When our eldest brother turned 18, my brother Mark and I bought him a joke birthday card. “Wow! You’re Three!” it read. I remember thinking this was hilarious and kind of still do. But for whatever reason, as the 3rd anniversary of the birth of Caplansky’s Deli arrived it was that stupid card that stuck in my head.
Understand: I’m not unaware of the significance of my achievement. The difficulty of the path I chose is so well known that you (if there’s anyone who still reads this blog I’ve not updated since Mothers’ Day) probably know the attrition rates of restaurants as well as I do. 80% don’t survive their first year. Of the 20% that make it that far, 80% of those don’t make it to their second year. I don’t know how true these numbers are or if they’ve simply lodged themselves in popular lore enough that everyone knows and believes them.
Regardless, I know that making it to through Year 4 is something to be proud of. And although I know that Pride is the first and worst of the Seven Deadly Sins, sitting here listening to Carol King sing Tapestry I am guilty of it.
Can it go without saying that this would never have happened except for the contribution of too many people to name? I know I’ll hate myself in the morning but I have to name a few names:
Charlotte Holmes was my first real friend. The first person who liked me for me. She was with me in 2007 at the Pourhouse Pub on Dupont waiting in vain for Hart Lambert to call to let me know he’d returned from Montreal with a Smoked Meat sandwich from Schwartz’s. At 1 am it became clear he wasn’t going to call.
I erupted in a combination of anger, frustration and hunger. “Why don’t we have this here?” I asked Charlotte. “Fuck this: I’m going to do it myself,” I told her. “I’m going to open a fucking deli.” Suddenly the anger subsided and I felt a peace I’d never known. My path was clear.
But that path is not easy and I couldn’t do it alone. When no one else would or could or did Charlotte believed in me. So did Tenzin Nordhen. I met Tenzin at the Magic Oven where I was the Manager. He started there as a pizza maker but quickly became my Assistant Manager.
Tenzin isn’t easy to describe. Born in India of Tibetan heritage, Tenzin grew up in India and Nepal. He came to Canada as a refugee. In many ways he is my opposite which is perhaps why we get along so well. Tenzin has trouble gaining weight. He learns quickly. He sees the heart of the matter with incredible acuity. But his real talent is with people. He simply sees the truth in people. In fact, Tenzin’s faith in me helped me persevere through times of enormous self doubt.
When he joined our team, things were not going well. We were losing money hand over fist. Hahahahahaha. I can laugh now but I wasn’t laughing then. Tenzin identified the strengths and weaknesses of our team. He identified the keepers and those we could do without. We made a plan and executed it.
Last year, 2011, was our turnaround year. Words cannot properly convey the difficulty he and I went through. We launched a food truck before we could properly manage it. We rallied our investors around our plan. We happen to have the best group of partners anyone could ask for. In fact, both Tenzin and Elaine Gold (our lead server who drives me nuts but I can’t help but love her anyway) both invested their own money at a critical time last year. When red ink turned to black in the second half of 2011 we knew we’d done it.
Then Dragon’s Den aired in November and the crowds returned just like we hoped they would. There was one day last November when Tenzin and I looked at each other and smiled. The deli was packed and our team was kicking ass. We knew what we’d done. It was an incredible moment.
Truth is I can hardly believe what my life has become. 6 years ago I was friendless, penniless and lost. My most valuable material possession was a beat up 1985 Yamaha Maxim 700 motorcycle. Maybe I had to push start it because I couldn’t afford a new battery but once started it provided the best moments of by life between 2002 and 2007. The saddle bags were torn. The seat ripped. The tank rusted. Even so, when I started smoking meat in the Monarch I went to Grace Meat Market and put those first briskets in the torn saddlebags.
I actually tried to sell the thing around 2005. I took it to one of the big motorcycle shows and entered into the used bike marketplace. Two jerks laughed at me when I wheeled it in. “Give ya $50 for that heap a shit,” one said. I stood next to that bike for three days so I could answer questions and entertain offers. None came. No questions. No offers.
I guess some people can’t see what I see. I love that bike. It took me down to New Orleans and back up to Montreal via the Blue Ridge Parkway, Shenandoah Valley and the Adirondack Range. Epic. For brief moments that bike helped me forget my pain and reminded me who I am.
I’ve been blessed with an indomitable spirit. And you better believe I need it in this business and in this life. There will be a time and a place to tell the full story of my life but it’s not here and it’s not now.
Now is a time to celebrate what we’ve done together. Me and you. Yes, YOU. I’d love it if you dropped into the deli on Tuesday September 11 for free latkes and maybe a l’chaim or two. Hugs and handshakes are welcome too.