Sunday, January 27, 2008

covering the $495 spread

been an interesting week. monday was a holiday but tuesday marked the day inspectors for our new roasterie would start descending on our humble operational headquarters. in all, there were six division inspectors who would need to give their john hancocks saying we were good to go: building, mechanical, health (food), fire, electrical and plumbing. no problems, i figured. i'm sure we won't be 100% in the clear; but we should have at least enough stuff done to merit at least a provisional okay. plus, i'm articulate enough to snow my way through the rest of what we may lack. and that's pretty much how it went down. but not before long stretches of boredom and doubt. everyone was supposed to show up on tuesday. but oh yeah, these are bureaucrats. nothing happens on time or according to plan. and we pay them several hundred dollars for the privilege.

first, let me say that inspectors are worse than the cable guy. we always thought the four hour window of arrival the cable guy gave was bad. these inspectors say you have to be there between 7:45am-4:30pm. no clue when they might arrive. and you'd better be there. if you are gone for a quick lunch and they show...toast. if they arrive before you in the morning, God help you. and calling them is no help because they never return their voicemails. now, normally all this wouldn't be so bad. i have stuff to roast and ship and there's still plenty more to arrange in our new space. except for the bottom sentence on the envelope they give you to hold all your inspection paperwork which reads: "It is unlawful to occupy the premises until all inspections have been cleared." i got really hung up on the meaning of the word "occupy." did that mean we couldn't have any of our stuff in there, even if it was practically all in piles (which it was)? did it mean we just couldn't be up and running, making money at what we do? could i fire up the roaster and service my wholesale accounts? would the smell of roasted coffee tip them off that we had already jumped the gun? what would my lie, er, excuse be for the smell? would they believe that the place had already been freshly painted before i got in there? i decided to keep everything in a sort of working funk, stuff piled in corners or under other junk that i knew i could use but that looked, to the casual, non-coffee-industry observer, just like a pile of stuff. functional disarray, i called it. if we jumped the gun, or looked as though we were jumping the gun, no soap. back to square one.

i was really concerned about this issue and worried they would find my level of moved-inness to be illegal, thus voiding my application and sending me to said square one. i was worried, alright...that is, until the first inspector showed up. six hours into my wait, mind you. his visit took all of four minutes and was a breezy pass. my first one down. after that i could breathe a little easier, having suddenly remembered an age-old truism: bureaucrats simply don't give a hoot. they don't care whether or in what stage i am "occupying" the premises. honestly, i doubt half of them cared at all whether i called for inspections or not.

at the end of day one i had three inspections down and three to go. electric gave me a provisional green light, granted i got some minor stuff switched around. the building inspector literally spent all of 45 seconds in the place, asked what other inspectors had already shown up, said, "you're looking good here," and signed off. it was the final visit of the day that got me a little riled. the mechanical division inspector showed up, made a bee line toward the vertical ventilation stack for the roaster(s) and began rubbing his thumb and index fingers on his chin in that quizzical way. after about 30 seconds of that he said only, "um, no." to which i said, "um, no, what, sir?" to which he said, "where did you get this?"

me: i built it.
he: you did?
me: well, yeah. me and my father in law.
he: how?
me: well, with this 4" and 8" double wall ducting, those braces holding the ducting to the rafters, that aluminum tape, that flashing and those screws holding said flashing to the roof and the rain guard up top of it."
he: how does it work?
me: (i explain some of the technical aspects of the roasting and ventilation process)
he: um, no.
me: um, no, what, sir?
he: well, you gotta have a licensed and bonded contractor build that for you.
me: why? it works. why should i pay someone else to do what i can do for free?
he: where are the specs?
me: what specs?
he: the specs from the roaster.
me: what specs from the roaster?
he: the specs telling you how to build this thing. i can't sign off on this unless i see the roaster manufacturer's specs saying this layout isn't gonna burn the whole building down.
me: no disrespect sir, but isn't that the fire marshal's call?
he: well, i still need the okay from the roaster manufacturer.
me: i...don't think the roaster manufacturer is in the business of doing ventilation specs. they do roasters, not ventilation systems.
he: i can't pass this, then.
me: then what am i supposed to do?
he: get the specs from the roaster saying it's okay to build it this way.
me:, well, would it help you if i just turn on the roaster and show you how it works?
he: no.
me: well then can i just call my roaster manufacturer now and get him on the phone so he can tell you we're okay?
he: no. i need to see the specs.

...and so it went for another couple minutes of back and forth. city bureaucrats. cannot see beyond the specs. no forest for the trees. seriously. stop to think for a minute and take a look at it and realize that it is probably the best darned built, most solid thing you've seen all day, dude. and realize that you probably see a bunch of crap-built stuff by so very many "licensed and bonded contractors." and stop once more to realize that all you really need to do is step out of the theoretical world of covering your a** and step into the world of a) turn it on; b) examine whether it does what we say it does and c) it poses no threat to anyone/anything because it's very simple, basic and safe technology; and you'll be just fine. but no. he needs. to see. the specs. now...i realize that this is for my own protection and whatnot, yada yada yada. but seriously. what is it that is so magical about having to pay a contractor? you will only pay more and have it done less well and then have to pay them again in six months to fix what they only should've done right the first time.

anyways, after day one we were 2-1. that evening (after bureaucrats go home for the day) i spent the next four hours roasting and bagging and got home after a 21 hour day. the next day, nobody showed up. i got up after 4 hours of sleep, sped over there to arrive on time...and waited the whole freaking day while NO ONE showed. doing nothing but watching dvd's on the computer, trying to "not occupy" the building, reading a book, listening to some new demo's from questions in dialect's summer release, doing a touch of textual analysis on the fascinatingly complex theological syllogism that is Romans 1-3 (it's in the Bible), eating leftover saltines because i was too scared to leave for lunch lest i miss someone, and so forth. wasted day on the inspections front. (if the shoe had been on the other foot and i had made them wait there...!)

thursday morning came the fire marshal. another two minute visit. another clear pass. why hadn't the mechanical division guy given his approval so easily, i asked the marshal? he couldn't tell me. suggested i appeal to his supervisor. i said i would. he said he'd come back in a few weeks to buy some coffee. i said he could have a bag on me. he began to get a scared look on his face. i realized he thought i might have been offering him a bribe. i told him to come back and pay full price when i was "occupying" the building. plumbing division inspector also came thursday. another quick green light.

all that remained was the health department. after three calls and voicemails to their department on wednesday and thursday and no reply, i could only assume they would show on friday.

and so they did. late on friday. as in, i was almost leaving for the weekend. and i received disappointing news. the long and short of it is that they expect me to pay $500 for a sink to wash a single $5 piece of equipment once every other week or so. no rats were dancing in the rafters. no cockroaches were squirming in the beans. the place was spotless and we were in tip top shape (that is, for someone who wasn't actually occupying anything). all except for the stainless steel scoop i measure beans with. not to code. filthy. full of disease and pestilence and every malodorous thing imaginable. at least that's how the inspector made me feel. in fact, the scoop is shiny and clean and has not a trace of dirt on it. and yet i will be required to purchase a full-on heavy duty commercial sink so that this scoop can be washed, then rinsed, then sanitized and put back into production. $500 for $5. sounds like a bureaucrat at work. no forest seen for the trees.

now, let it not be thought that i am anti clean or anti sinks. and in fact the sink is on our budgeted list of purchase items. only not for a couple months down the line when we actually begin to serve things using utensils and whatnot that require washing, rinsing and sanitizing, i.e, things that people will use to directly consume food. not this stainless steel scoop that will scoop beans that will then be roasted to well over twice the temperature required to kill any bacteria in any food item on the planet.

alas. if you want to dance with the pretty girls you have to dance with the ugly ones first.

it's true. moving into a new place will always cost you more and take longer than you think. even if you think about it taking longer and costing more than you originally thought. and in the final analysis none of this is a deal breaker or will be much more than a couple speed bumps on the road to a successful new plateau for brown. but it's fun (yes, fun in its own wretched, not-making-sense way) and you learn from it and become better. for now, though, i just want the green light to actually "occupy" the building so i don't have to be roasting in the dead of night.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

try not to burn the place down

so we're rolling.

today, more than many a recent day, i felt a surge of momentum carrying me forward on a number of fronts. a couple highlights include finally facing the prospect of having our floors deglued and ground smooth for sealing by the weekend; having our new t-shirts in stock and ready to roll out (they are cool and indie and very d.i.y.-ish); getting our ventilation and ducting ready at the roasterie for inspection; having some very interesting discussions on our local texas coffee boards about the structure of espresso blends and whether more or less beans may be "better;" and preparing to host some of our texas coffee pros for an afternoon of cupping, roasting and delicious margaritas afterward. just lots of cool stuff going on personally and professionally right now.

last night i was doing a couple test batches on the new ventilation stuff and i had quite a scare. all of a sudden the electrical outlet the roaster is connected to came to a screeching halt. with beans in it. hot. no electricity, no motor turning the drum. no roastie coffee, rightee? yeah. i don't have a long history of friendship with all things electrical--let us just say it all started when i shorted out all the lights on the back hallway of my junior high school one day on a dare...probably should've been killed by that stunt. and since it was pretty late at night and this is a new location for us and the roaster i wasn't too pleased to be seeing what i was seeing. after clearing out that ruined batch and resetting the breaker a bit later, i left the roasterie last night wondering how extensive the damage might be. well, night always gives way to day and upon inspection this morning it turns out there was a glitch in the roaster itself, not some systemic electrical deficiency in the building. should be easily enough solved.

and on we roll.

i just feel like we're heading into a good place. our first year was bone-crushingly difficult and slow as a business. last year i felt like i worked pretty hard to start building a little scratch here and there to somehow gain some momentum. not an unbeaten winning streak but just stringing together little wins at a time; then having streaks where you look back and have many more wins under your belt than losses for a given period. i ended the year thinking that this year would be a bigger year than we've had yet and so far those predictions are already proving true.
by nature i'm a pessimist about a good many things. doing something like moving into a new building and spending lots of my baby company's money on things like paint and glue-remover can seem hard to swallow. but when you meet people so quickly in your new place who begin to get very excited to see what you're doing and begin to open the doors of their resources and contacts to help you succeed at a greater level...that's inspiring.

we hope to have an open house in early february and i'd like to invite you all to come visit our new place and to see the stuff brown is becoming. we'll post up something here and what a treat it'd be to see you all here.

the good news is that this is not a blog just about my company. i'm also glad to see my own coffee growth as well. it is always key in a small company to grow ahead of the pace your company grows. otherwise you may be ill-equipped to lead it ere long. i'm always looking to grow; but i just feel like lately a renewal of all things coffee has come around for me and i've just reentered one of those plateaus where the discovery of coffee and coffee stuff is new again, fresh and invigorating. you know how that works? you sometimes just get to the place where it's dull, like you're not learning or spewing out anything new, where nothing exciting is happening. it's times like those when you start not only feeling dragged down but you start criticizing in your heart anyone who is showing any hmph to express something new and different. maybe that's just the perspective i had as the year closed out and i sat staring at batch after batch after endless batch tumbling in my little roaster, wondering if i would ever finally reach the next level, if all the blood, sweat and tears i had lost in this thing would pay off.

and as night turns to day, so december passes and january awakens me again to the possibilities of the new. it's amazing what positivism and determination can do for you. and it's true: the harder you work, the luckier you get.

i should be lucky this year. i will be. count on it.

come see us next month. watch this space for details.