6/28/11

"When you open up your generosity to others, the universe finds way to bring it back."

There's a couple of stories for this post, so please bear with me if you don't care for the more rambly of stories. There's the story of how I got to Chow, and the story about the $6 hero special.

It was a viciously slumpy month for us, and we hadn't had many people coming in. Neither of us could figure it out. The food was good. The people working here were friendly and kind. The wait times to get said food was reasonable. So what gives? This is about the time that we started getting aggressive calls from the deals websites, where you would offer X amount of food for 1/2 the amount of cost.

What they don't tell you is that the business only sees about 1/2 of what you paid for that voucher. The site offering the promotion keeps the other half. It's essentially like a loan, but with even worse rates than the worst loan shark ever. You're selling food for half the amount that it's worth, and then only seeing half of that money that you sold the voucher for. However, when you're in a tight spot, you start to consider those things feasible.

I reached a point of frustration, and said, "What about the folk who come here every day? If we're willing to sell our food for a fraction of what it's worth, and consider it promotion budget (advertising budget), then why can't we just offer the savings directly to the customers?" "Good point", he said. So we hatched the $6 hero deal. You get just the sandwich (no cheese, no Chow Slaw, no pickle. Which also means that the packaging is slashed by 75%, because now you just need to pack the sandwich in a piece of parchment paper, some foil, and a paper bag if the customer wants. With the regular heroes, it's the slaw, placed into a ramekin with its lid, the pickle, wrapped in foil, a fork, because you need something to eat the slaw with, and then the bag to carry that whole shebang with you. Yipes!

At the end of the day, it was cheaper for us too. And it made it so that people got to try our awesome sandwiches. And it meant that we could give people exactly what they wanted. It also meant that during our historically slow times (between 12 and 2), we could get more people to come in. The response was spectacular. People loved the fact that they could get a Kosher, vegan, organic sandwich for the cost of a couple of cups of coffee at certain national branded coffee chain. What's even better is that if you really did want the pickle or the slaw, you could request the stuff and pay a little extra, at your option.

So Cliff said, "It's like when you open up to the world with generosity, the universe brings it back to you."

It inspired us to really take a look at our menu, and look at the things that have gone down in cost, things that are easier to have made, because now everyone knows how to do them, and where we could offer lower prices and keep the "extras" on the side. We went through and pulled back the cost of a couple of the tapas, decreased the cost of the hero (now $10 instead of $12, and the cheese is $2 extra; so many people didn't get the cheese that it didn't seem fair to charge them for something they didn't want). We also decreased the cost of some of the desserts (cupcake, pound cake, etc).

Again, it was about opening up our arms, and letting folk know that we're thinking about them. Since we started getting a better price for our organic sugar and flour, we could afford to cut back the cost of those two things.

So now, a sandwich costs $10 (normal price), and a cupcake is $2.75. For a little more than what you used to pay for just a sandwich, you get a sandwich /and/ a dessert. And so now, people are actually ordering them way more frequently than they ever have before.

Which kind of brings me back to how I started working here in the first place.

It was back in November of 2007, and Steve and I had just moved to New York city. He had a job at the time, and was pulling in decent money. I didn't have to work, but I didn't want to faff about the house, doing nothing at all. However, I did love to cook (always had) and had a few copies of my cookery book with me. My Steve had let me know that a friend of a friend was working for NYU SEAL (an animal rights club), and they needed help with cooking for about 50 people, on a $50 budget.

In Manhattan.

Also, nobody could afford to do it from a restaurant, because they didn't have that kind of money.

Also, they wanted it vegan, and local, and seasonal.

Also, they couldn't afford to pay me.

I wasn't bothered about the money. I just love a challenge like that. I let Ashleigh (this was the person in charge of the food) that not only could we feed everyone who came, but we could feed them rice, beans, salad, and a vegetable dish, along with some kind of apple crisp. Yes, for less than the $50.

She was thrilled, and offered to buy me lunch at my favourite restaurant: Sacred Chow. Every time I came up to New York, I would jump in a Taxi and ask to be taken to Sacred Chow for at least one meal there. And at the end of each meal, I'd get a sinner bar. When Ashleigh offered to take me there, I jumped at the chance, so that the two of us could meet in person, and chatter away at each other about the food.

Apparently, she could offer a kitchen in one of the dorms nearby. It was fairly ill-equipped, but we'd have a lot of helpers. Also, the helpers had plenty of heart. I realise that this all sounds like a bad movie script, but it all really did happen.

You see, when you grow up poor, one of the things that you realise early on is that you can't always offer money to a cause, even though you may feel strongly about its goals. So you offer your time, your talents, and your heart. My mother was very good at this. Every week, when the Hindu temple in South Florida was a house that the community bought together, and filled with an altar and the things needed for a temple, my mother would pile us all into the car hours before the services started, loaded with food (at least a rice dish, and sometimes a rice dish and a vegetable dish), and all the kids. We'd get there very early, clean everything up, make it look presentable, and set out the floor mats for the people to come in and sit on. Then, we'd leave hours after everything was done.

Whatever the other people did or didn't think of it, whether or not they gave her any credit for it, whether they were jerks (and they were) or decent humans (rare, if ever) about freely asking my mother (who had a budget about 1/10 of what most of them worked with) for food (seriously), my mother was there every sunday, with large amounts of food. Why? Because she knew how to take a few dollars, and make them feed lots of people. I share that talent.

Ashleigh and I chatted for at least a couple of hours, in the empty restaurant.

SLAM!

Someone had slammed the door to the basement.

STOMP. STOMP. STOMP.

"You guys should NOT be eating here. The owner is a HORRIBLE man, and exploits his workers." (Side note: turns out she was stealing. How charming, right? The boss is a lovely man, for the record.)

STOMP STOMP STOMP.

She reached the door. She walked out, and slammed the outside door.

The outside door that has one of those hydraulic things that keeps it from slamming.

Made impotent by the uncaring door, the girl kicked the door with all her might, and stormed off. Ashleigh and I looked at each other in stunned silence, and burst out laughing. The waitperson apologised profusely for that particular little scene, and we both let her know that it was too funny /not/ to laugh at.

At the end of the meal, I approached the waitperson, and said, "OK, so it looks like you'll need a new worker."

She asked me to drop off my resume the next day.

The rest, as they say, is history.

What I'm getting at is that I was at the right place at the right time. I was there, because through some weird unconnected events, I was giving of my time and talents to a cause I believed in. They didn't have much money, and had to feed many people on very little money. The food turned out fantastic. Everyone was very impressed that we managed it for such a small amount of money.

Fast forward to a year or two later. Ashleigh called me to place an order for catering from Chow for her SEAL organisation.

I met my darling husband, because I was sitting in a vegan chat room a few years back, and sharing my cooking techniques with people. They would say, "Dino, I've got ____, ____, and ___, and I'm hungry now. Can you tell me what to do with that?" And I would. I'd give them about five or six different options for the stuff they had around the house. Then they'd come back in 30 minutes, and rave about how the food was so good.

Later, when I needed a vegan wallet, and mentioned it in passing (because carrying the leather one was making me a little ill whenever I thought of where it came from), Steve piped up and let me know that he makes wallets, and that he'd be sending me one, for free, "... because you help so many people out in so many ways, and I'm happy to do this for you."

Five years later, that gesture of kindness turned into a marriage that's given me more love and happiness than I could have ever imagined possible. And now that it's legal for us to get married, we've booked the Judson church, where Steve proposed to me (again) on Pride Sunday to ask me to officially marry him.

I said yes.
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