The Reason for The Underground Market, and A bit of a rant on the state of the industrial food economy


It is technically illegal to sell wild foraged foods. In our present paranoid age, everything must be tracked. There is a logical reason behind this. If there is a problem, the Health Department must be able to track it back to its source, in order to correct the problem. As with most food regulations, this is borne of mass production. If you have just a handful of organizations feeding the entire country, you lose the ability for direct feedback from customers. Do you have any idea where the veggies from your dinner came from? Maybe (and this is a big maybe), you know which country it came from, or even which state. The only way you could possibly know which farm it came from would be if you had gotten them from a farmers’ market or a CSA. To be honest, I don’t know where most of my food comes from. We don’t know who grows our food, so the direct customer feedback loop that’s always existed around small producers is defunct, so the government has had to step in to protect us. This I completely understand and agree with when working on such a huge scale.

The problem is that the rules and protection necessary for a farm growing ten thousand acres of spinach are not the same needed when you’re growing two acres. Someone making a thousand jars of jam should not be expected to pay the same fees and to have the same oversight as Smucker’s. But this is what has happened. 

We live in an amazing time and place, where we can pull up to any restaurant or buy from any supermarket, and have almost 100% confidence that the food we eat won’t make us sick. Reflect upon this for a moment. Just think of the incredible organizational effort that’s needed to protect 300 million people, each eating three meals a day, every day, in a country as large as ours. It’s really astounding.

The unfortunate byproduct is that top-down regulation needs to be one size fits all, which means that small producers have to live by the same rules (and that means permit costs, expensive equipment, lawyers) as the big guys. This stifles small business and favors the economics of scale, forces people to use cheaper ingredients, and, most importantly from where I stand, stops tens of thousands of people with great ideas from seeing that idea come to life.

What we need are regulations that are tailor-made for small businesses. Regulations that will protect us while supporting the small, up-and-coming entrepreneur over the large corporation. There’s nothing wrong with a company being large, but an organization that receives $100M/year in revenue doesn’t need tax breaks or looser regulation.

Turning around the chicken

In the last month, I’ve seen a lot of chicken. Our new café has a new rotisserie, a device that no one on our staff has ever used before. We’re focused on making it work, but it’s remarkably complicated. We ask ourselves a variety of questions: How high do you turn up the heat? For how long? Wet or dry brine? What kind of rub? Do we want to go traditional to appeal to everyone, or try something creative that may not sell as well? How do we hold the chickens after they come off the fire if there’s no one there to buy them?

And there was the basic question, which proved oddly mystifying: How do you put the chickens on the spit? This seems obvious, and yet it eluded us for weeks. I’ll save you the details. The short version is, we had them on backwards. Seems obvious now, but for weeks it really didn’t occur to anyone in the kitchen (despite a combined total of 80 years in the food business) to turn them around.

It made me think: What is there in my life that’s like that? What else am I doing that could be turned 180 degrees and made perfect? We spend our days fixing problems by degrees, making tiny adjustments that we hope, over time, will move the needle towards perfection. But there are some things that require drastic change if they’ll ever be correct.  So I’ve found myself asking this silly but effective question to adjust my perspective to many problems I’ve since encountered. Try it — you might have a breakthrough:

Where in your life do you need to turn the chicken?

Being a Maker

When I was a kid, I wanted to be an inventor. I was always drawing designs for gadgets and contraptions I wanted to create. The only one I can still remember was intended to enhance my snowboard. I’d developed a small plastic part that would secure the baseplate. This is important because the baseplate keeps the bindings—the things into which you strap your boots—from coming loose. I wrote to Burton about it. They sent me a design submission packet, which I dutifully filled out and sent back. I never received a response.

At the time, that was all I could do. I didn’t have design experience. I certainly wasn’t in the position to call a factory and order a prototype. I didn’t have access to sales channels or the faintest idea of how that system worked. Had my fresh-faced fourteen-year-old self been around today, I would have gone online and found a community of makers with whom to discuss my design concept. Even in rural Vermont, I’m sure I could have tracked down a maker space with AutoCAD and a 3D printer.

I would have been able to print my part as a three-dimensional prototype and to test whether it actually worked. I could have set up a website through which to promote and sell the part. Or, I could have initiated a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds and to test the market to find out whether other snowboarders had the same problem. Trust me; it was a problem. The Kickstarter would have succeeded, and on Alibaba I would have been able to find a company that could mass-produce it. The experience would have shown me how easy it is to create real things that are used in the world and inspired me to look for other problems that need to be fixed. It would have been glorious.

Okay. Maybe it wouldn’t have happened exactly like that. It’s hard to run a Kickstarter for what is essentially a modified screw, but—you get my point. We’ve reached this incredible age of small production, in which the tools are available to almost everyone. What an amazing inspiration for a kid to be able to create something that is used by thousands. Rather than these decisions being left up to CEOs and design teams who are insulated from the true users of products, these days every user is a designer. It’s exciting to imagine how much the pace of innovation will increase with the democratization of these tools. It’s a pivotal time.

I want to be part of it, but I’m starting slow. I recently joined TechShop and last Saturday I took a beginner soldering class, which blew me away. I gained a totally different understanding of how electricity works and can be manipulated. Did you know that a short is a circuit without enough resistance? Because the power coming out of the socket is too strong for most devices, they need resistors (small components that hold the flow of electricity at a set level) so they don’t burn out. So a short circuit is one that is not holding back enough power back. Seems quite straightforward, but before that class, I thought a short circuit was a break, or something that’s burned out. It’s fascinating to think about the river of power that flows through everything we use. With dams and eddies holding it back to ensure that exactly the right amount reaches where it needs to be.

Incredible. Mundane to some. But truly incredible to me. I couldn’t be more excited.