Ex-Pats, Food Trucks, and The Portland Culinary Zeitgeist

If you had asked a lot of Portland small businesspeople back in 2019 about the future of Portland’s lauded, Wild-West food scene, they would have told you that food carts and food pods were on their way out.

“How could they justify such a stance?” I wondered. Portlands’ Weird ™️, eclectic, and pioneering attitude toward food business put it on the national map. The entrepreneurial, low barrier-to-entry, “throw it at the wall and see what sticks” attitude embodied by the food truck and food pod (outdoor food courts comprised of several carts on the same property) has led to an absolute blossoming of fine food in the city for all cultures and classes.

Alas, they say, the laws and fees required by the city to maintain such a business (some seemingly to protect brick-and-mortar businesses, others just nickel and dimeing,) as well as rising property values encouraging landowners to kick out food pods in favor of development had made running a food cart involve a bit more investment, anxiety, and heartache than a lot of prospective entrepreneurs were prepared for. The rise of delivery services- accommodating of which is sometimes overwhelming for the small team of a common food truck- have also deprived newer food carts of the all-important foot traffic exposure they get from people coming into a pod to visit more-established neighbors.

Then COVID-19 came to town, and food carts were the best and safest way to do business.

A working lunch at Lady Latke, a food truck the the Eastport pod built around potato pancakes.
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The Flawed Thinking of “Passive Income”

I am what you might call a “working man.” I’m also a bit of a workaholic, but that’s its own blog post. What I mean by “working man” is that I work to make a living. The term is usually used for those that do “blue collar” work, but I apply it to anyone who goes to some kind of effort to earn a wage whether it’s from someone else or working for themselves. In other words, they earn money by creating value in the world. Yes, that does include the arts.

Not too long ago, my social media feeds were positively beset by sponsored articles and boosted posts talking about “passive income” and “easy ways to make money.” If the bad car salesman lingo wasn’t enough to indicate the lack of value these articles offered, their suggestions surely did:

  • Start a blog and run ads on it! You’ll make money for nothing!”
  • Write a book and self-publish. You only have to write the book once!”
  • Sign up for one of our apps/partners and earn money taking quizzes or being a secret shopper or telling us what you bought!”

I can’t speak to the efficacy of that last one, but I know the first two pretty well at this point. If you think writing books or a blog is the easy way to a life of wealth and leisure… this post is for you.

A man counts money sitting in front of a laptop
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Is Passive Income a Thing?

Yes, but also no.

Passive income is popularly defined as money you earn without having to work for it, usually through things like royalties or investments. For example, if you invest in a stock and that stock increases in value, your wealth just increased without you having to do anything related to increasing the value of the stock (provided you then sell it before the value decreases.) Investing in real estate might also be considered “passive income” since, as a landlord, you might develop the land or collect rent on it.

It can be argued, however, that both of those things involve some form of labor. An artist earning royalties still needs to do something to promote themselves and keep earning. Investors need to stay on top of their investments because all investments involve risk and knowing when to get out is vital. Landlords are also usually responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the properties they rent out. Even if those things are handled by other people, someone needs to be creating the value that the person collecting “passive income” amasses. If it’s not them, then who? Think about that next time you negotiate with your boss for a raise.

“But surely Matt, compared to owning property or investing, having a blog or writing a book and selling copies isn’t THAT much work?!”

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Super Awesome Blogging Secrets!

Until you get used to all the ins and outs of blogging- CMSs, SEO, scheduling, social media seeding and the like- running a blog is HARD. If you don’t write well, regularly, and material your audience wants, you’ll be waiting a long time before you even see a dime.

I’ve been writing this blog for over 9 years. I still don’t know everything about SEO (but I know a few tricks,) I’ve learned about a couple different CMSs, and I keep a pretty regular schedule. I also write very well and promote my blog regularly.

With all that in mind, some time ago I decided to try running ads on my blog just to see how much it would net me. Ads tend to earn based on the number of clicks, the number of views, or both. Surely with all the work I’ve done, it couldn’t be that hard.

When the ads appeared, I saw a drop in readership. The ads broke up my writing awkwardly and were peddling the same kind of spurious clickbait trash I mentioned above. Few things are more awkward than reading an excellent piece about the emotional toll culinary life takes just to have two paragraphs separated by and add that screams about how “DOCTORS DON’T WANT YOU TO KNOW ABOUT THIS ONE WEIRD TRICK TO REMOVE HORNETS FROM YOUR ANUS WITH VINEGAR.”

After 8 months of suffering through this ridiculousness, I finally checked how much money the ads had rolled in. 5 cents. For 8 months or making my reading experience miserable and losing a chunk of my audience, the path to easy riches this was certainly not.

I was considering making the work involved in “just write a book!” its own section on this post, but I realized I could easily sum it up in a couple of salient bullet points.

  • WRITING A BOOK IS HARD. Seriously. Writing a book alone is an accomplishment, and writing one that people actually want to read even more so. Even Amazon will spit your book back out if it thinks it’s completely worthless or contains hateful nonsense. Amazon loves its bottom line more than it loves you or your “freedom of speech.”
  • SELF-PUBLISHING MEANS SELF-EVERYTHING. Need to advertise your book? That’s on you. Arrange a book tour? Also you. Distribution? Anywhere beyond to folks publishing the book is YOU. The business and financial responsibilities involved in selling books? Hey guess what IT’S YOU.
  • KEEP WRITING. The best way to to sell your book is through your next book. You have to keep producing. If you want to retire from writing, you better have some other ways of making money or have done a LOT of work that means you can live of of royalities… and keeping your name alive in peoples minds so they buy copies.
Willy Wonka from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory puckering his lips pensively.

Ad Astra Per Alia Porci

John Steinbeck used this Latin phrase as his motto- “To the stars on the wings of a pig”- to describe himself as “a lumbering soul trying to fly.”

If you really want to make a living writing- something I have yet to fully accomplish after nearly a decade– it is definitely not going to be “passive income” and you are going to want to spit in the face of anyone who suggests such. You have to love the work. You have to love the struggle. You have to love working hard in a state of terrible freedom.

And if you’re going to run ads on your blog, make sure they don’t ruin the experience of READING YOUR BLOG.

Stay Classy,

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Making Deals with the Devil

Idealism and practicality need not be enemies… as long as you keep your priorities straight.

Some time ago, I swung by a bakery I used to work at to try out a new pastry and see some of my old friends. The case and display looked much the same as ever, despite the high staff turnover. I picked out the new pastry- a riff on one of their staples- and took it outside for a discreet bite. That turned out to be the best course of action since no one could then see me throw the rest in the trash and quickly chug from my water bottle. I’d never really cared for that particular pastry in the first place, but somehow it had gotten worse since I left. The pastry itself was utterly tasteless, the icing oddly chemical, and the filling boring.

A while later, I texted a friend of mine who still worked there about it and asked what had changed. “Oh, yeah… we changed the recipe because the original one wasn’t coming out right from the new machine. It kinda sucks, but at least we’re not mixing it by hand anymore.”
What about the icing? This isn’t fondant…
Nope, it’s this new stuff made with modelling chocolate, corn syrup… I think it tastes foul, but it’s easier to work with.”

As soon as you stop caring about making good products in favor of making sellable products efficiently, you’ve made a classic “deal with the devil”- and it won’t always end well.

GIF version. | Congratulations, You Played Yourself | Know Your Meme
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What Does Quentin Crisp Know About Cooking?- Fashion Vs. Style in the Food World

I am not now, nor would I have ever called myself at any point in my life, fashionable. Not even in college when I started wearing those enormous pants with all the unnecessary straps and half-heartedly dyed my hair blue.

I might have been trend-chasing, and I’m sure I thought I was cool at the time, but I was never fashionable- and likely never will be as I slouch gracefully toward early middle age.

Instead, when people see the effort I do put into looking put together, they say I’m “stylish.” That is a lesson I learned from Quentin Crisp, and I think we as an industry will be happier when we learn to apply it to our food.

Color photo of Quentin Crisp with the text “Fashion is a way of not having to decide what you are. Style is deciding who you are and being able to perrpetuate it.”
Quentin Crisp pulled off a scarf and eyeliner way better than I pulled off those pants from Hot Topic.
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Downtime Thoughts and New Ideas

Happy Halloween, friends and neighbors!

I hope you spend tonight safely, spookily, and loaded up with enough pumpkin and chocolate that you can’t possibly forget to VOTE.

This blog post is coming to you from my rocking chair, where it is about noon and I am still in my pajamas. This is because I have had a hell of a week, and I am getting an aggressive masterclass in How To Just Chill The Hell Out- because the five holes in my torso need to heal, and will not be denied.

As such, I have been sleeping a lot, listening to a lot of music and podcasts, and even awoke the Dread Owl from its slumber… so here’s what’s been on my mind.

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