What happens when the noblest intentions collide with the realities of operating an actual business? The California Sunday Magazine has one such tale, and it’s poignant. It’s entitled “Cooking Lessons: Disillusioned with fine dining, one of the world’s great chefs took on fast food. It has been harder than he ever imagined.” It’s about Daniel Patterson, who owns five elite restaurants in the Bay Area, who partners with Roy Choi, described as the “tattooed king of L.A. food trucks,” and their joint efforts to bring accessible, affordable, quality food to the masses in the form of a restaurant-cum-future-chain called Locol.
The mission was sincere, verging on oxymoronic:
The writing is vivid, particularly in its evocation of the differing personalities of Patterson and Choi. The latter is a junk-food aficionado who rhapsodizes about “a monster taco—crispy on the edges, just enough greasiness.’” Choi aspires to conceive an addictive menu and ruminates about being 16, “sitting on the curb and eating two cheeseburgers from McDonald’s and having an Oreo shake [and] how I love to tear the sauce packet, the sound of the paper.” Choi is all passion; his partner all intellect. Here’s Patterson describing his approach: “‘I thought, OK, burger: cost problem, health problem. Arrow to solution: Mix in something not meat. Scroll down list of possible ingredients, winnow to grains and tofu. Arrow to flavor problem. No flavor in those things. Arrow to umami. Scroll list of umami ingredients. I want MSG, but let’s go old-school: seaweed, garum, white soy, flavors of fermentation that lock together to create a propulsive umami under the meat flavor, so that it tastes like meat-plus. Then, What grain? And then, I’m going to fine-pulse the grain for texture. Got it, like it.’”
Then there are their attempts to launch the actual business. Their laudable goal is to employ and serve minority communities, starting with a notoriously poor section of Los Angeles. The writer captures the steep challenge: “It is one thing to build a brand and a burger, of course, and quite another to launch a viable business in Watts, a 2-square-mile community of 41,000 people with high unemployment, organized gangs at each of its four major housing projects, and exactly two sit-down dinner restaurants—a Subway and a Popeyes.” Suffice it to say, the business problems mushroom. Not least of them is the fact that the restaurant’s name unintentionally incorporates a signature slang term from the Crips gang, which some customers interpret to mean that non-Crips were not welcome. You can’t help but chuckle at such stumbles, but it’s ultimately a melancholy story.
Rolling A Billionaire
The best story I’ve read about a big transaction lately appears in ESPN the Magazine. It’s a richly detailed account of the backstage drama that culminated in the Oakland Raiders’ decision to move to Las Vegas. Entitled “Sin City or Bust,” it includes a host of expected sports characters—such as Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (described as an “idiot” by one figure in the story)—and many less predictable ones for ESPN, including bankers from Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, and Fortress Capital, as well as a few football players (Ronnie Lott and Napoleon McCallum) in non-football roles. There are plenty of twists here, including the very notion that the hyper-controlling-and-image-conscious NFL would permit a team to move to the national capital of gambling.
Most of all it’s the story of Mark Davis, the underestimated, bowl-haircut-wearing son of the legendarily cantankerous late Raiders owner Al Davis, and Sheldon Adelson, the equally surly casino multibillionaire (he’s the one who offers the harsh assessment of Goodell), and a man who exerts the sort of despotic sway in Las Vegas that the DuPont family maintained a century ago in the state of Delaware. It’s a measure of what a snake pit the NFL ownership group is that Adelson ends up as something approaching a victim in this saga:
Adelson may be 83 and largely confined to a scooter. But my advice to Mark Davis is that he avoid crossing paths with Adelson again.
Democracy vs. The Economy
I’ll admit that when you bring up “democracy,” you risk losing a lot of readers—either through a fear of excessive earnestness…or excessive boredom. But this essay, on Medium, entitled “Prioritizing Economics is Crippling the U.S. Economy,” is worth reading. The author, James Allworth, a fellow at the Harvard Business School’s Forum For Growth and Innovation (led by Clayton Christensen), examines a shift that began occurring in the U.S. around the time of the Depression. Here’s how he describes it, referring to research by economist David Moss:
Allworth then goes on to make a plausible argument that the change has had negative effects, including toxic forms of entrepreneurism and “the lowest level of small business creation since the 1970s. Perhaps even more troubling — for the first time since researchers started collecting the data — the rate of business death now exceeds the rate of business creation.”
His prescription: “the best way to keep an economy healthy isn’t by prioritizing the economy. It’s by prioritizing democracy.”
P.S. A worthy companion piece, from the vantage point of corporate leadership, is the article Alan Murray recommended earlier in the week.
P.P.S. As long as we’re discussing democracy and the economy… I’ve just started reading a book entitled “The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution.” It makes what to my limited knowledge seems like a new argument: America’s founding fathers viewed the goal of avoiding income inequality as one of the keys, if not the key, to a stable democracy. It quotes no less a fan of capital than Alexander Hamilton saying “the most likely source of faction was the ‘inequality of property”; it was ‘the great & fundamental distinction in Society.'”