War and Peace (and Breakfast Burritos!)

This ended up being a much longer update than I planned, thus the title of this post. Readers of these updates (Mom), as well as friends of mine and financial supporters of Pasadena Community Supper Club (heavy overlap on that Venn diagram) will not be surprised at the verbosity. It’s like having a conversation with me. We’ll make three left turn just to go right, but we get there eventually.

The first of my three consecutive alarms rings on my phone beginning at 5 AM, the two additional ones protecting against an accidental deactivation of the first. To me, 5 AM is as early as you can get up and consider it the morning of a new day. Anytime before that, and it may as well be the night before. But, as I’m discovering quickly, in the Food World - to say nothing of being a parent, or some other person who simply works harder than I do - the earlier the better. There’s always something else that needs prepped, packed, or purchased last-minute.

This is week two of Pasadena Community Supper Club’s (now daily) pop-up cafe at Rosebud coffee. What began a month ago with a Friday-only lunch catering, and a disastrous first attempt at Saturday brunch, has now become a well-oiled machine. Not yet a model of efficiency, perhaps, we’re largely powered by hustle and caffeine. The results are slow in coming, but, at least for this past week, they are steadily improving. There are several pieces that inform said steady improvement, some of which merely meet the basic threshold of “Well, duh.” Others are correlative, something short of causation. Still, some are undeniable indicators of real business growth.

  1. Food

The only people who do not like breakfast burritos are those who have not yet tried one. And, let me tell you, Pasadena breakfast spots - and coffee shops in particular - seem to take their breakfast burritos seriously. From the moment I started talking with Rosebud’s founder and manager, they started in on an almost zombie-like refrain of “breakfast burritos!” I put it off for a couple of weeks, because I’m the chef, and I know haute cuisine, and their pedestrian tastes could be dismissed. But last week I gave in. I made breakfast burritos - a veggie version, and one with bacon - and they flew off the shelves...errr...the warming tray. Breakfast burritos have the virtues of being 1. portable 2. dense and filling and 3. Delicious. Additionally, I can make them ahead, so they’re ready to go as soon as ordered. For people who are getting coffee to-go, who otherwise don’t have time for, say, a delicious made-to-order frittata, they now have an option.

Bfast Burrito.jpg

Also on the Food Front, this past Saturday, 11/10, we dared a second attempt at expanding our brunch menu. Since our launch disaster a few weeks ago, we’ve been frittata-only. I’ve come to call it “getting my reps in,” by which I mean rather than taking on a process with too many moving parts, best to master doing one thing well. We put the French toast back on the menu. The process, I’m pleased to report, worked well. We were able to keep up with orders well, and for any little backups, we made clear to our understanding customers that we were working with a limited cooking setup. As for actual orders, the French toast produced mediocre results. Only 3 orders, and could have served 7. With the exception of the pure maple syrup (which is in a big bottle and won’t go bad right away) it’s not an expensive prep process, so we are going to give it another try next weekend.

2. Expenses

This is where we have to do the most work, and by “we” I mean “me.” Before this daily catering/food sales, our only corporate purchases were: 1. Food for the community dinners, or 2. Kitchen/cooking equipment. Early on we had one or two big purchases of equipment, and every month we had one big purchase of food. The receipts were long, but it was all right there. Food...or not food.

Now it’s become a little harder to sort out. I am grocery shopping literally every day except Saturday (when I’m usually doing our personal shopping.) Given our volume of sales, the perishability of the items we’re purchasing and preparing, not to mention our lack of storage capability, there’s not a lot of opportunity for bulk savings (yet). In other words, I can’t buy a bag of 100 green peppers (which is possible to do, trust me) because too many of them will go bad before we could use them, and where the heck would we put them in the meantime? So, it’s a game of 1s and 2s, largely.

That wouldn’t be such a problem, except for the non-food portion of what we have to buy. Plates, napkins, utensils for serving, for instance. Those little plastic things, called souffle cups, where I put butter, or jam, or salsa. Boxes of pre-cut aluminum foil sheets for burrito rolling. Food-handling gloves (I go through 2 boxes a week, usually, and they’re not really cheap). Cleaning supplies. Anyway, the list goes on. I buy many of these things almost as often as I buy, say, eggs, or tortillas, or tomatoes. The simple answer could be to simply do 2 or more separate transactions in any given trip, or I could just come through these receipts and pull out the relevant figures.

The reason this is important is arriving at a clear, and simple, cost-per-item for my products. Yes, I realize HOW important - nay, crucial - this is. I’m planning to, if necessary, do the separate transactions thing this week. Before that, I’ve been entering my receipts into my spreadsheet, and I’m going to comb through each of them from the past week and get my average cost per item.

At a high level, I know the numbers work. I can buy 150 eggs for $19. There are 3 eggs in a frittata, which I sell for an average of $10. Other than that it’s a handful of cheese, diced potatoes, roughly 1.5 pieces of bacon, and some diced onion. There’s margin there. I just need to know precisely how much. The other piece of helpful info is that I think I know have all the equipment I need. Up to this point there’s always one more pan, or tray, or spatula needed. (And I really mean NEED, as much as I enjoy all of this, there are no wasted kitchen gadgets on our shelves.) So from here on out, it will be either food or serving-related items.

3. Sales

Sales revenue increased everyday, Tuesday through Saturday, this past week of November 4th. Now, a big part of this falls squarely into the “duh” category: I prepared and offered more each day. Naturally, you have the opportunity to sell more if you offer more product. Of course, that’s not a given. And when that’s not a given, you have waste, something I’d like very much to avoid.

But that was not the story this week. I made more, and The People (insofar as they’re concentrated at Rosebud Coffee…) responded enthusiastically. We’ll find out this week if that was just a blip on the radar, though I am optimistic that this is an indication that Rosebud’s customers are getting familiar with what we’re doing, coming to expect that we’ll be there offering food, and perhaps even planning to eat our food while at Rosebud. One further encouraging sign is that I’m developing friendly repartee with a number of regular customers who have come to enjoy my food.

4. Partnership

Rosebud was interested in this partnership not merely for charitable reasons. They need more revenue, and offering food for sale is a good way for a coffee shop to get it. They have a certain sales figure they want to be hitting each day, and I’m pleased to report that, thanks in part to our presence and offerings, they hit it at least once this week. Furthermore, they had what looks to be a record sales day on Saturday, when they’re only open from 7-11am. Not surprisingly, we also had a record sales day on Saturday. Rising tide, meet your boats.

5. Expansion

One way to increase volume is to open a second location. That’s also a great way to go bankrupt, and insane. Fortunately, my model requires significantly less infrastructure. This past week, while having an adulterous cappuccino at another coffee shop nearby, I spoke with the owner/manager and asked if he was interested in selling my burritos as well. I am pleased to announce that PCSC products are now available at Ambrose Coffee:

We’re starting out small, and reception has been limited but positive. Time will tell. Fortunately, the effort involved in making, say, 24 burritos, is note really anymore than making 12. We could easily increase volume by 50% or more with just a couple hours’ more work.

6. New Opportunities

My approach to, well, everything with PCSC is “Say YES, then figure it out.” This is not necessarily a way to live one’s life in all regards. But when you’re struggling to build your business and get your brand out there, it’s not an altogether bad approach. I’m pleased to announce that we recently completed, or will soon be working on, the following opportunities.

“Coffee & Crepes” at Christ Church in Sierra Madre

Have you ever made a crepe? I hadn’t either, until about 12 hours before this event.

Ampersand Networking Dinner

Pasadena Community Supper Club has been asked to provide the food for two upcoming dinners for Ampersand, a local networking event. These will be hosted at - you guessed it - Rosebud.

Baby Shower

One of my regular customers contacted me about catering the food for his daughters’ (yes, plural) joint baby shower. The event is likely to have 100+ people at it. If you’re immediate thought is “Dude, you couldn’t handle like 20 people for brunch a few weeks ago,” I’d remind you that we’re preparing 100 or more servings for our community dinners at Centennial Place.

Yet to be confirmed Conference Lunch Catering

Perhaps the craziest thing on the ol’ radar is the opportunity to cater lunch for the attendees of a large (1,000+) at a conference hosted by a well-known local church. This is still in the proposal process, so I don’t want to share the name of the group or event just yet. To be clear, there are over a thousand people at the conference, but they expect 200-300 to buy tickets for their lunch. That’s a lot, I realize, and we’d need to scale up a bit for it, but there’s tremendous opportunity with this.

All of these opportunities are the result of my daily breakfast/lunch sales. I hand out our business card to every single customer and giving them my little elevator pitch about what we do. I like to think part of the reason people buy our food is that it supports our work. Apparently some people like the food enough to give us shot doing a little more.

7. “Why are you doing this again?”

If that’s question (particularly if you’ve donated to our organization), that’s a fair question, and something that needs addressing.

The goal of our food sales and catering work is simple: to have a revenue source independent of donor support. I hope you reading this - and others - will continue to support us financially. (More updates on the 501(c)3 thing soon, BTW. But it’s not realistic to expect that we can grow and serve more people without more money.

I have five benchmarks for success for this work:

  1. Break even - we’re really, really close.

  2. Bring in $500/month in net revenue - this would fund our monthly dinner at Centennial Place.

  3. Reach $1,000/month in net revenue - this will allow us to prudently expand our charitable operations to include another community dinner event, possibly at Centennial Place, possibly elsewhere.

  4. Hire someone out of the homeless or low-income population we are serving, and pay them a living wage.

  5. Turn the day to day food operations at our locations (Rosebud, Ambrose) over to the individual or individuals we hire.

What will I do then? First of all we’re quite a ways from needing to deal with that. Second, that is exactly the kind of “problem” I hope to have one day.

Thanks for reading, and for your support.