Marking five years at Sacandaga

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My first journal entry for my first day, Saturday, Sept. 19, 2009.

It’s anniversary season around here. Friday was the anniversary of my first date with Julie. Thursday was our actual wedding anniversary — 15 years. Which means today marks five years since the first meal I served at Sacandaga Bible Conference.

As my friends know, camp food service has long been an interest and hobby, but I had no intention of doing this here for a living. I had no history, allegiance or particular passion for this place; I was, for lack of a better expression, helping a friend, who had, himself, just finished helping the camp through a rough patch. At the start of this reorganization, the only employee was the part-time housekeeper.

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Not a “Dear John,” but close

Consider the jargon in this letter from our soft drink company.

“Strive to improve our productivity and increase our efficiency.”
“Commodity inflation to determine market place (sic) pricing.”
“Enhance our ability to build the strength of our brands.”
“Translate that strength into value for our customers.”
“Working with you to optimize category performance.”

None of which are things I’m seeking. Frankly, all I want is someone who won’t give me three price increases in eight months. I suspect you’ll see a new company’s vending machines here next summer.

Back to the education

-1While my 12-year-old daughter did her homework in the living room yesterday, I joined her and did mine. For the first time in two decades (arguably more), I studied.

I spent the day cramming for today’s ServSafe food handler’s exam, which will follow a daylong course at Ginsberg’s, a family-owned food distributor in Hudson.

Those who know me well will assume it’s a ploy to have an excuse to get a steamed pork bun or some duck feet (for making stock) at the Asian Supermarket in Albany, pick up a cider doughnut at Golden Harvest in Valatie, perhaps grab a bowl of fantastic soup to go from O’Kenny’s Express or, more nobly, visit my grandparents.

And yes, I will do all of those things. I don’t get onto the Thruway often, so when I do, I make the most of it.

But really, this is about really starting my food service education. Today, a ServSafe class and exam. Next week, a three-day conference with food service workers from other Christian camps.

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Not so easy being the little guy

Two of my crack summer staffers resting in the walk-in fridge after an order was delivered.

I seem to cook for a lot of my peers, and by that, I mean people who cook for their church or another ministry as a hobby. How blessed I am to have a hobby that sustains me and my family.

And yet …

“You’ve got it easy,” they’ll say. “You can just buy everything from …” and they’ll rattle off the name of one of the big food service companies.

False.

I mean, I used to think that. Placing an order for just about everything was pretty easy at first, but the shrewd we’ve gotten about our sources, the more difficult it seems to be.

Camp’s fiscal year ended two weeks ago, and as I went through my notes from the season, there was a lot to be discouraged about when it came to our wholesale purveyors.

Maybe we’re not big enough for them to care. Maybe we buy too much ground turkey and elbow macaroni and not enough tri-tip steak and Israeli couscous. Maybe they don’t like that we spread business around to get the best products for the best prices.

The bottom line: This is, in fact, not easy.

Consider our year:

Large national food-service company: Salesman left in late winter. New salesman came aboard and did phenomenal work, then disappeared. New salesman — the third in six months — has without explanation missed two appointments to meet with me. But they handle our coffee and beverage business, so we’re not going anywhere else without a struggle.

Medium-sized food-service company: Salesman for the chemical side of the business came last fall to check out our dish machine, observe the operation and take notes to formulate a quote for all cleaning supplies. That was the last we heard from him. (Regular salesman is exceptional, however.)

Small regional food-service company: Despite one-day-a-week delivery and a bumbling salesman, we stuck with them for three years because the prices were good and the salesman was loveable and honest. But in the last 18 months, every order we placed included the wrong items, because of the salesman’s unfamiliarity with the computer ordering system, and we spent too much time and money running to the store and paying retail for the muffed items.

Big chemical company: With a handicapped dish machine and summer approaching, I met and swapped stories with a rep — nice guy, knows everyone — who pledged to tweak the machine if we’d buy his chemicals, which were ultra-concentrated and would save money. Instead, someone else came, said we needed an expensive fix, ordered the part, and switched us to the chemicals that weren’t quite as ultra-concentrated as I expected. Fast-forward months. The part hasn’t come, we pay three times as much for detergent (let alone the other chemicals), and my calls to the company were met with “you’re who?” When we finally got in touch with the original rep the other day, he said that the problem was fixed over the summer. No, it wasn’t. “Oh, it was probably a day you weren’t there,” he said. Those days don’t exist. Nobody there knows what’s going on, but they say they’ve re-ordered the part.

Soft drink company 1: Days that elapsed between my call about a broken soda machine lock and a service visit: 90. Percentage of summer orders that came on time: 20. The one on-time order resulted in the truck being driven to the wrong place, and the driver ignoring someone’s screams to stop and turn around. The result was the campwide wi-fi network crashing when the overhead wires snapped. The company said it would send a representative, but nobody came. (This is the last month you’ll see those products here.)

Sort drink company 2: An email programming error resulted in my messages not being seen by the rep. But we signed on the dotted line two weeks ago. Two days ago, I got a call. Prices are going up. Of course.

Candy and snack company: They’re tough to deal with, with a high minimum order and no way to know whether you’ve hit it until well after the order is being processed. It got tougher when our final order carried a $90 surcharge for delivery bins that supposedly hadn’t been returned. I left a message about how we’d returned them months earlier, then got a message back saying all was well. It wasn’t. Turns out, we still owe $90, because they can’t credit our account till we place another order. They’ll have to wait until next year.

Ice cream company: Generally, they have been good, but it was tough being told — twice — that our weekly deliveries weren’t going to contain chocolate ice cream. About half the summer, the ice cream in the Snack Barn was from Blue Bunny, not the brand whose name was on the freezer.

Milk company: In an effort to get more wholesome beverages onto the menu and ease dispensing when it comes to breakfast cereal (picture 6-year-olds with a cereal dispenser and milk pitcher), we met with a leading regional dairy about providing us with milk and the machines to dispense them. No machines. And the price for a gallon of milk from the jug? $4. Pass.

Another food show, another letdown

ImageI visited my second food show of the season today — this time run by Giant Foodservice Company.

It was productive in terms of making connections with folks who can meet some of our service needs — paper products, condiment dispensers, etc. It was a little worthless otherwise.

When I asked a rep from a canned tomato company — we make our own sauce — about his best peeled, whole tomatoes, he steered me to two pureed tomato products. We have yet to find a peeled, whole tomato we’re happy with from Giant Foodservice Company.

Sales reps from a glass company, a large processed chicken company had zero interest in talking about their products. At least one passed on her email address in case I want to ask more questions later.

A certain dessert cost only 25 cents an ounce. “So look what you can do for $2.” Sigh. Nobody listens when we tell them how much money we actually get to spend on a meal.

Also within our budget, according to the reps: Tiny, precious hors d’ouevres for children’s meals, like phyllo-wrapped asparagus (sorry, folks, not every kid is named Erika Pitcher).

In the “your kids will love it” department, we have chips made with chickpea flour that we can’t afford, canned crab that tasted like tuna and some really disgusting sausage that tasted of sawdust.

I didn’t find my perfect bacon. I didn’t find my perfect chicken-breast nugget.

The search continues.