living underground in the real world

the silent retreat.

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(I wrote this in September.)

New Paltz is a nice middle-class town. I like that. It would benefit from some diversity in genetic makeup and income levels, but unlike some east coast small towns, it’s not crammed with rich people.

That’s really important to me. I hate it when you go to some “quaint” small town and walk around and by dinnertime you’re so depressed about income disparities and the loss of a middle class in America today that you don’t even want to find a good restaurant. There are some truly amazing fancy houses in New Paltz, but they tend to hide themselves deep in the woods.

There is, however, one very fancy house in New Paltz, so big and fancy that it literally stares out at us, its subjects, all day long. Actually, it’s a castle. In the sky. A sky-castle. With a sky-lake. A sky-lake made of raindrops. Really.

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There’s a little tower, Skytop, that is synonymous with New Paltz: it winks out at us as we go about our middle-class business, staring with its Cyclops eye in the center left of the mountain range that edges the town.

The sky-castle is called Mohonk, and most of us have affection for it. Like everyone else in town, I have friends who work here, and they report that overall, conditions are fair and favorable for the hundreds of residents who make a living serving the Fancy People who come to stay in the sky-castle for a night or a week or a while.

The Smiley family, who own and built Mohonk are generally beloved figures (and I’m not just saying this because one of them comes into the shop often). Their environmental ethics are unparalleled, and their devotion to preserving open space in New Paltz is deep and well-documented.

Back to the sky-castle in the minute.

Jacob is in Europe.

I never get jealous of where Jacob’s (other) job takes him, but I’m jealous of this trip. Early fall in Europe? Come on. I usually love my job so much that travel doesn’t appeal to me, but the shop is running so smoothly right now that I’ve been having these weird stress-free days. It’s odd. We’re in the caesura of the year, this quiet time before the fall and winter chocolate madness sets in. We’re laying in supplies, bulking up, training our new hires. Eyeing the onslaught to come. Before it does, I decided to take a silent retreat, to sort out my heart a bit.

It’s been a funny week.

In the past week an article about a crazy vegan chocolatier with anger issues named Lagusta was published in the big foodie magazine up here, Edible Hudson Valley. Then a little article mentioning us was on Fox News’ website. In New York in a few weeks, a woman is doing a cabaret show about chocolate, and she’s going to sing a song about one of our chocolates. We’re about to get another weird bit of semi-big press, too. And we’re currently working on a wholesale order for the Discovery Channel, hundreds of boxes to give out at the upfronts, where they unveil the new fall shows.

Do you see what I mean? A funny week. A week not like other weeks. Also, Yom Kippur, where I’m supposed to be thinking about who I want to be in the next year.

It’s all I’ve been thinking about.

In the middle of this funny week, I went to a meeting.

Here’s the deal: we need to buy one piece of equipment that will allow us to work more efficiently and quickly. This piece of equipment is many many many thousands of dollars more than we have saved up, and every day that we don’t have it, we’re wasting time and our precious labor hours.

I went to the meeting because we need to expand.

And I went to the meeting because I don’t believe in Kickstarters, where you ask fellow struggling people to give you money so you can make money, money you are not going to share your fellow struggling people after you make it.* That just irks the hell out of me, begging for free money like that. I could never do it with my head held up high.

The meeting was with “a small business investment fund focused on the Hudson Valley” which “targets” the “food & beverage industry sectors.”

The meeting was with rich people.

Rich people who want to support small food businesses in the Hudson Valley? The best kind of rich people!

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Hold on. Before I tell you about the meeting, I want to tell you about Jacob.

When I met Jacob, 16 years ago, he was a Mechanical Engineering major in college. He told me he wanted to switch to Music, but wasn’t totally sure. I called him a sell-out, caring more about making money in the future than doing what he loved. (I’m really good at judging people I barely know based on limited information.) Within a few weeks he’d switched his major.

Music was a good major for him, but in every job since college he’s been an engineer.

Sound engineering has been his primary engineering work, which nicely combines both interests. In his heart he is a man who likes to make things work well. For the bands that he works with he’s the logical, organized underpinning that allows the artists on stage to ply their trade—if you can’t hear the music, what good is the music? Sound engineering is a deep art: how to translate the vision of an artist to the audience. Jacob is the medium through which artists communicate, truly. He’s worked with the same few bands for over a decade now. You never let a good sound engineer go.

A while ago, when Jacob started taking on more responsibility at the shop, we made this plan: I’m the artist, he’s the engineer. It was amazing—he’s the only person I truly trust to organize the logistics of the business, and there is nothing he loves like organizing logistics. So why not let him do it? He fills the same function in the shop he does on tour: we make the chocolates, he figures out the best way to get them to customers. The best packaging, the best shipping systems, the best website. There is always so much engineering to do.

One day, Jacob sent an email to the “small business investment fund focused on the Hudson Valley.” He was stuck in an airport in Ireland. He’d known, as engineers tend to know, that we needed to expand, and in order to expand we needed more money than we have, for a long time. I, typical oblivious artist-type, never thought about stuff like that, was just dumb and happy to go to work every day, puppylike in love with my world, my dreams filled with what next month’s chocolate will be, nothing more. I figured things would go on like this forever: exciting, inefficient, awesome.

The small investment fund people wrote back, and when Jacob came home from Ireland I picked him up from the airport and we talked. He slyly, in typical Jacob-fashion, brought up the idea of a loan in order to expand. I scoffed. Us! Ha! We don’t do things like that.

Within two days I’d seen the wisdom of his idea. It’s funny when that happens. When someone says something that totally changes your point of view. Now every day I go to work and notice how we’re being so inefficient without the new equipment.

And now we had a meeting to go to, and Jacob was in Europe.

So I had to go to the meeting alone.

An artist, talking about engineering things.

I was nervous. I shaved my legs washed my hair put on a nice vintage dress nice vintage heels, went to a nice modern office. I brought with me a folder, and in the folder were charts Jacob had made. Color-coordinated pie charts and bar charts with income levels, expense levels, labor costs.

And when I left the meeting I had secured for us a loan, a super super low-interest loan, the kind of loan no bank would ever give to a food business already mortgaged up to our eyeballs. I yelled Bikini Kill songs at top volume all the way home from the meeting. I did it! I couldn’t believe it!

We’ll have the new equipment in less than two months. Jacob and I are going to save some bucks by renting a U-Haul and getting it ourselves, fresh off the boat from Italy, in Buffalo. They’ll train us on how to use it, too.

After the meeting I was really proud of myself, for taking this step off the deep end and being a real businesswoman.

But there’s still this little niggling part of my heart that feels so weird about the business these days.

So: the two-day silent vacation. I wanted to pull that weirdness up out of me, unfold it like messy origami on the bedspread, and stare at it for a while. Jacob’s in Europe, the shop can run without me for two days.

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I thought about where to go. Friends had brilliant ideas, but in the end, my hatred of driving and unwillingness to ask a friend to feed my cats led me to a crazy idea: what if I pretended I was a rich person and stayed at the sky-castle for a night or two? I did a lot of online searching, and found a crazy deal on a mid-week stay. I booked it, and here I am, sitting on a sunny balcony, literally looking down at my town.

Here is the uneasiness, as clearly as I can explain it:

Falling into the open arms of this expansion means I need to move my heart fully over into a territory its been edging into for about a year now: admitting I will always be a boss, will never have the quietness of the business the way it was for the first five, even first seven, years, before other people started helping me out with everything. For those years I was just messing around, making almost nothing but learning so much. Now I’m teaching people things, every day, and we’re hiring people all the time, it seems, and we might, someday, even get to the point where we can actually provide good jobs, not just good jobs if you’re a college kid—jobs with health care! Jobs with paid vacations! Things I’ve been dreaming of for myself for years. Someday soon we might be able not only to provide those things for ourselves, but for our amazing team, too.

I see all these fuckin possibilities, how far we could go if we let ourselves go far. Vegan organic fair-trade delicious chocolates in every health food store in America! It sounds funny to think about…but why not?

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Most people do this thing when they start a business called Making A Business Plan. I did this thing called “I wonder if chocolates would be fun to make / God I can’t stand to work for The Man.” And I did it, obliviously, until two years ago, when I realized I was running a business devoted to chocolate. The past two years have been sort of like this past week: surprising. Not bad, just…weird.

It’s time for me to get over the weirdness once and for all and embrace that I’ve got a real business on my hands.

That’s always how I think about it: “a real business.” Obviously we’re a real business now, we have payroll and custom packaging and taxes and all that, but we’re getting more real by the minute. I’m damn close to hiring a bookkeeper. For someone who is really, really into control—and there is not a successful small business owner on the planet who is not really, really into control—each of these steps, steps where I need to step away, are stabs. Yes, I hate entering my receipts into the accounting software, yes it takes away from time I want to spend with chocolate. But hiring someone else to do it? That makes me so nervous I can’t sleep.

Here’s the thing with the machine we’re going to get. It’s awfully close to a robot who does our chocolatey jobs for us. It’s called an enrobing machine, and if you’d asked me three, even two years ago if I’d ever get one I would have given you a long disquisition on why Chocolatiers With Enrobing Machines Are Sell-Outs. Hand-dipped!, I would yell. That’s what we do! We hand-dip everything! Handmade chocolates, that’s our thing!

The thing is, though. Have you ever had a job where you handmade everything? If you have, you know what I’m going to say. It’s a real fucking pain. And sometimes it’s just stubborn stupidity, honestly. Sometimes hand-making everything is great—we’ll never use a horrifying caramel mix to make our sea salty caramels, I would literally rather die—but we hand-dip things that would actually be tastier and better if they were enrobed. Our caramels would have a thinner layer of chocolate, which is tastier. We double-dip all our caramels because we make a relatively soft caramel and it would ooze out of its chocolatey shell otherwise, and standing there dipping 300 caramels at a time TWICE—it’s ridiculous. It’s not an artisan technique—anyone can do it perfectly after the first 50, then your brain feels about like its about to fall out of your ears by around the next 50, and by number 300 you sort of want to throw something. Preferably at the person who just asked you to double dip 300 caramels.

Truffles, on the other hand, are an entirely different beast. Truffles are not truffles unless they are round and are hand-dipped, and dipping a truffle truly is a skill. How you get that little swirl on top, how you tap it against the side of the chocolate bowl to get all the excess chocolate off—truffle dipping is meditative. Simple, but not easy. You can spend a lifetime perfecting your truffle technique. We’ll always hand-dip our truffles.

Here’s something: we don’t do much wholesale. Mostly because I do not understand wholesale. Why would I sell my stuff for cheap for your shop where you will potentially put it next to a warm window in a stuffy room, when we can’t make enough of it to even sell at regular prices in my perfectly temperature- and humidity-controlled shop? This is where my thoughts are stuck. Retailers seem to know this, since no one really buys our stuff wholesale once they see our wholesale pricelist. Our wholesale prices are too high according to everyone who knows anything about business. I don’t mind this, because, as mentioned, I don’t want to do wholesale anyway.

If we didn’t pour so much labor into our products, we could afford to sell them—some of them at least—for a better price without me tearing my hair out. And if we had equipment that allowed us to make more of them at a time, we could actually make wholesaling a vital part of our business.

And then we could take the people who are stuck standing at the tempering machine for hours on end, double-dipping caramels by the hundreds until their eyes are falling apart, and put them in front of our shiny new enrobing machine, and they can make and package and ship wholesale orders. The funny thing is that the robot-machine would actually allow us to provide more good jobs, because it would (will!) force us to expand our business.

That’s the plan.

The plan depends on three things:

  • An enrober, and the funds with which to buy it.
  • Increased business in order to pay off the loan for the enrober and…you know, expand and stuff.
  • Lagusta not to feel like a sell-out because of making chocolate that is 10% more mechanized than it was yesterday and because her business is “a real business.”

Everything is falling into place, I can see that, except #3.

So: two days.

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I went up to Skytop this morning—you can climb right to the top. On a clear day you can see six states, and it was a very clear day.

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But all I really wanted to pick out was where the shop is, and where my house is. Those two barometers of my soul, separated by two slim miles. Impossible to find from such a height, but I followed my eye from the ugly SUNY college building down and to the left, then to the right, and I knew I was looking right at them: the women inside the shop talking about the poetry they’re reading and the people they’re crushing on while they eye the chocolate, wondering when the hell it’s going to come into temper because we’re running out of turtles and the wrath of customers who cannot have turtles is not a wrath they want to feel that day. And my sunny little 1960s house, with the cats inside quiet and heavy with morning sleep.

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It was perfectly clear, and I just stood and looked at my two little landmarks for so long. My heart was beating away in its iambic pentameter way, and verily to be or not to be was the question I was asking myself as I stared at my loves from so high up.

Do we want to expand, really go for reaching the potential all of us feel at the edge of our fingertips? Or do we want to stay small, “quaint,” and limit ourselves?

I took a deep breath, stared at this town. Things are different now, my heart was screaming at me. Different than I thought they would be. The heart really has trouble with that, doesn’t it? Adjustments. In high school I read a lot of Douglas Coupland, for some reason. In Microserfs, there is this incredibly cheesey line that one character says to another when she’s falling in love against her will: “I thought I was going to be a READ ONLY file. I never thought I’d be…interactive.”

That’s me, man. Falling in love with the potential of the shop, my heart pounding all the way.

I wanted to live in a quiet room, listening to audiobooks and silently dipping caramels. It seemed noble, or something. But today things are so interactive: I come to work, put out fires, teach others what I want to be doing, try to quiet my mind when the noise of the machines and the gossip and the music and the customers is pushing away at my soul. Now I have all these techniques to have quietude in me even when the world is screaming at me. I keep a part myself in reserve. Sometimes after everyone leaves I let it out: this silent soul, writing down new recipe ideas in my notebook, watching caramel climb the pot, thinking deep and hard. But more and more these days new chocolates come about this way: I have an idea, and I discuss it with the other women at the shop. We test it out. My quiet nights are becoming more and more collaborative. I trust them with my newborn ideas. I don’t quite want to believe that I do. But I do. I trust them with everything, and even though I tell myself my solitude is everything, the truth is: more and more I want to create things with them.

Our team. I stared at them, just past the break in the trees I figured was the Wallkill River: a little shop in a little building on a little street.

A not-so-little shop.

A growing shop.

A growing…company.

Slow, sustainable growth—growing according to our values. So much more than I’d ever dared to hope for, or dream of, really.

It felt so good to look at them, think about them working away in the beautiful world we’ve created together.

Tomorrow I’d be right alongside them.

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*For some reason, Kickstarters for art and music projects don’t bother me. These are usually, let’s face it, mostly non-profit enterprises which are essential for our souls and for which funding has been miserably and miserly-ly cut as of late. But a food business? Listen, no one had worse business sense than me when I was building my business, and if I can figure out how to turn a profit, you can too, honey. Don’t ask your college roommate and your piano teacher to kick in for your organic pretzel-dog cart. Write a business plan, take out some credit cards, start small, and work your ass off. Look yourself in the eye in the mornings. Be beholden to none.

(December 2013 note: the retreat worked. I’ve been more comfortable with my role and the expanding business lately. It feels right. I am now a person who wakes up and looks at inc.com. Horrifyingly it is more interesting to me than anything else on the internet even including that video of a puppy learning to howl. I then use my Evernote Web Clipper to save relevant articles (“Having Trouble Finding Talent? Look Beyond Resumes” “2 Interview Questions That Separate Doers from Poseurs: Assessing Candidates Quickly” “One Company’s Hiring Secret: Always Be Training”) to Evernote, marked up with handy arrows so I can return to them later and/or share them with my team THIS IS ME NOW

I AM THE THING

and it feels just fine.)

3 Responses to “the silent retreat.”

  1. thatbettin

    Congratualtions, Lagusta. It’s awesome to be a part of your adventure, as you let yourself see the potential of your business and be inspired by that to change as a person. Hoping to see your chocolates in Europe sooner or later. Yours, Bettina

    Reply

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