.

It took me longer than I had expected to finish cleaning up from day 1 and get started on the prep for that day. By the time I was done I no longer had time to go home for a shower so I just washed up as best as I could in the restroom. I was glad I had another change of clothes in my office and I was even happier to be the owner of an espresso machine. I walked up to the front and switched on the ‘OPEN’ sign.

As unfulfilling as my sleep had been, I felt exponentially better than the day before. This day started to fill out like the previous one though. There were lots of people coming in for coffee and by the time Jeffrey arrived there was hardly a plate used. A lot of the faces were very familiar from day 1, especially amongst one group that seemed to have no inhibitions against sitting for hours and drinking ridiculous volumes of coffee.

I hustled to prepare the day’s special – sweet chili pork, a dish I had re-invented from one of my grandmother’s recipes. It is a tomato based sweet & sour dish with plenty of heat from Hungarian paprika and a unique kick from allspice and tamarind. Whenever I serve this dish over rice people clamor for seconds, digging for more sauce and seeming to care less whether or not they get another helping of the thin sliced pork loin. This was Humbug, however, and I was rapidly learning that Humbuggers were repulsed almost as much by spice as they were by the unfamiliar.

Once again the traffic before noon was minimal. Two big men walked in at about 11:30 a.m. and boldly asked for ‘a big lunch’. They opted for coffee as their beverage and Jeffrey handed them their mugs as I plated their food. As near as I could tell, they were quite happy with their meal because they seemed to be shoveling it in as fast as they could without choking themselves. I decided to use the pre-whistle lull to go and ask how they were enjoying their meal.

“How are you fellas doing today?” I asked.

“Good,” they said in unison.

“So, how is your big lunch?” I asked.

“Good,” said fellow one, “but damn spicy.”

“Yeah,” said fellow two, “and it don’t seem much like chink food.”

“Uhm, Chinese food?” I asked.

“Yeah,” replied fellow one, “it’s good and all, but it don’t taste like chink food at all.”

“Well it’s not supposed to be Chinese food,” I said, somewhat puzzled.

“Then what’s with the rice?” asked fellow two.

“Well the sauce goes well with rice, coats it nicely, don’t you think?”

“I ain’t never had rice except with chink food,” explained fellow two.

“And what’s with the greens then?” his compatriot inquired.

“That’s a spinach salad,” I explained.

“That’s spinach?” they exclaimed in unison.

“Yes, fresh spinach salad with orange poppy seed dressing,” I explained.

“I thought spinach was dark and squishy,” one of them remarked.

“Oh, that’s canned spinach. This is fresh spinach,” I further explained.

“So you run out of lettuce then?” one of them asked.

“No. It’s just another leafy vegetable - for some variety.”

After several more references to how only ‘chink’ food should be served on rice, and a couple of inquiries as to where I acquired spinach that hadn’t been in a can, I gave up. I took solace that at least these two men weren’t put off by the spiciness of the dish. I waited for the Flintstone Whistle to blow.

Within minutes of the obnoxious wail of the town siren a line of people poured through the door. As they approached the register I overheard some of them talking about the ‘fancy French stuff’ being served the day before. Jeffrey took up his post and began to take orders.

“Hi there, what can I get for you today?” he asked.

“What’s your SUPE?”

“We don’t have soup, but we have Sweet Chili Pork,” he explained.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a spicy sweet and sour sort of dish.”

“What did you call it?”

“Sweet Chili Pork.”

“Is it spicy?”

“It’s fairly spicy.”

“So you don’t have any SUPE?”

“It’s like a thick soup. Would you like to try it?”

“Yuck, I HATE spice.”

I couldn’t believe someone just looked at us and blurted ‘yuck’ without even trying the food. Trying to remain calm I cut in to see if I could smooth things over.

“Would you like to try our Santa Fe Chicken Wrap?” I asked.

“That sounds spicy too,” the woman lamented.

“Not at all,” I assured her.

I went on to explain that the Santa Fe Chicken Wrap was stuffed with chicken breast, minced red bell peppers, celery and green onion, shredded leaf lettuce and dressed with our in house red bell pepper aioli.

“What the heck is oily?” she blurted.

“Uhm, aioli is a seasoned mayonnaise with garlic,” I explained.

“And it has hot peppers in it?”

“No, it has red bell pepper, like in the wrap.”

“What’s a red bell pepper?”

“Well, the same as a green pepper, but it’s red and sweeter.”

“Yuck! I hate peppers. I never eat peppers. Can you make it without peppers?”

I couldn’t believe that she just blurted out ‘yuck’ again. The line was growing and I renewed my efforts to remain calm. We finally agreed that she could have a chicken wrap with shredded carrot, green onion and cucumber – all stolen from the spinach salad - dressed with mayonnaise. As it turned out this was to be the consolation special for at least a dozen other customers, but not before they each asked at least twice about the ‘SUPE’.

The few customers who did opt for the sweet chili pork decided to have iced tea instead of coffee to ensure they were safe from the spice. These customers complained about the iced tea tasting like tea. Apparently it had never dawned on these hicks that iced tea could be made by pouring sweetened tea over ice and adding some hand squeezed lemon juice. Some of them had the nerve to accuse me of being too cheap to give them ‘real iced tea’. By the end of the lunch rush I was starting to feel like I had been awake for 30 hours.

I turned to Jeffrey and asked, “Did you grow up here?”

“No, Boss, I grew up in Cuspidor.”

“Right then. Would you like to try the sweet chili pork?”

“I was hoping you’ld ask, it smells incredible.”

I plated Jeffrey a heaping helping of sweet chili pork over a mound of rice beside some spinach salad. It hadn’t occurred to me that he had no time to sample the turkey a la king the day before. He stood at the end of the counter and took his first bite. His eyes got big and I grew concerned that maybe the dish really was too spicy.

“Is it ok?” I asked.

“Holy shit!”

“Are you ok?”

“This is amazing!” he said, as he began to shovel more into his mouth.

“Uhm, is it ok for a preacher to say ‘shit’?”

“When food is this good it is,” he said between mouthfuls.

“So this is good food then?”

“Damn right!”

I couldn’t believe that I had even begun to question myself for a moment. I had cooked for people from coast to coast and from the Arctic Circle to Texas and never had a complaint. How was it possible that this little pocket of people in this tiny hick town could have tastes that were so incredibly off? How could there be a town full of people who never ate bell peppers and hated any amount of spice? Jeffrey asked for a second serving and I was more than happy to oblige.

I spent the rest of the afternoon thinking about my menu. I had noticed that the food was remarkably bland at the other restaurants in town but I had thought this was going to be to my advantage. It had never occurred to me that their food was bland because that was all these hicks would eat. There was no time to change the menu in the middle of the week so I felt I had no choice but to stay the course.

Their aversion to diversity even extended to their ability to select between dark and medium roast coffee. Although the coffee row regulars seemed quite accustomed to choosing between different roasts of coffee, a lot of newcomers were completely baffled, often asking, “Which of these is ‘NORMAL’ coffee?” It didn’t matter how I tried to explain it. Even when I asked what sort of grounds they purchased from the grocery store, the most common answer was, “NORMAL!” I had never seen this brand on any grocery store shelf in my life. After several weeks I began to typically reply, “Medium roast is ‘NORMAL’ and the other stuff is for homosexuals.” I soon quit this practice, however, when I tired of having to reboot them from the inevitable Humbug Huh that ensued.

I was even having trouble selling my in-house seasoned cream cheeses. I was, and will always be, very proud of my cinnamon spread cream cheese. It is such a simple preparation that I can’t believe that I’ve never seen it served anywhere else. You just soften some cream cheese and then blend in demerara sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. For a little kick you can even add some ground ginger. It is simply incredible on a toasted cinnamon raisin bagel. Every time I recommended it to a Humbugger, however, all they could say was, “Don’t you have any ‘NORMAL’ cream cheese?”

When they gave up on finding ‘NORMAL’ cream cheese they would always ask for a toasted bagel with margarine. Even this was impossible because I refused to carry trailer trash ingredients and there was never an ounce of margarine to be found in my bistro. I couldn’t believe that they even complained about being served butter.

Leaving the restaurant that night, I turned and stared into the darkness across the dining room. The icy wind was cold outside but it seemed warmer than the reception I had been getting inside. The pump in the espresso machine buzzed as though to taunt me as I closed the door.