Thursday, March 08, 2012

Q: What is the hardest lesson to learn about business?

A: Learning to give the people what they want

Back in my early twenties, when I thought wealth meant having a lot of money, I wanted some. With an undergraduate degree in Music Composition, the only option I saw available to me was to go into business for myself. I knew two businesses well. The first was gourmet foods, which I learned during high school at an after school job I had working in a gourmet store in Greenwich Village. The other was industrial sewing machines, an experience I acquired during the year that I spent between high school and college, working for a relative in the machinery section of the Garment District of New York, over in the West Twenties, off of 6th Avenue.

When it came time to put my borrowed money where my mouth was, I did the math and realized that I did not have nearly enough to establish myself, let alone compete, in the cut-throat, enormously capital intensive business of equipment manufacturing. So I opened a gourmet store in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Now you may be asking, “isn’t opening a store selling expensive food in a blue collar town such as Somerville a bit risky?” You’d be right to ask me this. But, at the time, I had great faith in the inevitable gentrification of the planet as well as my ability to sell snow to an Eskimo.

I opened 500 sq. ft. of retail space in Union Square, Somerville. To my right was an upscale pizza restaurant. A greasy spoon diner that sold burgers and steak n’ cheese subs was located to the right of the upscale pizza restaurant. To my left was a vacant storefront.

I sold expensive baked goods, cheese, crackers, some fancy jams and mustards, and high priced deli food. Also, I manufactured gourmet sandwiches that customers took out or ate at a little counter I set up in the window.

One morning, as I was sitting at the window having a cup of coffee before the lunch rush started, I saw a truck pull up and deliver a residential Kenmore stove and refrigerator, a few KitcheAid mixers and a glass showcase into the vacant storefront to the left of my establishment. Another truck pulled up a few minutes later and unloaded about twenty cases of Duncan Hines cake mix and icing. I could tell it was Duncan Hines because that’s what was written in big letters across each box.

I went about my day’s business.

The next day, lo and behold, I had a new neighbor, an erotic cake bakery. It was run by a guy named, Paul and a woman, whose name I cannot remember. The reason I remember Paul is that when I went over to introduce myself, he showed me the .38 revolver he carried in a holster inside his pants waist. You tend to remember people like this.

Anyway, it turns out that Paul and What’s-Her-Name had a very simple business model. What’s-Her-Name used the KitchenAid mixer to mix up a box of Duncan Hines cake mix with some milk and eggs. Then, she poured the batter into a penis or breast mold and baked the mixture in the Kenmore oven. Once baking was complete, she covered her creation with Duncan Hines icing in a variety of colors. When finished, she put her ware in the showcase. If What’s-Her-Name got tired of making penis cakes, she moved over to breasts. Paul sat at the showcase taking money from customers.

Advertising? No problem. Within a month of operation, the City of Somerville tried to shut them down, citing some obscenity statute. They closed for a day. News of the closing made it to all of the major telecasts in Boston. The judge threw the case out of court and they opened for business the next day selling their wares to a line of customers that extended out of the store and down the block. The buying public was hot to get some of those erotic cakes.

Paul and What’s-Her-Name’s business boomed. They made standard erotic cakes. They made custom erotic cakes. Many a party given in Somerville, Cambridge and parts of Boston was incomplete without one of their creations.

Me? I was going broke. My baked goods were made by a guy who came from 3 generations of European pastry chefs. I had a small following for Sunday morning croissants. Otherwise, the stuff went stale in my pastry case. My sandwich business paid the rent, but paled when compared to the burgers and steak n’ cheese sales that filled the coffers of the greasy spoon down the way.

Still, I did not give up hope. My stuff was better. I could make a go of it.

One day, at about 2 PM, after the lunch rush was over, a young man walked in and asked for an Italian. “What’s an Italian?” I asked.

“You know, some salami, cheese and the works,” he replied.

I showed him the menu of my wonderfully exquisite, gourmet sandwiches. “This is what we make here,” I said.

“I just want an Italian,” he said.

“Sorry,” I said.

He left and went down the street to the greasy spoon to get his Italian and give them his money. I never saw the young man again.

Paul and What’s-Her-Name thrived. They made enough money to open a bigger store near the Cambridge Court House. Seems lawyers wanted those erotic cakes too. Also, their expansion included tables, chairs and a counter for a luncheonette within the space. Now the buying public could have an Italian, a BLT, a burger or breakfast when not in the market for an erotic cake.

The greasy spoon continued to support its owners comfortably.

Me? I closed up shop within a year and got a job working with some of the roughest kids the Boston School System had to offer.

The takeaway? Now, whenever someone asks me for an Italian, or the allegorical equivalent, I do my utmost to ignore my opinions, predispositions and desires, and give the requester what he or she wants, not what I think he or she should have. Sometimes I am successful and sometimes I’m not. Right now I am running 70% in favor of the requester, which is a pretty good considering it took only thirty five years to get here.