F&W's #FOODWINEWOMEN series spotlights the top women in food and drink in collaboration with Toklas Society. In this Monday series, inspiring chefs and entrepreneurs prove that mistakes can often lead to success. Share your craziest mistakes and sharpest lessons using the hashtag on Twitter (@foodandwine).
I don’t make bad decisions. Seriously. I have only ever made good decisions. The problem is, two-thirds of them turn out to be bad decisions in disguise. If only there were some kind of labeling system, like we have for organic food, where bad decisions could be marked with large, easy-to-read signs saying “Warning: Bad Decision” before we make them. But until that day arrives, I use a mathematical formula to help me deal with the uncertainty:
ED = M
Where ED is “every decision” and M is “a mistake.”
No one likes to make decisions, but owning a business means that you have to make hundreds of them every single day. No one else is going to do it for me. And I had to get used to the fact that every single one of them is probably wrong, but if I stop making them my restaurant is going to grind to a halt and die. So I don’t have a choice. Good or bad, I just have to keep making decisions. Here are five of my biggest (plus one I still don’t think is a mistake).
1. Choosing a restaurant name. It was called the biggest mistake of my life at the time, but naming my restaurant Dirt Candy was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done. It got attention, and it got remembered. But when I opened, everyone piled on to tell me how stupid it was, and I was included in numerous “Worst Name of the Year” pieces. To me, every single one of them was a free ad.
2. Opening a restaurant. I should never have opened Dirt Candy in the first place, though. I did it way too early. I should have taken more jobs before I opened, worked in more restaurants that were outside my comfort zone. And I shouldn’t have stayed at some of my jobs as long as I did. I’ve had to play catch-up ever since.
3. Falling in love with the wrong dish. One of the first dishes on the Dirt Candy menu was cauliflower pappardelle. It was a really smart deconstruction of traditional Italian pappardelle, and people hated it. I, on the other hand, thought it was genius, and we fell in love. The more people told me he was wrong for me, the more committed to him I became. They were just jealous of what we had! Turns out they were right, and we should have broken up way earlier.
4. Dismissing warning signs. When my first shady contractor, Anthony, didn’t show up for work one day and his foreman, Colin, told me he’d been put on psychiatric hold in a hospital, I should have fired him right there. Instead, I let Anthony come back to work. He wound up delaying my opening by six more months and cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars. There have been several Anthonys in my life, and at the first sign of trouble I should have fired them all, right then and there, no questions asked. (Note: I don’t actually know if Anthony was in the hospital or not. He later denied it ever happened.)
5. Trusting anyone but myself. When Dirt Candy opened, we didn’t have gas for the first six months (thanks, Anthony’s plumber!), and I really didn’t want to be reviewed while we were cooking on countertop appliances I'd bought at Bed, Bath and Beyond. But when a major newspaper sent a reviewer, he told me he wasn’t there to review, he was simply writing a piece on restaurants getting reviewed too early and he swore to me that he would never review Dirt Candy before we got gas. I trusted him. Two weeks later, he ran a review anyways. A bad one. That’s when I learned that it’s no one else’s job to protect Dirt Candy but mine. Everyone is taking care of their own careers, and if my restaurant gets hurt in the process, they couldn't care less. Protecting Dirt Candy is my job, and I can never stop doing it. I can’t expect anyone else to have Dirt Candy’s best interests at heart.