I had just turned 39 when Bob and I decided that we would go to the Moab desert to celebrate my landmark 40th birthday. I have long dreamed of seeing Arches National Park.
But first, I had to write a novel.
So we aimed for heading out there on my 41st.
But the novel was kind of long. And I needed another winter to write the second half.
So we aimed on heading out there for my 42nd.
And then we bought a building and came up with this hair-brained scheme to put a cafe and farm store in it. And I had to re-write the novel.
Then I put my foot down. We needed to go in 2016.
But what if we were still working at building the cafe? We were going. But what if the cafe was open? We were going.
Bob questioned whether it was a good decision, and I became wild-eyed.
“No. We have to go.” By this point, it wasn’t really about Arches National Park. It was about proving to ourselves that we could do this: that we could do a farm transition, implement a creative expansion plan, and still know that we could do those other things that made our hearts soar. When we first came back to the farm, Bob and I had written our shared goals and dreams. And as much as we loved Sap Bush, we didn’t want to walk the path of so many other farmers we knew: the path where we become prisoners to the family business. We wanted to know that we could travel, that we could take our children on adventures, that we could see the world bit by bit, and still take care of home and farm. And so, not knowing what the future held, we reserved our tickets for October of 2016.
And now, that trip that seemed so far off is around the corner. And the last weekend the cafe will be open for the season is the same weekend we are scheduled to leave. And we can’t be there to run it.
But Saoirse and I are the baristas. And I’m the cook. And Bob plates the food. Ula and her friend Katharine wait the tables. And I do the accounting, the ordering, the menu planning. Mom and Kate fill in wherever they can, plating dishes, washing dishes, delivering dishes. But in truth, the operation has been riding mostly on my “I’ll just do it myself attitude,” with Bob and the kids filling in the many gaps. It was too much for me to think about. Maybe we’d just have to close the cafe early this year, and then never plan a family October vacation again.
Then, a few weeks ago, Kate took a day off mid-week. She drove up to my house and sat down next to me at my desk. “Nobody realized this was going to take off like this.” She gently prodded. “So, like, do you have a plan?”
A plan? Well, I planned on low projected sales. I planned on managing cash flow through hard times. I planned on what we would do with the slow hours while the cafe was open. I planned on ways that we could stay solvent if the cafe crashed and burned. I planned for the worst. I didn’t plan for the best. If everything went well, I just planned on working harder.
Meanwhile, Family Farm Day, a highly publicized county-wide event where local farms open their doors to the public, was around the corner. I didn’t give it a thought. Mom called me. “That’s the week we’ll be taking the kids to Maine. Do you have a plan to handle the crowds without us?” Not many folks usually come up our side of the mountain for those days. So I didn’t worry about it. I planned on having a normal day. If we got lucky with visitors, I just planned on working harder.
My sister-in-law, Erin, a junior executive with a large corporation, sent me a text. “Do you need help for Family Farm Day?” I didn’t bother responding. I was too busy working on the menu, too busy placing orders, too busy making pie dough.
I think that’s when INTERVENTION: Phase one began. Kate came to help out in the kitchen the weekend before Family Farm Day and informed me that Betsy, one of our former interns, would be handling the back of the house the next Saturday. Tess, who lives next door, would be on dishes. Kate and her fiancé, Joe, would handle farm tours. There was no choice presented in the matter.
I nodded ascension, then bit my lip and privately fretted about the cash flow. If I had all that help and no customers, how was I going to swing it? I’d have to make time to study the numbers more closely.
Then Mom and Kate initiated INTERVENTION: Phase two. They came down to the cafe and cornered me the afternoon before Family Farm Day. While Bob disappeared with a broom in back, they sat me down in front. WHAT. IS. YOUR. PLAN? We had people scheduled to come pick up fresh chickens. We had students in town working on a theater production. And we were on a map as one of the only family farms offering lunch in a 20 mile radius. It was time to stop planning for failure. If I didn’t figure out a way to handle success, then failure was inevitable.
I fingered my phone tentatively as I resisted listening to them. Was I ready to call in the big gun? I typed a text to my sister-in-law. Then I deleted it. I typed it again. I stared at it for a while.
I love Erin, but I’ve got a bit of a pride issue about calling on her for help on the professional front. It has nothing to do with Erin, actually. It has to do with the cultures of our professions. She lives in corporate America: the world of soulless delegation, organizational behavior, pensions, promotions, perks, profits. I live in the world of do it yourself. In my world, if you don’t need much, you don’t have to ask for much. If you’re a decent jack-of-all-trades, you can get by and keep your soul in tact. And the ego gets a nice hit of satisfaction for being indispensable…for holding knowledge and skills that others don’t possess, for honoring the soul above all else.
But Erin has a soul. A deep one. And as much as I want to draw that line between what we do, she is my family. I love her. And Kate and Mom were right. I needed her. I sent the text.
I’d pull the drinks, Betsy and Tess would work the back end. Erin would greet people, help folks pick up their pre-ordered chickens, take orders.
And Saturday morning came, we hung out the open flag, and the four of us stood around shooting the breeze while I quietly calculated my losses.
Then it got busy. Erin moved to the front of the house. I don’t know what she did, exactly, but for the first time since we’ve been open, every customer knew what to do when they entered the cafe. She organized people for farm tours. She organized people who were coming in for lunch. She organized people who needed take-out coffee. It suddenly seemed like everyone in the cafe knew what was going on. And then, she organized me, so I’d know, too. My inclination was to continue with my do-it-yourself tendencies. When a meal was ordered, I would jump back and try to show Betsy how I wanted it done. Then I’d jump forward to make the coffees, then I’d rush everything out to the tables to greet the customers, then I’d run back to work the register. This has been my habit.
Quietly, without making me feel bad, Erin worked to change the habit. She guided me over to the espresso machine. “You have orders,” she whispered in my ear. “Pull the drinks.” She lined them up for me in the order they were received (I didn’t know we could do that). She did the same for the back of the house.
For the first time, every seat in the cafe was full. And for the first time, I don’t think we forgot or lost an order. And we sold the fresh chickens, and sent people off for their farm tours.
I was breathless by the end of the day. Erin grabbed a couple pints of frozen soup from the freezer, threw her bag over her shoulder, gave a little wave, then disappeared. If I wasn’t watching more closely, I might have thought she went up the chimney to fly off in a sleigh. She left the rest of us to divvy up the tips. Betsy stayed to help us clean up.
“You know,” Betsy said as she washed the last of the dishes. “This is pretty fun. If you need help in here more often, I could do that.”
She could do that? I went home wild eyed. I didn’t know we could run a cafe this way. I didn’t know we could be organized. And the key to the organization, I realized, was with me. No. That’s not right. Let me re-phrase that. The obstruction to the organization, I realized, was me.
If I continue to plan for failure, then the cafe will remain disorganized and haphazard. It will require my do-it-yourself presence at all times in order to function. And if it always requires my presence, then Bob and I don’t get to break away when we need to care for ourselves and our family. We don’t get to travel. And for the immediate future, that means we don’t get to see Arches National Park in October. And damn. I’ve waited a long time to see that place.
On Monday morning, Bob and I sat down with a calendar. We wrote to a crew of friends who might be able to help us. We organized a free barista training course for the month of September. Over the course of the week, I began writing down our opening and closing procedures, including a list of our contacts for placing orders.
My do-it-yourself ego isn’t going to serve me much longer at the cafe. It’s fine if the ego lets me stack the firewood and can the tomatoes at home. But if I want to create something for my community, something that lasts beyond my fatigue, something that doesn’t pummel my family with over-work, something that lets Bob, the girls and I reach out and touch those parts of the world we’ve dreamed of touching while still creating something important at home, then I need to take a few lessons on running a cafe from the corporate world. I need to learn how to get out of the way and let it be bigger than me.