Monday, July 21, 2008

Surviving Artscape

Sunset on Mount Royal Avenue.

It's over.

After much heartache, anguish, sweat and tears, Artscape 2008 is now finally over.

This years' event was a scorcher. We must have hit 95F on all three days, and it wouldn't surprise me if it had spiked to nearly 100F - that's 35C and over for you metric readers. Luckily, the humidity was relatively low so while it was hot, the lack of heavy humidity didn't keep the crowds away.

Over the years, I've found that the secret mix for shave ice is warm temperatures and low humidity. Anywhere from 80-95F is fine, as long as the humidity doesn't stick to you and weigh you down. Once the humidity rises, people just want to stay home in their air conditioning. I can't blame them 'cause that's exactly what I want to do.

Sally listens to a customers' tales of woe.

This years' Artscape team brought together both newcomers and seasoned veterans. Big Tony was back for his ninth consecutive Artscape in the pivotal spot of iceman. Other Jays Alumni included Derrick (taking time away from working at Levi's), former manager Sara (home for the summer while attending Duquese) and barista sisters Sally and Hanna (both taking time away from another coffee shop and a stained glass studio, respectively).

Coming along for the ride for their first Artscape were Sara's friends Isabelle, CJ and Alan - as well as barista Allie (on loan from The Spro).

C.J. just barely hanging in there with cheap-ass Viva.

Days at Artscape are grueling twelve-hour days of nearly non-stop battle against a sea of customers. Friday is a relatively light day where customers come and go, on and off until about 7pm. At that point, we start to zoom and shave full-bore until the police shut us down at ten o'clock. Over the years, it's become a necessity that the police come to shut us down because at 10pm, the line is easily 10 to 15 deep and if we closed, we'd have a riot on our hands. At least when the police come, people grumble but they eventually give in to their authority.

Saturday is the busiest of the three because it's the longest. Throughout the day, the line rarely shrinks below five people. By four o'clock it's at least 15 deep and stays that way until the cops come again at 10pm.

Sunday seems worse than Saturday and that's because the people come early and the line is never less than ten people - and this time, they're coming in from three different directions. From about noon, it's nonstop.

The interesting thing is to see my crew at the end of the day. Chatting afterwards with Sally, Hanna and Allie and they look calm, relaxed and ready to do another six hours. In fact, Sally and Hanna a riding their bicycles all the way back to Hampden. The girls are real killers. They're ready to rock, or go out drinking, or ride a few miles in the heat.

The boys on the other hand look completely wiped out. Finished. Done. Kaput. CJ looks like he's going to puke. I ask them if they're coming back tomorrow. No way, they don't need the money that badly.

In a sad way, it reinforces the theory I started developing while running Jay's Shave Ice: that girls work harder than guys. Seeing the two sides of my team on Saturday night and one can only guess. Of course, I know plenty of guys who work their asses off and are ready to party after a twelve-hour day. Good thing Tony, Derrick and Allie are still up for a round of drinks at Woodberry Kitchen after.

Mom and Dad bring a little civility with their umbrella.

A crew from the Kleenex company is onsite promoting their new kitchen towel called Viva. As far as absorbent kitchen towels go, Viva kicks ass. It's supple, it's soft and absorbs quite a bit of liquid. My crew loves it. They're hawking it for Kleenex because they like it so much. They even give us a Viva dispenser for people to use. I'm cool with that.

But the cheap fucking bastards came by towards the end of the day Sunday and swiped the dispenser back. Bastards. Hey Kleenex, if you're gonna ask us to give out Viva samples and do your work for you, at least give us the dispenser to keep for our staff. They were supportive if your product - until now.

Isabelle, Allie and Derrick work the crowd.

Throughout the weekend, we have people who stop by to visit. Friends, neighbors, suppliers, acquaintances, fans and people who just want to know what happened to Jays Shave Ice and when will we be opening a new location. Everyone is greeted with a friendly smile and warm greetings. But what I don't get is the one person who stopped by in the middle of a rush and walked right into the middle of things to chat with me - getting in the way of my shavers. WTF? Even my closest friends don't do that.

I don't get it. Does this person just not have any sense? Just make yourself at home, dude. Why don't you lie down on the barca lounger while you're at it and ask my staff to pour you a mimosa?

I try not to embarrass people unless I can't avoid it, so I invite this person over the side and out of the way. I mean this person is standing literally behind my shaving line (and there's only enough space for one person to stand on that line). For the next ten minutes, it's blah blah blah about coffee and the coffee business. Christ, doesn't this person see that coffee is the last thing on my mind this weekend? Can't you see the thirty people in the fucking line? Don't you think I have better things to do than listen to you bitch about how you own your own business but want to hire people so you don't have to work? Jesus, I work for a living. I don't bitch about it. I've accepted that this is the life I've chosen.

Luckily, Ben from the television show Ace of Cakes comes by for a chat. I've known Ben and Heidi since before he was a television star and it's always good to see him - not to mention that it gets me away from listening about coffee. It's funny because some of my staff notices and recognizes Ben from the show and there's a buzz in the air because of it. After Ben leaves, they want to know why he was hanging out and how I knew him, It's funny like that. To me, he's just that guy Ben with the cool girlfriend and La Cimbali in the kitchen. To my crew, he's a real-life rock star.

Of course, the aforementioned coffee guy is now hanging out on the front line, trying to chat incessantly with one of my crew - undoubtedly about coffee. Never mind that the line is still thirty deep. Ugh.

Isabelle, Sara and Allie.

Artscape is like waging war. It's logistics. Getting all the materials in place at the right time. Screw one thing up and it creates a domino effect that can wipe you out. Three days and it's a five-figure game. Make the wrong moves and it hits the company's bottom line pretty darn hard. But do it right and you can pay your staff a nice wage, and maybe buy yourself that chamber vacuum sealer you've been thinking about.

But it has to be right. Fall short of inventory and you're shutting down early facing lost revenue. Too much inventory and you've got to eat it. The balance has to be just right. For this years' Artscape, we'll consume roughly two hundred gallons of syrup and nearly two tons of ice.

Then there's the matter of personnel. Too few and you can't produce enough to make a profit. Too many and the labor eats your profit. Saturdays require at least ten people working non-stop for twelve hours. It's killer work and only the best will survive the ordeal. And have to be honest: sometimes I wonder if I'll survive it myself.

But it's over now. And I've got a dark suntan to prove it.

Back to the bar at The Spro.