Raise a Glass (and Fork) to the Risk-Takers

Suzanne Krowiak, Indy Food Swappers

Suzanne Krowiak, Indy Food Swappers

by Suzanne Krowiak

Risk is subjective, if you ask me. One person’s heart-stopping risk is another person’s muscle memory. It’s what the mind and body do. Naturally.

It’s one reason I’m so excited about the theme of this year’s Spirit & Place Festival, taking place from November 1-10 in venues all over Indianapolis. People have such different ideas about what risk means, the conversations should be fascinating.

When approached to write about my experience with risk, it was in the context of the Indy Food Swappers, a community event I founded where participants trade homemade and homegrown food with each other. Would I like to write about that? Sure. Why not?

But when I really thought about it, what am I risking exactly? I couldn’t come up with a good answer. I still can’t. Am I willing to risk that people will take home too much delicious, homemade food and be too happy? Yes! Sign me up for that risk!

When it comes to food, the risk-takers I revere the most are local chefs and restaurateurs. They’re the food trailblazers who put it all out there for the community to love or reject; to support or ignore. And they do it at great financial and emotional risk to themselves, and their friends and family.

I do know a little something about this.

My parents had a restaurant when I was growing up in Madison, Indiana. My stepdad (or as we knew him, Dad) managed the restaurant, created the menu, and did some of the cooking. My mom helped oversee things when she wasn’t working her day job as an x-ray technician at a local hospital, or going to night classes to finish her graduate degree.

“When it comes to food, the risk-takers I revere the most are local chefs and restaurateurs.”

Running and owning a local restaurant is a tough gig. There’s the financial risk, of course: building costs, equipment, furniture, insurance, employees, advertising. The list is endless.

And there’s the emotional risk: will people like what I have to offer? When they talk to their friends and colleagues, will they say good things or bad things about what I created for them? Will they ever understand how many of my waking hours are devoted to thinking, and re-thinking, and re-doing, and re-imagining ways to offer great food at a fair price in a comfortable setting? It takes a lot of courage to put yourself out there like that and wait for complete strangers to decide your fate.

And, in case you didn’t know, a restaurant is a jealous mistress. Out of sheer necessity, friends and family often come second. The workload and financial responsibility demand it. There were years when my brother, sister, and I had babysitters almost every night of the week. Our babysitter really was like a second mother, because she handled many of the parental duties when mom & dad were working.

The risk paid off for a while, and the restaurant did well for many years. Until it didn’t. I still remember being on a family trip to Florida, and dad was on the phone with his second-in-command back in Madison. When he hung up, I heard my parents discussing the fact that there wasn’t enough business coming in to meet payroll. There was a heaviness in the room I still remember, three decades later.

I don’t recall the exact sequence of events that followed, but it wasn’t long until the restaurant closed. They took one more stab at a location in a busier part of town, but it opened and closed quickly. By then, my mom had finished her graduate degree, and she took a job offer in hospital administration in Cleveland, Ohio. They said goodbye to the restaurant business for good. Dad died of lung cancer on Christmas Eve in 1999, several years after he and mom launched a busy healthcare consulting firm.

“If you have the choice between spending money at a chain with corporate headquarters in a land far, far away and a place that’s owned by a family in your community, choose the local family.”

And even though I’ve always admired chefs who were willing to take the leap and open their own place, it was only recently that I really understood the depth of my feelings. I was at my mom’s house in Ohio, looking through her cookbook collection. We came across my dad’s recipe folder from the restaurant days. It’s full of customer favorites and equivalency charts and cost-per-portion tables. And on the cover, in his handwriting, are the words “Weights and Measures-Recipes.”

IMG_0101There was something about seeing his faded handwriting on the cover of that beaten-up folder that took my breath away. He suddenly seemed so… vulnerable. And it hit me like a ton of bricks. THAT’S WHY. That’s why I feel so connected to chefs and restaurateurs, even those I don’t know personally. Because I understand instinctively how hard they work. What they, and their friends and family, sacrifice in order to provide a good experience for others, while simultaneously trying to make a living for themselves.

Let’s honor that risk by supporting them whenever possible. Pay attention to what they’re doing in the community. Spread the word when you’ve had a great meal. If you have the choice between spending money at a chain with corporate headquarters in a land far, far away and a place that’s owned by a family in your community, choose the local family.

They likely risked everything to be there. Pull up a chair and say hello.

Suzanne Krowiak is a Master Food Preserver and founder of Indy Food Swappers. A former television writer and producer, she currently teaches classes and gives presentations on food preservation and other D.I.Y. food topics. Follow her @indyfoodswap on Twitter.

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