Leftovers: What dreams are made of

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The phone call came in well past midnight.

Cursing the persistent buzzing, I left a lovely dream about roaming an open-air farmer’s market or street fair. It was one of those vivid, lucid dreams that was so real I knew I’d be exhausted from zig-zagging vendor to vendor the next day. I could smell baked goods, saw scarves and pottery, and was hoping to return to the dream to buy a necklace from a stall at the far end of the first row. 

Natalie LaddIt was such a nice dream. 

Turning my phone off at night feels reckless and is not an option. My millennial daughters are grown women but they’re still my children. What if something happened to one of them, or to my dad in Florida? 

But, the wee-hours call wasn’t from my Number One in California or her sister on the South Shore of Boston. Instead, it was from a long-ago bartender cohort who left a lengthy message about a “definitely sure thing” business opportunity. The time was 2:30 a.m. and he was characteristically drunk, high, or both. Wide awake, I hung up on the message, aggravated that the open-air dream was no longer available to me.

James, my cohort, left a compelling sales pitch. His brother is renovating a farmhouse and barn and wants help figuring out what exactly to do with it. James sent me pictures of the structures and while I can’t share them yet, told me the exact location of the property. Zoned for multiple uses, the project is a blank canvas requiring nothing but wild ideas and a lot of money to become fabulous. 

When we worked together years ago, we’d talk about opening restaurants that didn’t exist. We spent many slow periods rolling silverware, polishing wine glasses, and coming up with theme bars that might do well in Portland or Boston.

James had a favorite idea about opening up a yurt campground with live music on weekends and a dine-in barbecue place. Whenever I reminded him that the average cost to build a yurt (with a base platform, insulation, roof reinforcement, and doors and windows) was $22,000 he would pause for a moment and go back to his second favorite idea, which was a Willie Nelson tribute bar. I proposed whiskey flights paired with things like little smoky pigs-in-a-blanket, pimiento cheese wontons, and buttery, toasted pecans. 

We didn’t know about glamping then but would have had a blast designing opulent outdoor dwellings and high-end camp food menus. I’m thinking of add-ons such as to-go lunches for hikers and explorers, with dinner-time delivery to the yurts from our on-site bistro. James would most likely suggest we move to an all-inclusive price model. It would help control food cost and enable us to have close-to-accurate profit projections. 

Although I’m a big fan of the all-inclusive model, reality set in when considering the magnitude of the overall concept. These days, glammed-up yurts and tiny houses would cost much more than $22,000 each, so as cool as the idea is, I’m switching back to the “On the Road Again Cafe and Cantina.” 

One thing we didn’t have to worry about with our fantasy restaurants was labor shortages and supply-chain problems. Having a stack of resumes and applications on hand was a given, as was being able to find maintenance people when our walk-in went down in July or the exhaust hood had to be cleaned in February.

When I called James back I learned he’s been clean and sober for more than three years (good on him) and that what I had heard in his 2:30 a.m. message was excitement and possibility. We talked about his brother’s idea of a traditional bed-and-breakfast with a restaurant and bar in the barn. He was hoping James would be responsible for the latter part of the venture. 

“He wants something really boring for the B&B,” James said. “He doesn’t want to give the place a personality, or an identity. There’s not going to be anything special about it. I was thinking over that Willie Nelson thing we used to talk about. The barn could be a western-style cantina, but what would happen if people don’t like country music or Willie Nelson? Maybe that really wasn’t such a great idea.”

Begging off the phone call and wishing them luck, I asked James to keep me updated on what he decides to do with the restaurant. I urged him to consider a simple, straightforward path where a successful grand opening would be one that’s fully staffed with all menu items in-house. I also told him there’s probably room for his own personal yurt behind the barn and told him to go for it.  

Saying goodbye once again, I told him we all need to live the dream.

Natalie Ladd is an award-winning columnist, freelance writer, and Portland restaurant veteran. She loves Boston sports, California cabernets, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. Reach her at [email protected].

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