Fodder for Thought · Subcultures of America

Subcultures of America: Part 2: The Chocolate Lady Entrepreneur & Farmers Market Culture

So now I’m going to go back in time to my first job after I returned from New Zealand.

 I was dead set on working a farmers market job. I mean, what could be a more perfect place for me? I just love the farmers markets… farmers markets are the utopia of today – an actualization of everything I believe in. Families, old people, and hippie college babes harmonizing with the acoustic tunes that fill the air, uniting over their love of delicious, local, organic, fibrous fruits and veggies of the Earth. If the world was a farmers market there would be no war, no strife, no hunger, no pain, no broken hearts… just peace and love!

Day in and day out I scoured craigslist for my golden opportunity. And after a few weeks, I found it – my one way ticket to organic heaven. It was with Socola Chocolatier, a San Francisco based chocolate truffle company ran by two young, fun, funky, and savvy first-generation Vietnemese-American sisters. There was sweet little Wendy, a UC Davis grad who was a financial analyst by day and the master chef behind the operation by night. And then there was Susan, a Harvard grad who was the full time mastermind behind the entrepreneurial business side of the operation. They had been working on this for a couple years, so it was still small but growing; I was the first sales person they were hiring. How exciting!

I met with Susan for the first time at our local farmers market in Kensington. She was frantically handing out free samples to all passerby, aggressively accusing each and every one of loving chocolate, and demanding that they get over here and shove this in their mouth. I couldn’t tell which flavor she was handing out to who, but I jumped in there, followed her lead, and handed slivers of the truffles to whoever approached the booth. The second the farmers market ended we frantically packed up the booth because Susan was racing to another event that she was already running late for.

I met with her two days later for coffee where we had a nice conversation/interview since there had been no real time for chit chat before. We had been small-talking for about half an hour when this man walked in – tall, lean, middle aged, scraggly hair, 6 o clock shadow, flip flops, surf shorts, pancho, trucker hat. I blurted out, “Hello! I recognize you from burning man! You put your hands over the scab on my elbow and helped to heal it!” He looked at me and smiled, and then turned to Susan and held his hand in front of his heart as if he were praying and then he separated his hands, as though he were orchestrating. There was a strange quietness amongst us. I asked what that was. He looked at me and said “stillness”. And then looked back to Susan and said, “this is your natural state. you want to be still, but you are not.” and then he continued for a few minutes about the importance of being still. My eyes were fixated on him as he spoke, and when he finished speaking I looked back to Susan and she had tears in her eyes. She bowed her head and thanked him. He then sat down at a nearby table. Susan shook her head, sighed, dotted her eyes, and looked back at me. I felt like I was seeing the real Susan. A woman who was doing everything she could to follow this crazy dream – her passion – but was completely overworked, exhausted, and just needed help.

For the next hour we had a real conversation – we spoke of our experiences at burning man, about what we wanted out of life, our worldviews, about how we were feeling at the present moment, and I felt like we had a true connection. She offered me the job and I gladly accepted. I was going to be the “Direct Sales Coordinator” – in charge of applying to farmers markets, contacting grocery stores to sell our product, coordinating in-store demos and any other form of direct sales. We were currently only selling Socola Chocolates at a couple grocery stores in SF, and the Kensington farmers market. In the first few weeks I opened 9 new accounts in grocery stores around the Bay Area, and was accepted to about 6 new farmers markets. Things were looking up!

Being part of the start up was great; I took personal pride in our successes and took it pretty hard when things didn’t go well. When Susan was stressed, I was stressed. When Susan was happy, I was happy. And vice versa. We were a team – girls against the world! I was pretty emotionally invested  in the company.

Working at the farmers markets was fun; I became really good friends with Malcolm, a 72 year old guy who was a psychotherapist by week, and Big Paw Olive Oil and Balsalmic Vinaigrette seller by weekend. My other really good friend was Tom, 60 year old founder of Tom’s Best-Ever Granola. Literally, the best granola I have ever had. He would always help me set up my booth, and give me a shot of granola if I was looking down. Then there was my farmers market crush who I admired from afar, that made the farmers market really exciting. The manager of the market was a fellow marathon runner who ran through the market ringing a cow bell to signal the market was officially open for business. The communiy of vendors and buyers felt like one big family 🙂 I traded chocolate for anything I desired – coffee, paninis, blueberries, peaches, you name it.

A couple months went by and then a series of events happened that dampened my enthusiasm… I worked like 18 hours in one day, going from farmers market to the kitchen where I helped make 5,000 truffles until about 2 in the morning. Only to wake up the next day at 7 am to go to the farmers market. I began working farmers markets in Marin where the clientelle was snobby, unappreciative people. Sales were dropping since it was summer and there were no holidays to buy chocolate for and that was negatively impacting my relationship with Susan. I was having an off day at a farmers market where I was pretty disorganized and chatting with a fellow vendor instead of promoting chocolate at my booth; Susan showed up to surprise evaluate my performance and needless to say she wasn’t pleased. I was given a written warning detailing everything I did wrong – I felt like this was too business like and impersonal for the relationship I had built with Susan. It immediately triggered something in me, in which I felt like I was no longer trying to help this woman acheive her dream. Waking up early was no longer refreshing. I had to drag myself out of bed. When driving to Maric in the afternoon I was no longer enjoying singing at the top of my lungs to 107.7 the bone, instead I was just frustrated and stuck in rush hour traffic. Setting up the booth was no longer a process I enjoyed, rather I was schlepping around pounds of expensive chocolate I was accountable for, and a cheap pop up tent that was tattered and didn’t even provide me any shade. My conversations with Susan changed from light and fun to concrete – discussing marketing strategies, crunching numbers, and analyzing how to maximize profit.

I took a weekend off and went out of town. I never went back to Socola. I have the utmost respect for Susan. She is smart, talented, ambitious, determined, and quirky. All the qualities I look for in a woman. But there was something off – underneath the dream, the passion, it seemed like there was just a thirst for money. There is nothing inherently wrong with this; in fact, I love money. I am a material girl living in a material world, and I find happiness from buying things and value a sense of financial security. However, I was illusioned into believing that the farmers market culture was different, and I was illusioned into believing that maybe there was an entrepreneur out there where money was not necessarily the main goal, but rather a side effect of doing what one truly wanted to be doing for the pure love of doing it. I realized that not only was money a main concern for Socola Chocolatier, but other farmers market vendors were constantly analyzing the profits of the market. There are countless conversations amongst the vendors of “how’s business today?”. Business. That’s what it came down to; my farmers market haven was not a utopia at all. It is capitalist.

When I realized this I realized that if I’m going to be a capitalist, I don’t want to be working under the guise of the farmers market. I want to be part of a more blatantly capitalist system – so at least I don’t feel hypocritical. But I wish all of the farmers market vendors out there the best of luck, and I wish all the entrepreneurs all the money in the world!

But as for me? Enron, here I come!

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