Dear Entrepreneur

Several years ago, I started writing posts to nameless entrepreneurs, offering advice from lessons I was learning from my business challenges. I have a chapter in my book with a few of my favorite entries. If I was writing the book today, I would include this counsel below.

Click the photo to see more information about the book, bread&cup: Beyond Simple Food and Drink.


Dear Entrepreneur,

These are troubling days for our type.  

Like birthing a child, you conceived a dream. It gestated inside you, long before there was any visible evidence, only you carried it. Only you could feel it. Only you were imagining what it would look like when it would eventually be born.

Only you.

It’s your business, your dream, your baby. No one will care for it like you. No one will care about it like you. You will do anything for it. You will sacrifice anything to keep it alive, even your own health.

Only you.

That’s why you will need some help.

As entrepreneurs, we get emotionally tied to our dreams. We are wired up to take risks. So much so, that it can make us blind.

Twice in my career as a restaurateur, I faced a deep economic crisis. There was a point both times that, apart from a miracle, it looked like I was going to have to shut it all down. The first one came in January 2008. We were in the middle of a dismal winter in our first restaurant. Sales were awful and here I was, only five months in. I didn’t imagine this scenario. I didn’t foresee the hand being dealt to me this way.

And so I felt the temptation that anyone in this situation has felt. Do I take on debt to survive?

Conservative fiscal advice would say no. Borrowing isn’t the same as raising capital. Debt makes me a slave to the lender. Had I listened to the counsel around me, I would have never taken the risk to open the business in the first place.

So I took another risk and borrowed to make payroll. Then in March 2008, spring weather returned and so did a brand new customer base. Each month showed an increase in sales. This led to September 2008, when the Omaha World Herald did a review, naming us as a Top 10 Omaha restaurant. Pretty good considering we weren’t in Omaha.

This opened the doors for a new regional market. Guests were driving to Lincoln from other cities to dine with us. My risk paid off.

The second crisis happened in our third restaurant. It was a similar scenario. We opened in December of 2015. Right out of the gates, it underperformed all our projections by a mile. I faced the same song, second verse. But the second outcome was very different than the first.

Sales languished and got increasingly worse as the weather warmed up. Debt was starting to pile up. It was clear that, barring another miracle, it was only a matter of time. We closed the doors a year after opening.

Entrepreneur, I don’t share this story to frighten you or make you think I there is one right answer in this trying time of the pandemic.  I write this to say that I’ve walked the road you are on currently. While my demise was under different circumstances, the anxiety is exactly the same, as are the temptations to go further into debt.   There is no right or wrong unless it involves an illegal means to stay afloat.

You’re stuck between your visceral gut and your logical mind. Every entrepreneur will most likely find themselves in this ditch. Like Kenny Rogers sang, “you gotta know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold em.”

The only thing I know for certain about it is this: don’t go it alone. Don’t make huge decisions without counsel. Even if you don’t know someone, good people do exist that can walk with you through the dark times.  Seek, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened. I know this from experience too. I’m forever grateful for those who got me through it.

Something New

About that Chuck E. Cheese photo…

Last week I began a series of Instagram posts depicting things that were gone or obsolete.  To each post I attached the words, 

“Behold, I am doing something new. Will you not be aware?”

My little project was misunderstood by some, leaving them wondering if I’m opening up a new restaurant in the old Chuck E. Cheese location.

The answer is no. But I can see how the photo was interpreted with that conclusion.

This morning, I think back to Thanksgiving day in 2016. It’s one I’d rather forget. The impending doom of closing a business was crushing me and I felt very little for which to be thankful.

Fast forward four years later, as I rise at 5am, refreshed from sleep, I turn on the oven to begin the long process of preparing food for a meal that will be consumed in a fraction of the time it takes to make it.  But the meal is less the glory than the activity along the way. My family will taste the smoky turkey, but I will recall even the smell of starting the hickory fire in my backyard pit yesterday. The sourdough tang wafting from the oven out through the rest of the house will dissipate before we sit down to eat that bread.  

These are broader elements of which I am aware; the further things I wish I could invite you into.

“Behold. I am doing something new.”

I couldn’t imagine taking refuge in this sentence four years ago. Today, it is my mantra. This is the beautiful role that Hope plays in my life.

The drawerful of cassette tapes.

The wired phone in the hotel room.

The once economically solid and socially significant mall.

These are all a symbol of loss, relegated to a fond and increasingly distant memory.

My restaurants

My late wife

My mom

They, too, are lost. I can’t get them back.

So I grieve the loss with gratitude. And I look forward, with the same grateful spirit.

“Behold. I am something new…”

Yes. I will be aware.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Pain Relief

Click “play” to listen to the audio version.

The best is yet to come.

Where do I get off claiming that?

I recently read a writer who dismissed this statement, and other sentiments like it. She went on to say how life is hard and we’re all doing our best to just get through it.  Life throws so much hardship at us, she said, like unexpected cancer diagnoses and sudden infant death syndrome. People who are “living their best life now are probably lying.”

I understand this. Misery loves company. In the darkest days of my loss and grief, I held everyone in suspicion who had a smile on their face. Attempts to cheer me up were met by my smug dismissal. 

But I don’t think that way any longer.

In late 2016, when I was standing on the edge of the abyss, looking down, I could not imagine life getting any better. Suicidal ideation is an attempt to assuage the pain in life. It makes sense to me from personal experience, and I have learned to back away from the edge and embrace a way of believing that has changed the way I live now.

Circumstances are fluid. And there is danger for me to base my belief system on something that changes so rapidly.

Pain must be reckoned with.  The headache demands an aspirin. The back pain demands a steroid. And soul is no different. Emotional pain needs an answer, and so the search begins to find relief.

Cynicism and sarcasm is one such solution. Laugh at the pain. Laugh at those who seem to have gotten a pass, those who “just don’t get it.” Laugh and the world laughs with you,

But show me a sarcastic person and I’ll show you a person in deep, unmitigated pain.

There’s an ancient proverb that states:

Like a maniac shooting flaming arrows of death is one who deceives their neighbor and says, “I was only joking!”

This is the impact of the sarcastic cynic. Behind the humor is a world of hurt, made worse with the disclaimer, “Don’t be so serious. I’m kidding.”

Sarcastic humor can be funny, I just can’t go there. I don’t want to pitch my tent in a place of pain and stay stuck there for the rest of my life. I have places I want to go. I have new vistas I want to see. I want to keep climbing the mountain.

Call me an idealist. Guilty as charged. But it is possible to hold reality in concert with an ideal. Life isn’t black or white, this or that. It’s both.

So regardless of my circumstances, I will always be compelled to believe that better is possible and that hope can prevail. That’s why I stick by these words,

The best is yet to come.

Show Up and Pay Attention

Click “play” to listen to the audio version

A year ago, as I was getting accustomed to my new normal as a widower, my first compulsion was to travel. Not so much to escape the pain. It’s not in my personality to run from discomfort. I’m more inclined to stare it in the face, knowing I have no intention of blinking.  I’m learning that I like to win these skirmishes.

Loss and grief always present a valuable opportunity for new self awareness. But it doesn’t come easy, even for an introspective person like myself.

At the risk of cliche, the first step in dealing with grief is to show up. Like starting the new job that I feel intimidated by and underqualified for. Get there at 7:45am on Monday morning. I have to first show up or I’m long for the job. The training won’t commence until I’m on site. Even if I’m late, Grief will be patient and wait til I get there.

Travel was one way I showed up.

I traveled quite a bit in college. I found very quickly that travel opened up my mental space to think and reflect. For me, getting out of my familiar surroundings puts me into the right frame of mind to begin to think and process.  

At home, among the four walls of my house, I hear the old stories. This space is packed with years of memories, of good ones and bad ones, both happy and sad.  This creates a cacophony that is especially difficult for me to quiet down

Out on the road, it’s less noisy and my mind is less distracted.

At home, I hear the laundry asking to be folded and the toilet to be scrubbed. The plants and flowers like my attention as does Hank, my dog. 

Outside the windows, I hear the grass asking me to mow it. My vegetable patch breathes an appreciative sigh when I pull the crowding weeds from the seedlings that will present their fruit to me later that season. Hank will start cussing at me if I don’t throw the ball. (He’s the only dog I’ve ever had that swears.)

To all of that, add the noise of the garage begging to be organized and the scratching of tiny claws in the walls that mice are back, and the new self-imposed war against them is about to commence again.

Yes, home is where the heart is, but when the heart is heavy, I need to get somewhere and offload some of that weight. The road lets me travel light.

Through this past 12 months, whenever I would approach the airport terminal or rental car counter, I could feel the anticipation of some kind of reward ahead.  But the reward doesn’t come unless I show up.

Once on the road, my second step is to pay attention. 

My dad formed this quality into me as a young boy. He was so good at paying attention, he could tell me to grab the 9/16” (not the 1/2″) socket just by looking at the bolt that needed tightening. I always hoped I would one day graduate from holding the flashlight to telling the gopher exactly what wrench to get.

It’s a standard practice for people to take pictures on vacation to capture the memories.  But It feels a little weird asking someone to take my picture standing solo in front of a monument. Even a selfie makes me self-conscious. But as I travel alone, I have no companion to use as a reference point for the shared experiences.  

So I started a little project to help me pay attention and archive these newly formed stories that might make you curious and be a good starting point to tell a story about a time and a place that was important to me. I stopped trying to take interesting photos and instead, take pictures of interesting things.

I started seeing my world differently. I didn’t just view life through the same lens of despair. It broadened my perspective. I think it even helped open up my writing. It certainly set my widowhood in a new light. Paying attention to something beautiful took my grief aside and  gently reminded me,

The best is yet to come.

To be continued…

Encyclopedia Britannica

When I was a kid, my parents had a set of Encyclopedia Britannica. They were bound in dark red cloth, probably 20 volumes, likely from the 50s. I referred to them occasionally on high school reports. I never inquired how much they cost or if my parents inherited them. They sat on a shelf in the garage gathering dust. 

Two years ago, Mom moved out of that old house she and dad purchased in 1962. It was the only house I knew growing up.  I’m not sure what happened to that reference set. I assume it went to Goodwill, or the dumpster. In this day of the Internet, it didn’t matter. It was obsolete.

What is not obsolete, however, is the need for reference. Regardless of means or medium, a reference is the use of a source of information in order to ascertain something. For example, if I want to know about the Diet of Worms of 1521, I would need a source to show you that it was an assembly of the Roman Empire to deal with the protests of Martin Luther, because you’re thinking it was about the practice of eating night-crawlers in the 15th century.

A reference provides answers. Death takes away both.

I lost my mom in July, which means I lost another reference to my family history. I can no longer call her and ask if we had a history of gout in our family. My dad has been gone for 15 years. I can’t ask him to retell me stories that he remembers about me as a little boy. This reference is gone, and I’m left to guess.

Monday was the first anniversary of Karen’s death. It, too, is a loss of reference. There are questions I can no longer ask. I’m left to wonder or speculate.

I can’t ask her why she didn’t say goodbye.

Death affects people differently, but it overcomes everyone universally.  It is the last unknown, uncharted human experience.  It’s the great equalizer of all humans. It strikes the rich and the poor. Both the marginalized and privileged have to face it.  The 1% don’t get a pass.

I chose to write about this today because I have to believe I’m not alone. Somebody out there like me had a loved one that didn’t say goodbye. And while plenty of speculative answers have been given, I have no idea what the true answer is.  She fell asleep on a Monday afternoon a year ago and never woke up. She passed six days later. And she took the reference manual with her.

Death isn’t tidy. It is not nice. It does not play fair.

I think that’s my point today. This is the word I am reminding myself. Some things are never going to be figured out.  Try as I may, I can’t move on from it. It will always follow me.

I just have to keep moving forward.

Just One This Evening?

I taught in theory against this question when I trained hosts in the restaurant. I never wanted to imply that something or someone is missing in the equation as a person arrives for service.  I now know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of this question.

On my trip through New England, every time (every single time) I checked in with a host at either a restaurant, pub or brewery, they would follow up with, “just one?” Even the default setting on the Hotwire app assumes 1 room, 2 adults when making a hotel reservation.

My point isn’t about self-pity or to chide the service industry for lack of sensitivity. Instead, I have chosen to let it remind me about my new reality. The trip was planned in 2018 for two. It was realized by one. 

It’s coming up on a year of my new reality and I still haven’t figured out how to answer the question, “So, how are you doing?”

Fine? Great? OK? Good? Not so good?

The fact is, they are all true at times.

I had a good time in New England. I drove about 1500 miles through eight states. Which mostly felt like a drive to Scotsbluff and back, except with better scenery. I listened to whatever I wanted to. I stopped whenever I wanted to. I stayed wherever I wanted to. I ate and drank wherever I wanted to. When did I ever do that while married?  That part was great.

But when the occasional bartender asked me what I was doing in town, I usually led with the reply, “I’m on a discovery tour to learn what it means to fly solo in midlife.” The puzzled look led to my explanation that I lost my wife last year and she was supposed to be on this trip with me, so I decided to go ahead and complete it without her. I don’t have any other choice now. She’s not coming back for a command performance.

I guess what I’m saying is this: I’m not moving on, but I am moving forward.  In my mind, moving on implies forgetting what was. I can’t do that. For good or bad, for better or worse, I can’t erase the last 30 years. They are with me and a part of my body and soul til I die.

Moving forward has its focus on the future, not my past. I don’t know what lies ahead, but I’m going to reach out and grab my share.

I’m going to keep traveling, because the open road tells me new stories.

I’m going to keep writing, because someone will hear their voice through mine.

I’m going to keep creating, because important things will eventually exist because my hands fashioned them.

I’m going to keep watching, because my eyes might see what yours don’t.

I’m going to keep setting the table, because you will always need a place to rest.

Yeah Darlin’ Go Make It Happen

We had started saving for it back in 2018. And there it was, in the bottom of the drawer, the bank bag labeled Portland Maine 2020.

I needed something to look forward to.  I refer to it as a finish line. I like to set them in front of me, sometimes daily, but especially during seasons that require unusual focus of my attention. 

Irish Fest in Weston, MO on the second weekend in October was always a finish line after a long summer of Farmer’s Market, Market Meals and 15 hour work days on Saturdays. It was a push, but I knew it would soon be over because I could see the finish line ahead. Knowing that the life of hospitality follows this ebb and flow, it was an important practice that helped maintain some level of sanity, or at least it was a theoretical attempt to do so.

2018 looked like it might be a year of reprieve from the onslaught of difficulty that began in 2016. We drew a finish line. We had never witnessed New England and its colors of fall. We agreed that would be our anticipated destination.

We never crossed it together.

2018 disagreed with our hope that things might be letting up. We almost made it through the year. But November 2, 2018 marked the beginning of a new challenge. Cancer had returned for a third time.

Words like inoperable were included in this third conversation. The options seemed fewer. But this wasn’t my first rodeo. I vowed to make some new choices. They were choices she didn’t initially understand. 

And maybe never did.

“You don’t seem worried!?!” This was how she took my choice to remain calm and remind myself that the Prince of Peace was still in charge of His kingdom, and I liked the privilege afforded me under that jurisdiction.

The road got quickly rocky and rough soon after that diagnosis. 2018 gave way to the assault that would be known as 2019, the year the biggest vow of my life would be discharged.. Exactly one year later, death finished its assignment and left her lifeless body in the temporary hospital bed in my side bedroom. 

My new reality had begun.

In that new reality were new decisions to be made in a new way. I would no longer have to consult another on matters that would affect our future. It was no longer “ours.” It was only mine.

About a month ago, as I sat at my desk going through the stack of papers that needed my attention that I told myself I would take care of later, I pulled open the bottom drawer and found that bank bag labeled Portland Maine 2020.

“Yeah, darlin,’ go make it happen”

And so I am.

Get your motor runnin' 
Head out on the highway 
Lookin' for adventure 
And whatever comes our way

Born to Be Wild
1968 © Universal Music Publishing Group

“A Bullet That Could Kill The Devil’s Tongue”

I said goodbye to another friend yesterday. He was only 60. We were brought together through his music and our connection was forged through grief.

We met 10 years ago at one of his concerts. His music was an immediate salve for the collateral damage inflicted on me from the impact of my wife’s recent cancer diagnosis. Maybe I was just in the right place at the right time, but I’m too old to believe in chance. The odds don’t add up. I’m just not that lucky. There had to be Providence involved.

Over the years, we only connected through shows I would attend. I always made it a point to say hi before or after the performance. I served his band several times in my restaurant when they toured through LIncoln during that 10 year run.

I was floored when I opened an email from him about three weeks ago, telling me that he had a terminal condition and that he was in the process of transitioning. For the uninitiated, that means dying. Those who are in near-death awareness have a different point of view than those of us with our feet still firmly planted on this side of the River.  His was a thin place. He was at that point of discovering that the veil between the natural and the supernatural, the physical and the spiritual is very fine and scant.

He told me in the email that he found my writing about grief a source of encouragement and strength to him. I would find out later than he knew of his decline several months ago. That would account for his many responses to my blog posts. Often, the very first “like” was from him. It started to make sense.

This morning, a beautiful one I must add, I ponder the reciprocation of our friendship that started and ended because of grief. His music was there for me ten years ago, and my words were there for him ten years later.

I had the honor of officiating his memorial service yesterday, a small gathering of family and friends under the shade of hardwood trees in a small public park. Here is a segment from that eulogy that I wrote:

“The Heart knows three languages. First are words. For me, as a writer, words are all I have available to communicate.  When I sat down this week to write these words, I had to think through and find the right ones to convey what Steve meant to me and to you.  In the written word, there is no nonverbal cue to access or rely on. There is punctuation and an occasional exclamation mark, but this is terribly inadequate.  In this way, words can fall short, and I understand and accept that limitation as a writer.

As many of us in this audience know so well, the second language of the Heart is music.  Music is what words want to become when they grow up, but words grieve because music isn’t reliant on them to communicate the Heart’s message. Music has access to rhythm, melody and harmony as well as words to convey its ideas. Steve spoke to us directly and deeply on stage and in recordings without even having to say a word.

But there are times that even music has its limitations, and so the Heart needs to rely on its third language, the language of tears. Tears allow the Heart to express the feelings locked deep inside the hidden places, that even words and music don’t know how to deliver.

When you weep with those who weep, you are engaging in a supernatural tongue that says more than you will ever know or imagine.

Looking like Agassi

In the summer of 1995, I saw Andre Agassi on television, competing at Wimbledon. But gone was the signature styled long hair. The man had shaved it off. Buzz cut. Chrome dome. Clean as a whistle. He later admitted to wearing a hairpiece and even credited the worry about it falling off as cause for him losing a Grand Slam event.

I remember thinking at the time, if he can do it, I can do it.

I shaved my head that summer.

Like a lot of guys, I had thinning hair and I was tired of fretting over it. Fortunately I have a descent shaped, Blue Man Group-quality melon that was conducive to not having hair. So I assisted Mother Nature and removed what was still clinging to my scalp. I never regretted it and never looked back.

There was a weird adjustment period though. The looks of surprise from people I knew took some getting used to. My standard short explanation when people asked why was, “I wanted to look like Agassi.”

But even for myself, looking at my mug in the mirror, it took awhile for it to look normal. Every day for several weeks, I would startle myself when I walked into the bathroom first thing in the morning.  But over time, that image became normal and now I don’t even remember what it was like to have hair to take care of.

I’ve recently noticed a similar transition in my new life.  My first thoughts in the morning are not always about what happened ten months ago. I don’t move through the day out of a sense of what is missing.  The identity of widower is no longer my predominant reference point.

I’m rediscovering myself. Who I am, instead of who I’m not. I have a new rhythm to my day, new patterns I have settled into. I’m doing much better.

Wholeness looks different now. I no longer react the same way to the new image I see in the mirror.

This Land Is Your Land

I just got home from attending and officiating the Warrior’s wedding in Idaho. He lives up to his name.  He has always fought for my freedom.

It’s been 10 months since the state of a new identity was introduced to me.  I am certainly in a better frame of mind today and continue to explore this new identity with courage and strength.  But that doesn’t mean I no longer pine for the old days.

One insidious aspect of grief is the consistent invitation to the Pity Party that gets delivered at all times of the day.  The problem with the Pity Party is that it’s not much of a party. There are only two in attendance.

Grief, on the other hand, is still willing to go out in public. Grief doesn’t need to isolate the two of us.  It can be OK in groups of people as well as in solitude. Grief and Pity are easily mistaken for each other.

Grief allows for others to be happy. Pity despises that scene.

Four days in the beautiful mountains of Sun Valley, Idaho.  Reconnecting with long-term friends and meeting new ones. Lots of conversation over craft beer and hiking trails. Great food and local drink. A picturesque ceremony in a botanical garden for a radiant couple.

I did pretty good until she walked down the aisle.

I’m the presiding minister, the one in charge of the flow of the formalities and I start to lose composure. The Beauty of Everything was too much to hold in. I stumbled through the opening prayer, holding off tears in order to come back and focus on the task at hand. It was their moment, not mine.

Through the vows, the rings, the pronouncement and opening reception, I did fine. But Grief is stealthy. Just when I think it’s smooth sailing from here on out, Grief taps me on the shoulder and points out an emotion that’s been overlooked.

It was during the dancing portion of the reception. I felt immediately alone. I had to excuse myself. I didn’t want to create an awkward moment. But I am well acquainted with the voice of Grief. It’s akin to a child tugging on your pant leg demanding to go to the bathroom, I know to respond right away.

Because like the little child, Grief’s needs can be satisfied just as quickly in the moment. Grief doesn’t like to hold it. When you gotta go, you gotta go.

So I stepped away, maybe for 15 minutes, and wandered through the floral and vegetal plantings in the botanical garden. I asked Grief what it needed. Here’s what it said:

“Thank you for paying attention to me.”

LIke any other good companion, Grief doesn’t like to be ignored. I am growing in that lesson these past 10 months, and I am a better man because of it.

I came back soon after and rejoined the wedding party. There was a conversation about flights out the next morning. The Warrior said in passing, “Too bad you didn’t plan to drive back.”

That started the imagination. Why would I not?

I can still hear my Dad saying, “Stop and smell the roses, son. You may never pass this way again.”

As the photos show, I smelled a lot of roses along the 3 day drive back home.

I’ve grown to appreciate the Open Road during grief. It continually tells me new stories along the way. The Four Walls of Home remind and retell the old ones.