A Look Back at One Year of “Unemployment”

So it’s official.  As of today, I’ve hit my one year mark of leaving my stable healthcare job at the consulting firm I used to work for, and proactively choosing to pursue opening a restaurant as my passion.  What triggered this whole year of not working?  Well, after searching for a spot since October 2013 to open up Paulie Gee’s Chicago (name to change), I had finally located two spots, one in Wicker Park, one in Noble Square, that seemed to have great promise.  Both were ready to make deals, and I was in a good negotiating position for both locations.

Negotiations were moving along well for both spots, with two choices and positive vibes all around, a lease signing seemed eminent, and since I already notified my bosses about my pursuit of opening a restaurant a few months ago, they were bringing up inquiries of when I was planning to leave more and more frequently.  So after a few major projects I had started and wanted to see through were wrapped up (incidentally, the main project that was my baby was published in Journal of American College of Surgeons) and before the next big project that I wasn’t so excited about embarking on, I decided it was the right time to step away and go full focus on the getting the restaurant open.  After all, the process couldn’t take that much longer to get open, right?  Financially, I had saved up plenty of vacation days so that I’d have an extra month’s pay upon my leave, my wife’s business was doing well enough to support all our necessary payments, and we had saved up a good chunk of money in various funds to cover emergencies, insurance, etc. for a few years.  My plan was to take a little bit of time off to spend with my wife, go to Brooklyn and do some training at Paulie Gee’s once I sign the lease, and come back and start renovation/building work immediately.  Great plan right?  Well, as the saying goes, “best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray”…

My first day of not being employed was amazing.  Wake up at 5:30 AM (which was still ingrained in my system), work out, make breakfast for the wife and I, check e-mails (corporate habits die hard), visit the library and read up on various recipes/ingredients/techniques/restauranter experiences, work out again, prep dinner for the wife, stay up and read more, pass out.  Days like these were common, with some Netflix documentaries on chefs/restauranters mixed in, trips to the city to help progress of the potential locations, etc.  It was phenomenal.  But as time progressed, progression on the two locations started to stall…

Without getting into the details of why both these places turned into failures (reserved for a future post), by the end of September, I was back at square one in my search… no location, but this time with no steady income as well.  And after a long discussion with my wife, we decided it would be useful to pick up some hours to help build some experience in the restaurant business and to make a little extra money on the side for spending.  So what have I done and learned this past year?

Pizzaiolo at a local “Neapolitan” wood fired restaurant:  $10 an hour is tough pay for a job that you’re on your feet all day for with pretty much no breaks if you’re not a smoker.  (Smokers tend to get a 15 minute or so break, but if you’re clear from the start that you don’t smoke, the group tends not to ask you if you need a break).  I have a lot more respect for the line chefs and restaurant workers of the world who are grinding out $10-$12 an hour and have a family to support… one of the guys I met works at three different restaurants, about 90 hours each week, to support his family of four.  After taxes, that paycheck is enough to get you food, housing, and if you’re lucky, a night out every once in awhile… retirement savings?  Not even close… but what blew my mind was that these folks still lived up life going out to bars, drinking, gambling, etc.  I understand it though… post shift, you want to destress… blow off some steam, enjoy life.  There’s a post shift energy that you feel you just gotta burn off by going out and enjoying life.  While I worked here for a short three months and only three days a week, I learned a good deal about restaurant operations (good and bad) that gave me a good understanding of life on the line at a pizza restaurant.  But also one of the key things I learned was that for many folks working in this industry, it isn’t about loving what you do and serving the best food you can possibly make.  While you could feel that some folks loved what they did, others definitely had no incentive drive for continued self improvement… you can quickly tell what passion folks have for their work based on what they do in their free time… Are they trying out other local pizzerias in the are?  Are they trying to refine their technique?  Develop new flavors/concepts?  Or are they coming in to grind out the job?

Dishwasher, Bartender, Day Prep, Pizzamaker at Paulie Gee’s:  While I was “paid” for my time here, the experience was undeniably eye opening.  Seeing the passion from some of the folks working here for the food being produced was phenomenal.  No, not every staff member had that passion, but you could tell which ones did by the way they talked about food inside and outside the restaurant, their attention to details, their focus on refining their techniques… They literally spent their free time thinking about how to improve the food, and testing ideas to implement onto the menu.  Just as importantly, I was able to work in multiple roles at Paulie’s learning more of the in and outs of the restaurants operations all around.  And I definitely have a new found respect for the dishwasher position… Sure, it’s easy enough to keep up with dishes all throughout the night as people are eating, but come closing time when the wait staff bring you all the final plates/silverware, the bar staff bring you all their glasses/cups, the line staff bring your their equipment… etc.  Those last 30 minutes of the restaurant closing are really just the beginning of your night rush.  It feels a lot like the scene in Ghostbusters when their containment unit starts releasing every possible ghost, and you just can’t keep up…  And being a bartender is as fun as you think it is, at least in a restaurant where there are no mixed drinks, and the bar is pretty small and easily manageable.

Extra on a television show casting call:  This one was really just for fun… and why not?  A full day of standing around, doing scenes that they want to film you in for some cash?  It was interesting to find out that a lot of folks do this for a living… in fact, out of the the 50 or so extra they had, only two of us had never done it before, and by the way most of these folks connected with each in such a friendly manner, it was definitely a small network that all seemed to know each other.  My main lesson, however, was that as type A personality who’s always looking to be doing something, doing this job really drove me a little batty… the time it took to set up a shot was probably 85% of the time we were on the job, while the last 15% consisted of moving to different scenes, reshooting, etc.  Sitting around killing time annoys me, even if I’m getting paid for it.

Tutor at GradePower Learning:  During my next stint of time off, I was considering getting some shifts at Trader Joes since I heard they pay well, and the employee discount at a store like that would’ve been nice.  I mentioned that I was considering applying to work there to my aunt and uncle, and instead, they asked if I’d like to work at their tutoring center since they were in need of an extra tutor, and I had tutored before at Kaplan.  Figuring I could help out family while making a little extra cash, I agreed to help tutor.  While the majority of the time was spent tutoring high school kids into improving their score on the ACT (which is a largely good test taking technique once you’ve acquired the necessary basic knowledge), some time was also spent improving the focus and intelligence of grade school kids.  Even though the job wasn’t tied to food industry, the job paid well, and I got to spend hours interacting with various ages of students, encouraging them to push themselves and improve, helping to build their confidence in skills many of them already had, but never took the time to apply.  Some of the techniques I learned are likely translatable into working with the staff that I eventually have at my restaurant as well…

Research trips/vacations:  One of the greatest memories of this year is that since I had no work obligations, my wife and my schedules finally lined up somewhat.  As someone that owns her own business, her off days were Tues/Thurs, while I had the typical work week off days of Sat/Sun.  It made for planning vacations tough, and the concept of a “weekend getaway” was impossible.  But with all the time in the world suddenly, and no significant extra income for flying, we decided to do a bunch of driveable vacations mixed with some family weddings that we flew to…. with a lot of pizza eating/research along the way.  A total of ten vacations (if you include some of the family weddings) in this one year and not including the training trip to NYC.  What pizza did we eat?  Here’s the list:

  • Minneapolis – Punch Pizza and Pizzeria Lola
  • Detroit (stopped for a few hours) – Buddy’s Pizza
  • Toronto/Niagra Falls – Pizzeria Libretto
  • Starved Rock – August Hill Winery (wine for the restaurant possibly?)
  • NYC – Joes Pizza, Best Pizza, Paulie Gee’s
  • San Francisco – Cheeseboard Collective, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana
  • Dubuque, Iowa – Breitbach Country Dining (saw the movie Spinning Plates and had to come check them out and meet the owner), Happy Joes Pizza
  • Memphis (one night stopover as we headed to NOLA): Hog and Hominy
  • New Orleans:  Slice Pizzeria, Domenica Pizza
  • Washington DC:  Pupatella Pizzeria, 2 Amys Neapolitan Pizzeria
  • Back to NYC for training (without my wife though):  Paulie Gee’s, Prince St Pizza, Robertas, New Park Pizza, Lucalis
  • New Mexico: Giovanni’s Pizzeria
  • Denver (one night stay):  Pizzeria Locale, Marco’s Coal Fired Pizza
  • Iowa (lunch stopover):  Fong’s Pizza
  • Grand Rapids, Michigan: Harmony Brewing Company (noted for their great pizza), various cider tastings, The Filling Stations (woodfired flat breads), Eremis Pizza (in Kalamazoo on the way back)

What did I learn from all this research and vacationing?  First off, I gained about 10 lbs from all the food we ate… and I definitely came back with some great ideas/concept for pizza, and have developed a great appreciation for the business owners that run each of these places.  But perhaps what I enjoyed the most was the chance to spend time with my wife traveling, driving, talking, laughing, stuffing ourselves, visiting friends and family, and the stories that have come of our travels this year… the memories of all these travels will stay with me for a long time to come… and I hope will carry us for the first few years when I won’t have time to take vacation when the restaurant opens.

All in all, it’s been a phenomenal year of not working!  My wife asked me this morning if I wanted to do something to celebrate my one year of retirement… I’m pretty sure she was being sarcastic.  =p  But honestly, for the experiences we’ve had, I’ve enjoyed the year as a whole!  Would I have preferred the restaurant be up and running by now?  Absolutely… but given the circumstances, I’m just counting my blessing to have a patient wife who helps support us financially while I pursue my own dream of opening up the pizzeria, and that we’ve been able to spend so much time together this year.

So one year of retirement down, a lot of great life experiences later, I’m even moreso ready to open up and start serving up some Paulie Gee pies in Chicago…  Keep your fingers and toes crossed that we keep moving forward!