It's summer in the city - baby's on it's way
It was a slow start to the summer of 2016. With the extra employees we hired earlier in the year we felt confident going into the summer, and even decided to open the Cantina in early May on the weekends and go 7 days per week in July (vice 6 days per week during our first summer), but then the curse of May began. As this was the first year we had hired so many more folks earlier, we didn't really know this would turn into a curse, but since this first year, inevitably every May from the list of perspective employees that we hire earlier in the year we lose nearly 50% of them. This made me increasingly anxious as I was now starting to show and was well into the second trimester with the pregnancy. We tried to make it work going into the summer that I wouldn't have to work 7 days a week, but by the middle of May that wasn't looking like a possibility.
The summer progressed pretty steadily and we had decided to offer, for the first time, the baby back ribs at the Cantina. It seemed only fair since we were doing all the smoking out there. Likewise, we offered a Tex-Mex version of the nachos and quesadillas at Bad Wolf in hopes of increasing the demographics of both restaurants. By the middle of the summer it seemed to have worked for the Cantina, we increased sales by 30% and overall return rate of customers (from the previous summer) was at 25%. However, we were not immediately seeing the return we had hoped at Bad Wolf. Being right inside the medieval UNESCO World Heritage site of Visby, where there are more tourists, we had expected to be at least double the sales of the Cantina. But by the middle of the summer Bad Wolf and Cantina were performing nearly the same in sales. With a summer season of only 8 weeks we were scratching our heads. What happened? We did a competitive analysis of sales compared to similar sized and style of restaurants in Visby and we should be performing much better. There were just three weeks left in the season and the busiest week yet to come, so we still had hope.
With the summer coming quickly to a close, Erik surprised me with a day at the Medieval faire in Visby. The largest Medieval festival of it's kind in Europe, I had been dying to go since we got here. This event marks the official end of summer on Gotland and with it the tourists begin to leave. Bad Wolf made up significant ground the last few weeks, but not enough to get us to where we needed to comfortably face the oncoming winter months. With the less than stellar performance of Bad Wolf we would need to react quickly to avoid financial trouble that would possibly jeopardize getting to the next summer. We also discussed the idea again of opening up a restaurant on the mainland, which might provide us with a more steady year round income, and even looked at a restaurant in Erik's home-town, Norrköping, which was for sale. But we abandoned that idea as it would be far to challenging with a newborn and 3 dogs in a city. I also convinced Erik that we needed to take some time alone and relax after spending the last two years starting restaurants before the baby was born. We found a cheap charter flight to Cyprus and had the chance to breathe a little and take stock of what the next year would potentially bring.
With the Cantina now closed and fall fully upon us, we were rushing to make the final preparations for our newest arrival. Since Bad Wolf would remain open during the fall we began scheduling and preparing the staff to continue operating without us for a few weeks while adapting to the baby. We also had a few off-site events to do. And since were weren't going to make up much in sales in the fall, we started to look at cost saving opportunities, specifically with the raw materials for our corn tortillas. While we hand-made our corn tortillas from the beginning, we used primarily Maseca corn flour, imported through a third party from Mexico. The per kilo price of the product was $4. This was a significant material cost, made up front, I felt there had to be a better option.
I have always been fascinated by corn. It's a grain with a mysterious biological ancestry (quite possibly the first human assisted genetically modified food whose heirloom ancestor bears very little resemblance to the modern form) and holds a fairly high yield of viable grain with a comparably small acreage. Interestingly, although only being used as an agricultural feed for the past 15 years in Sweden, it grows well on Gotland because the growing season is long enough here. I wondered why we couldn't, like the Mayans, utilize the local corn and nixtamalize it to make our corn tortillas. We contacted our good friends and farmers, Lori and Per Olof Björkegren to use their corn to test with for the proof of concept, and I began intensely studying nixtamalization. While the science of nixtamalization is pretty basic chemistry, the process is far from standardized. There are so many variables, from the type of corn used, the type of Calcium hydroxide (or ash) used, the length and time of cooking and soaking all changing the overall outcome of the masa (dough).
We went through more than 50 different iterations to come up with the right recipe for a consistent, repeatable and quality tasting product. In addition, it saved us more than 87% in material costs compared to the Maseca. The big question however would be getting enough corn, and the special mill required to make the over 30,000 corn tortillas we would need for the summer. But these solutions would have to wait because on October 4, 2016 at 0100 in the morning I awoke to my first contractions (about three days earlier than my due date). Erik contacted the hospital to let them know and they told us to leisurely get ready and head in (it was a 30 minute drive to Visby from Gothem). I thought the first summer had been the greatest physical test of my life, but that was nothing compared to next 72 hours of labor! To be continued...