Friday, April 28, 2006

An Idea 

Talking with Manager about the make-and-take kitchens that are gaining popularity, we discussed the possibility of doing a make-and-take bakery.

The idea won't fly here in Oklahoma, but we could see how, in areas where the make-and-take places are popular, it would work.

It wouldn't even be terribly expensive to do: different stations for different types of baked goods: cookies, pies, breads, rolls, pastries. There would be no need for the expensive part of putting together a bakery: the ovens, proofers, and industrial mixers. Family sized stand mixers would be suitable.

Special nut-free and gluten-free stations could also be set up for people with allergies, and they could have their own times to prepare their baked goods.

In a brain-storming session to see if this would be a viable concept for us, we decided it would be, if we lived practically anywhere but Oklahoma. We set up sample menus, priced out ingredients from assorted suppliers, arranged the floor plans for this, and even came up with a catchy, descriptive name. We're adding in some market research, and have ferreted out some interesting on-line statisitcs on the potential for this to be popular.

I'm wondering, if we do all the market research and set-up, prepare recipes, locate good suppliers, design a logo to go with the name, if we could sell franchises for this? Then use the success of that to fund the real Cracked Cauldron?

Don't worry, soup recipes are coming.

Cooking Clubs 

Because we don't have any of these "prepare your own" kitchens locally, although there are a couple in the state, I didn't really hear about them until I read the post in Tigers and Strawberries.

I remember several years ago, we did have a "make and take" pizza place, where they had all the ingredients and pre-made pizza dough available. You went in, chose how many pizzas you wanted, what sizes, put them together, and then took the pizza home to freeze or bake and serve.

They didn't last long.

I'm not sure why, and since I never used them, I suppose I never will.

I've read some of the websites for these places, though, and I have to wonder.

Barbara cited several newspaper articles that were less than enthusiastic about the idea, one because the recipes were corporate-driven and not locally adaptable, the other because the individual components were pre-frozen and the resulting dinners said "institutional" rather than "home-cooked". I suppose it will depend upon the individual companies.

After reading a lot of these companies' websites, I have a few observations of my own. The menus are all very meat-heavy, and the choices are very limited for families using this on a weekly basis - they'd be eating the same entree for at least 3 meals every month, and quite possibly for more. There doesn't seem to be an option for the single person, and there are no vegetarian or special diet options - I can see all three of these being bigger markets than the one that is directed to a family of four, especially if the food is fresh and local, and not by some large food distributer like Sysco or Dawn Foods.

I am particularly perturbed when I see menu items like "Potato Bacon and Spinach Casserole" or "Shrimp Quesadillas" or "Blackened Tilapia" being touted as vegetarian. Bacon, shrimp, tilapia - these are not on a vegetarian food list.

Very few of these places seem to offer side dishes, and the few that I've seen who list sides on their website (and I fully admit that their web pages may not contain all the information), generally list rice or mashed potatoes.

The concept is that of a community kitchen with sous chefs, and honestly, if you've got the time to travel to a community kitchen and spend the couple of hours there, herded from prep station to prep station, then you've probably got the time to do this all at home in your own kitchen. The biggest plus for such a community kitchen concept is the community aspect - doing this together with the entire family, with friends, or to meet friends. And someone else to clean up afterwards is kind of nice, but when you go home and actually cook thse meals to serve, you stil have to clean up anyway, so it's not that much of a benefit on that point.

However - if such a concept were adapted for single people, for people on special diets - gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-free, soy-free, diabetic, heart-healthy - I can see this having a strong appeal and being very successful. Especially if the foods were seasonal and local, with more flexible menus.


I've been keeping an eye on prices, inflation, and government regulations.

Four years ago, when we started thinking seriously about opening the Cracked Cauldron, things looked good. Prices were manageable, profits would be better than decent, suppliers were plentiful, the test marketing did marvelously, the market studies were all showing profitable trends, and we had some seriously good locations scoped out.

Opening two years ago would have seen us at the profit point, even with today's high prices. We might be tightening our belts in placs, and our menu might have adapted to the rising costs of transportation, but we would have reached the "making a profit" point. Just.

It's amazing what a difference even a year has made.

The government (local) has passed a few regulations that have increased the cost of opening considerably.

We've lost 4 of the 5 locations we mapped out, and have only been able to locate one replacement. Those 4 sites have been either re-zoned to prevent us from using them or they've been converted to some other function. Still, two sites are enough to keep us hopeful.

What's dashing our hopes now is the increased costs of opening, of starting up from scratch.

Two years of building a customer base, of guerilla advertising, of community involvement, and we'd be stbale enough to weather these changes. But if we couldn't get sufficient funding two-three years ago, when things were more conducive to opening, the chances have slimmed a lot.

Now, before you think we're too pessimistic and have given up, let me reassure you. We are pessimistic. Things are looking bad for start-ups in our field. But we see the patterns that will reverse. Not soon, though. Not soon enough for our taste, but still soon enough that we are still working on plans to someday open the Cracked Cauldron

We're looking at reduced plans, even at plans that are related but not excatly what we want. We can build on that basic to achieve what we want the Cracked Cauldron to be, it will just take much, much longer.

As we said in the last few posts, we are re-vamping how we present this blog. Instead of being a chronicle of our start-up adventures, we will make it more of a sharing of the recipe development, charity work, and silliness we engage in as we plot and plan towards the day we'll take over the world - at least as far as our little boutique bakery will let us.

Remember, the homeless and working poor are hungry every day of hte year, not just in the winter.

We have our Sandwich Saturdays - and you can participate easily enough. Just make as many sandwiches as you can afford to make (daily, weekly, monthly) and take them out to where the hungry congregate and pass them out. Some Saturdays, all we can afford is maybe 50 sandwiches, but that's 50 people who get to eat that day who wouldn't have eaten otherwise. We save up for Sandwich Saturdays by setting aside the money we would have spent on a nice lunch or dinner in a good restaurant (and your conception of a nice lunch or dinner may be different from ours, so the amount you set aside can vary) and using that money to buy ingredients for the sandwiches. We either fast for that meal, or eat a sandwich ourselves instead of in a restaurant. In our Bounty Ministry, we don't believe in shortchanging our own needs, but in sharing our surplus.

It's surprising how many people can find surpluses in their lives. It may be extra clothes, or extra food, or that sofa taking up space in the attic or garage, or those tools that still work but you don't use anymore, or that craft kit you started and never finished.

Next post, we'll share some of our summer soups.

Friday, April 21, 2006


It looks as if plans for opening the Cracked Cauldron are on hold pending some re-organization and lots of deep background work.

It will still open, just not as imminently as we'd hoped.

In the meantime, this blog will continue, because even if opening plans are on hold, work towards opening aren't. That work just isn't as excitingly anticipatory.

I will still be posting about the things we are doing, but I think I will expand this into more of a food journal than a restaurant journal - for now.

When the count-down to opening begins again, we will post about that - pretty much exclusively because it will be an all-consuming endeavor.

I think we just picked a bad time - financially speaking - to open something like the Cracked Cauldron, and our part of the country just wasn't ready for it. Or at least the finance and business community didn't think it would succeed. We are pretty confident they were (and are) wrong, but we can't prove it.

Since one of our reasons for opening the Cracked Cauldron was to help the working poor, the homeless but still employed population, I want to share some survival tips for them - mostly food-related since food storage is a real problem when you haven't a home.

The working poor, particularly the homeless working poor, can't build up reserves of food. They are the most vulnerable in the event of a disaster, and we need to think of ways we can assist them.

I'm going to ignore any commentary about how they deserve what they get for being homeless and poor. No one deserves that, and being suddenly homeless doesn't just happen to the poor - as recent disasters like Katrina and Rita clearly demonstrate.

The working homeless are living in a constant state of disaster, struggling to return to homed status and some degree of stability. This is hard to do when the housing market is so tight and society has a whole has become hard-hearted towards those less fortunate than themselves.

Government has a hand in this hardness by passing and enforcing regulations that make it even more difficult for the homeless to find affordable housing - and it's even worse for the working homeless with children. The usual remedies: multiple families sharing a small home or apartment, a single family living in one room or an efficiency style apartment - I've seen 300 sf efficiency apartments that cost more to rent than I pay for my 1400 sf home, and that's just wrong.

Boarding houses and rooms for rent just don't exist around here. Perhaps they do in other parts of hte country, but they aren't here. That means our working homeless can't find cheap tempoaray housing.

I can't house these people (much as I want to) because none of my ideas and suggestions are legal. But I can offer food, food storage tips, caching locations, information on getting meals, and suggestions to those who want to help on what they can do as well.

Let's start with what we homed people can do to help.

Donating food to local soup kitchens is a good start. Don't donate just at the Winter Holidays (Thanksgiving through New Year's), pledge to donate on a monthly or weekly basis and then follow through. People are hungry all year round, not just those two months of the year.

Make up lunch bags with food that doesn't spoil quickly and doesn't need to be refrigerated or cooked. Use pop-top canned foods unless you plan to give them a can opener - and always put a can opener in with canned foods that aren't pop-tops even if you've given one to that person before - they may have lost it, had it stolen, or given it to someone who needed it.

Always include packets of wipes - Wash n Dri isn't the only kind out there, baby wipes also come in carry packs, and do an excellent job of cleaning. And tuck in some flatware - dollar store metal ones are really nice, but disposable plastic works, too.

Add extra baggies or storage containers. They can always use them or pass them along.

Include coupons for free food - not buy one, get one free, actual free meals. You can buy gift certificates that will do this, and some restaurants will run a free food item without having to buy anything extra.

What kinds of food can you put in these bags?

There's a surprising variety of no-cook foods available. Try any of these (where I list brand names, if they aren't in your area, see if there are similar products by different companies in your area):

Trail mix
Dried fruit
Semi-soft aged cheeses like cheddar
Vienna sausages
StarKist tuna fillets
StarKist Lunch to go packs
StarKist Tuna Creations
StarKist pouch tuna
Spam slices in a pouch
Swanson Chicken pouches
Home made granola bars
Canned fruits in individual portions
Canned puddings n individual portions
Dried milk in resealable pouches
Canned beans
Crackers in small or resealable packages
Canned or pouch drinks
Bottled water
Peanut butter
Hard candies
Powdered drink mixes

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