Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Obsessions: Dimming of the Day

I developed a bit of an obsession this Fall, going into the winter. It's not often I fall deeply in love, especially with a song--so deeply I can't play or listen to anything else. But this one hit me like Romeo and Juliet from Making Movies, with its line "I can't do everything, but I'd do anything for you."

"Dimming of the Day" is one of Richard Thompson's most covered songs--it's simply beautiful. The other day I played it in the car for a friend, who said "oh I know this, it's a Bonnie Raitt song, it's so sad".

I also originally heard it as a love song, a broken-hearted, post-meltdown of love-gone-bad song:

This old house is falling down around my ears
I'm drowning in a river of my tears

It made me think of the quiet but crushing end of my marriage, and the years of working through everything wrong with me (both real and imagined). A good song will do that to you.

When listening through the filter of a continued yearning for a love gone bad, a lost best friend, it's touching and heartbreaking:

You pull me like the moon pulls on the tide
You know just where I keep my better side

What days have come to keep us far apart
A broken promise or a broken heart

and the refrain
I need you at the dimming of the day. 

My obsession led me to the somewhat all-knowing Internet. The Wikipedia entry suggests it was not written as a romantic love song, but an ode to God. Richard and his then wife Linda had recently converted to the Sufi Muslim faith, which his manager notes here:

'Richard came to me and said "look, my Mullah doesn't want me to play electric guitar. I don't know what I'm going to do about my career... I'm not going to be working."'

Linda is quoted as saying  "'Pour Down Like Silver was when Sheikh Abdul Q'adir said we could make music as long as it was to God... "Dimming of the Day", "Beat the Retreat", "Night Comes In", they're all about God...' 

The article suggests the song was written "in a centuries-old Sufic tradition of expressing divine love in earthly terms."

It's a different and differently beautiful song through that lens, but knowing Thompson I suspect he intended it to be interpreted both ways. My obsession (like playing it daily, learning it on guitar, signing it daily) ended when I started writing again; my new obsession is my own stuff, which I'll share sometime.

Live performance and complete lyrics below.

Dimming of the Day

This old house is falling down around my ears
I'm drowning in the river of my tears ("fountain" in this version)
When all my will is gone you hold me sway
I need you at the dimming of the day

You pull me like the moon pulls on the tide
You know just where I keep my better side

What days have come to keep us far apart
A broken promise or a broken heart
Now all the bonny birds have wheeled away
And I need you at the dimming of the day

Come the night you're only what I want
Come the night you could be my confidant

I see you on the street and in company
Why don't you come and ease your mind with me
I'm living for the night we steal away
I need you at the dimming of the day
Yes, I need you at the dimming of the day

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Lancaster Food Company: 20,000 Loaves Donated

One of the biggest challenges of building a commercial bread company is handling unsold product, otherwise known as waste.

From the beginning we donated any unsold product, initially to the Council of Churches Food Bank because I had a previous relationship with them from my Lancaster Community Gardens days. Over time we added a variety of food banks, kitchens, and churches, including Crispus Attucks and Water Street.

One of our key indicators is our "return rate"; it's the measure of invoiced products vs. unsold product; we give full credit to stores for unsold bread. We lose money when there's a lot, and we make money when there's only a few. When there are no returns, we're leaving money on the table because we don't really know the strength of the demand.

The ideal scenario is that we keep increasing the amount we deliver, and it always sells out, but that doesn't happen ofter, so the next best thing is we find the bottom of the market, which is indicated by just one or two unsold units of each variety.

We don't currently disclose our unsold rate, so I'll just say we've helped feed thousands of families since 2014. While it's been a source of pride for us, it's also a painful reminder that not all customers at all stores want or know about our products, and we have to do a better job marketing them.

And donating bread doesn't align with our goals to get to profitability: we want to donate less--not because we don't care, but because we need to be self-sustaining before helping others (put your own mask on first).

So we've been testing selling previously unsold product at Grocery Outlet, which has 22 stores in PA and over 300 in California. It's going very well, so we'll continue to add more of the PA stores, to the point we expect to reduce our unsold product to a very low percentage. This strengthens the company, gives people with lower incomes access to tasty, locally made organic bread at a lower price, and keeps read out of the waste stream.

We'll continue to make donations, and we hope to get back up to our previous levels, but only as part of our overall growth plan. We much prefer treating root causes of poverty (with income through thriving-wage jobs), and keeping the company on the path to profitability.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Tree

If we're friends on Facebook you might recognize this tree.

This is the long rambling story of the tree.

For over a year I've posted this tree regularly. The Christmas tree from 2015: 

The rain tree: 

The New Year's Tree (2016)
...which earned a comment from my friend:

Angelique Arroyo I like this tree's capacity to be many things. 🙌🏼

The Spring tree (2016)

The green tree

And one of my favorites

At some point someone commented "what is it with the damn tree?"

I must have posted well over 100 photos of the same tree. 

I've taken many more. I have a love affair with trees, particularly the grand sycamores next to creek beds, with their bright, bark-less branches. I'm obsessed with these large, beautiful trees, and I've taken thousands of photos of them. There's something about the way they capture light that lifts my spirit, especially during the darkest days of winter.

These are two of my favorite trees, these close companions. In the summer they're surrounded by lots of green and share a beautiful canopy. I imagine their roots intertwined, sharing water and carbon and nurturing healthy soil for other living things among them. 

I love to visit with them, see how they're doing, see how they change. 

election day, 2016
So this is the story of our tree. It's not much of a mystery but it's meaningful to me and a lot of people ask me about it. 

Bear and I take walks in the woods or fields almost twice daily when I'm not traveling. On dry days we'd hit the Loop (Farm view) at County Park or F&M's Baker field, but when it rains we head here or Kiwanis because they're mostly paved. But once I started the year of the tree, City View became the daily ritual, with few exceptions. 

Before we met this tree I would take pics of the beautiful trees, the beautiful reflections in water, my beautiful friend Bear, the beautiful sky. I wanted the beautiful family, and that hasn't worked out. The perfect album, the perfect song, the perfect love, the perfect concept, the perfect justice--just perfection all around. But in my daily life I'd sometimes struggle to find the beauty, the good in people, and in myself. Especially in myself. 

My world fell apart in 2008 and didn't stop falling until about 2013, but even then I hadn't really processed things. Back then I thought I could do no wrong--I was, after all, the founder of successful software companies, able to make money out of thin air, make the big things happen, and of course, I was always right, informed by what I thought was a sense of justice. I was arrogant and self-assured.

But in 2008 the economy crashed and I crashed the project I had started, hurting people along the way. I spiraled down and ballooned up. I've posted about those years so I won't rehash, but in 2013 things started to turn around. But something still wasn't working. Sufficiently humbled, I might have gone too far in the self loathing. Even with the excellence of the new company, finally working directly on changing the world and having impact on people's lives, I still didn't have it right. 

Our tree is a sycamore. 

It's not tall, beautiful, or grand; it's a flawed, weak, struggling sycamore, fighting invasive weeds and vines for sunshine and water, growing far from any creek bed on top of a landfill. 

One day I was about to post a picture of the perfect tree,

on the perfect day, and realized my pattern. I sought the obviously beautiful, the ideal, the excellent, instead of finding the beauty in the ordinary, the flawed, the struggling. It was always about the future perfect and not the present. For several years I listened to a Thich Naht Hanh lecture asking "do you see" about the how the tree is fed by the clouds, sun, and soil, and "smile to your eyes" in gratitude for the joy they bring, in every moment.  

It's hard to articulate; I'm writing this post in pieces and not everything connects. But on that day late in 2015 I decided to find the beauty in our struggling tree instead of the perfect one, and committed to posting only that one for a year. I felt like I needed to develop a discipline of it. Some days the beauty was in the fog, sometimes the moon, sometimes it was Bear, sometimes the vines seeming to hold the tree from its aspiring but unlikely glory. 

Sometimes it was the glow of the city in the far distance to the right, sometimes the wind, sometimes the deep blue sky on a summer's day, and sometimes it was just the tree persisting, day after day, fulfilling its purpose, a grand sycamore. 

On my mind on any given day might have been trying to make payroll, or the Syrian refugees, or challenging news from last year's election, or life without a partner, or the list of things I needed to get to later.  

But when I'd stop at the tree, it was the start of a meditation to clear my mind of all of that, and listen to the wind, or the leaves, or Bear's feet on icy snow. 

The first time I heard the following analogy I hated it. Thought it was hokey. Uncool. Because I'm so damn cool, I guess. 

"Put your mask on first before helping others." 

I would try to help others before myself. Maybe I felt I wasn't good enough. I've felt that way about certain people, too--that I just wasn't good enough for them. My pattern was to super-commit to something, throw myself into it with a sense of higher purpose, and ignore my own needs--physical, mental, emotional, and financial. They are mostly interrelated. I went from a pretty good natural athlete in high school in great shape (soccer) to an overweight depressive during companies 1 & 2 and after. One big difference? My obsession moved from soccer to music to building companies, and left the physical component aside. 

I'd work out occasionally, but not regularly, because I hated working out. Training to be the best at soccer, sure, I'll do that. Surfing half the day, yeah I'll do that. But going to the gym for myself? No. Couldn't do it. So I substituted bad practices for good. I'd work late. When I got home I was too tired to cook, or it was more convenient to go to a restaurant and get waited on, served decent hot food but with mediocre ingredients, too much salt, and a few glasses of wine or scotch. The comfort of a few drinks and a someone sharing light friendly conversation helped me rationalize it. But really if I went home alone, made dinner, and then had the evening ahead, well I just felt bored and alone. I couldn't just sit with it. So eating out all the time filled that hole, and well, I don't have kids so I could rationalize not saving the money. And that bummed me out too--we had tried when I was married but it didn't work out for us. Part of that long stretch was coping with the reality that maybe I'd never be a father. 

This Fall I was moved by the people at Standing Rock and their commitment and dedication to the cause of justice against a deeply flawed and imbalanced system of power concentrated for the few at the expense of the many. It spoke to me on so many levels, and when the State of North Dakota started using violence against people desperate to preserve their sacred land, traditions, water, and lives, it moved me to want to join them and help in some way, even if just showing support by being there. So I went with a group to make Thanksgiving dinner, which turned into a meal for 2,000. It was amazing. 

The next day we went to the camps, and I was struck by the rituals--the prayer, the ceremony, the storytelling at the fire, and the list of principles that helped keep the growing camp organized, healthy, and sane. At the gate was a sign that said "No alcohol beyond this point." I smiled and nodded in agreement. I had already been moving in that direction, so it wasn't a big deal. It felt like it was time. Over the next few weeks I ate out less and stayed in more, spent more time with family. I've been dropping weight pretty fast, sleeping much better, and started working out. It all feels really good and natural, and it makes me wonder how I got into that rut of false comfort. I'll have a glass of wine with a friend now and again, but that late dinner out alone is over. 

Since the summer I've spent more time with family, especially over at my sister's with her very entertaining kids, who are pretty good at dishing out a bad joke. I make dinner and lunch for myself, and sometimes breakfast, but I like my breakfast routine so I'm not changing that too much. When I get home I fill the time with writing, writing music, recording, or a bit of Netflix or a book. Like normal people, I guess. 

It took me a long time to learn to put the mask on first, but now that I'm doing it it feel natural. This week I plan to start putting the money I would have spent on false comfort into a college fund for my kids, and if I never have them, which is possible, it'll be for someone else's. 

Trees are amazing. I'm so glad we got to spend so much time with our tree, but it's time to move on. Maybe the discipline of it worked. Some days it felt like Groundhog Day, where I was practicing getting it right, to become the person I wanted to be, or rather to love the person I am. 

We've spent well over a year with our tree, and while we'll see it again, we took a different path today and focused on the sunrise. It was a cold morning, just 25 degrees and the ground was frozen. The shapes in the ground from horse tracks, shadows cast by the rising sun against the fields, the spots of blue sky through cloud cover, it was all beautiful, and flawed, and perfect, and we walked and listened to the wind. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Search for Expansion Space: Part I

About a year and a half ago, two professors from F&M released a report on Lancaster's poverty problems.

The rate is about 29%; you can find data like this at the US Census bureau or through cool tools like PolicyMap, which also gives very refined views of neighborhood statistics.

Before we started The Lancaster Food Company in 2013, I spent some time on PolicyMap to try to figure out where we should locate the company. It's a lofty goal--try to reduce poverty by hiring people living under the line who live within walking distance, and there isn't a lot of real estate available in the city for food manufacturing.

Some of the highest poverty rates were right around South Water Street and Hazel. So we looked very closely at a few buildings when we started. We passed on the building that became Spring House's third location. It's a very cool building, but it needed a lot of work and we're not developers. The property itself is two acres, and has a remarkable view of the city from its north side.

We ended up leasing a space completely inappropriate for food manufacturing, but we were eager to see whether we could prove our concept could become a viable company in the increasingly competitive certified organic food sector.
Liberty St space before the buildout

So we took a space at 341 East Liberty, complete with flaws and obstructions, and made it work. We invested in a conversion of the space with a loan from Community First Fund (the landlord would not finance a buildout for a startup), passed our USDA Certified Organic and FDA & PDA inspections, and literally took our products to market. Things really took off--we grew 30% every quarter until March of this year, when we hit production capacity.

We knew early on we'd need to expand, so we continued to look for space while growing the company at Liberty.

Just to the east of the Spring House building is the Brookshire Printing Company building. Across the street is a city-owned lot, warmly called Lot 13. We felt we could work with the Brookshire building, and went into contract with it. It needed work, but we're flexible and figured out something that could get us to our own sustainability, plus the location couldn't be beat for impact. The area's poverty rate was something like 60% at the time. 

The bank required an environmental report. A "Phase I Environmental Report" is basically a survey of the immediate area. Phase II requires samples from the site itself. Old cities tend to build on top of themselves. As standards evolve, cities adapt, sometimes by burying the past and looking the other way. Lancaster is no different. 

Well. The Phase I report was alarming. There are high concentrations of PCBs next door, uphill on the UGI site; PCBs can cause leukemia and a host of problems you don't want. PCBs were banned a long time ago (Monsanto was a primary manufacturer), but the site was never cleaned up. There was also benzene and lead. A visual inspection found a tank somewhere below ground level in a sort of basement with an unknown liquid in it. 

We balked. We couldn't imagine building a food company in a space that could be potentially poisoning us and our employees, or tolerate even the perception that we were making food in possibly dangerous conditions. If that sounds like an overstatement, please read about the Housotonic river after GE dumped tons of PCBs into it.

We also looked at Lot 13 across the street, and asked for the most recent environmental report. Again, very high levels of lead, benzene, and some other harmful chemicals. We would have had to remediate the site, which isn't currently part of our mission, so we passed.

Later this week I'll post Part II about the space that almost was, and what we eventually landed on. It's been a long, challenging process that almost killed the company. 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Lancaster Transparency?

I'm happy for Kyle and Crystal--they'll be great owners of these properties.
I agree with the sentiment, though, that this was not well advertised or as transparent as we would expect from a public entity, and it should have been put out for bid or auction, however inconvenient that might be. It's not the first time the City's been less than vigorously transparent.
It raises an interesting question though: at what point should a city's control end (over who buys its properties)?
There's value in choosing the right steward, but it lends itself to benefiting those with an inside connection or scoop, and amounts to the city picking winners before everyone's had a valid opportunity to participate.
So instead of a celebration of the quite wonderful next step in the lives of these iconic buildings, the story is about a process that unnecessarily left people feeling left out and denied equal access to opportunity.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Watching from the Shore

I almost drowned.

Two and a half years ago I stopped at the beach to get a swim in at the end of a sales day in NJ. It was a beautiful day--perfect sky, perfect air, perfect water. It was after hours so it was just me out there with some surfers beyond the breakers. The waves were large but you had to swim out to them because it was high tide and the sandbars that summer were further out. After riding some of the small inside ones and still feeling good, I started out for the big waves. At some point I realized I wasn't really getting anywhere, or it seemed like that; I looked back to the shore, and it seemed far away, looked toward the large waves, then tried to touch the sand with my toes.

I couldn't. I was in a fairly deep channel that was basically a wide riptide, and I panicked and tried to swim out of it. Then I tried to swim toward a visible sandbar about 50 yards away but the rip was too wide. So I turned toward shore, trying to get past the pull of the ripe, using the force of the waves and swimming hard.

Swimming hard was a mistake. I've been an ocean swimmer all my life, and surfed for 10 years, and there I was doing it wrong. I was tired. I didn't think I could make it so I floated a bit.

Someone noticed. Two lifeguards stopped their ATV on the beach, got out and leaned back on it, watching from the shore. I tried again. Stopped. Tried again, kept going. My arms were dead so I kicked hard as a wave would pass. I went under to see how deep it was and I could barely touch a foot down--I knew I was close, but I was done. I was ready to start waving, but almost too tired to do it. And then a larger wave passed by and I made one last effort--truly the last energy I had, because I was done and had given up. It worked--I moved forward enough to touch sand and keep my head slightly above water. It was enough of a break that I could make another push.

The lifeguards got back on their ATVs and drove off. They had been watching from the shore the whole time, long after their shift had ended.

People lose their lives all of the time because nobody's watching from the shore. When you live alone nobody's watching from the shore. Things aren't going well, nobody's watching from the shore. Even when you're not alone, often there's nobody watching from the shore. You bob up and down, try to breathe, try to keep your head above water, try to touch the sand, fight the wave... it consumes you, exhausts you. Giving up isn't a choice, it's inevitable: it's what happens when you have nothing left to give. That's why those watching from the shore are so important.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Dirty Money for Good Causes

I have a dilemma, which means it's my company's dilemma too.

I don't like burning oil. I don't like burning gas. I don't like burning fossil fuels, and don't like using natural gas for our ovens.

I don't even like using plastic bags for freshness; even though they're recyclable, we know many people will trash them, and eventually one of our bags will end up in the stomach of a bird or whale.

Before we started--in fact just weeks before our first sales--I raised the question of whether we should be in the commercial bread business if it means releasing plastic bags into the world. Neither of us (Craig, my co-founder) could think of a practical, effective alternative, and made the decision to do it the traditional, somewhat harmful way, until we or someone else develops a viable alternative. It's a compromise that still bugs me.

I'd prefer not to burn gas to move healthful food from our plant to our customers, but there's not a practical way to get to an all electric fleet yet. As soon as that's accessible to us, we'll switch to an electric fleet. Early on I researched the feasibility of converting a Tesla Model S to a delivery van.

And were it not for Neal Gottlieb of Three Twins Ice Cream (and Survivor fame, but I knew him way back when), I swear I would have done it. Neal warned me not to get distracted from the core business, and he was right, but damn it I really wanted to do that. We don't carry that much weight per load, and, and...well we didn't do it.

So when someone wants to invest and their money is from the oil industry, or fund a project we've proposed and they're invested in Energy Transfer Partners and Williams Partners, do we say yes, or no?

Wisdom from Ghostbusters would likely point us to yes, but I think it's a more nuanced problem than this:

I'm in the process of moving our accounts from a bank that backs the Dakota Access pipeline, partly out of conscience and partly because we have not had good experiences with them. I started with Hamilton when I was 7; the it was acquired, and then tat was acquired, and at some point PNC bought the Bank of Lancaster County, and I stayed with it, even when I should have switched in 2008.

A customer of habit, I guess. But banking with a mega bank that backs the bad behavior of another large corporation which violates the law and uses a private army against protesters doesn't reflect my values, or ours as a company. So we're switching to a small community bank.

Separately there's a foundation that invests in impact companies that we might take a loan from. Its money is from the oil industry. I have to learn more about that before we make a decision, and examine whether we have alternatives.

It's messy, when it comes down to it. Fossil fuels were a necessary part of improving the world. And at some point, we learned how dangerous they can be, how they impact our planet, our own health, and even policy decisions that have led to war.

I drive an electric car part time, and after 20,000 gas-free miles, it was very hard to switch to a gas burner so I could be on the road longer.

But companies like Tesla are closing the gap with amazing technology. Solar electricity has finally become as cheap as fossil fuels; it just lacks the broad adoption. But sea change in the energy sector is almost here--hopefully before the sea change in the actual seas.

I can't say I don't care how an investor has made their money. I do care.

I don't know what the line is between principle and practicality, but I can say this: as long as there are other sources of capital, we'll take that first. As long as there are clean community banks, not invested in Williams Partners, we'll take that.

And some projects may be worthy, but we have many, many projects to work on, so perhaps we'll focus on those instead of taking dirty money to advance the one on the table.

I don't really know yet. It's frankly a privilege to be able to even consider these things.