EDDIE'S PORTABLE PIG-OUT, LLC
c/o Eddie Zuckerman
28 Shawger Road
Denville, NJ 07834
(973) 627-2722 (H) Usually 6pm-10pm
EDDIE'S PORTABLE PIG OUT IS "ON HOLD" UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE!
(updated on 2/23/13)
Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF): Although I haven't officially closed the business.....EPPO is NOT committing to any catering jobs until further notice! After 6 years of my licensed/inspected home-based operation being in full compliance, the Denville Dept of Health (DDoH) has asked me to establish a more compliant "base of operations" from somewhere other than my home. (Issue #1: My Garage-Based Dishwashing center has been deemed insufficient. Issue #2: An update to the food safety codes now disallows the storage of food on ice for greater than 4 hours).
Accommodating these changes is a HUGE game-changer. To resolve issue #1, a commercially zoned facility needs to be purchased (or some other workaround). To satisfy issue #2, at least one $56K Refrigerated Diesel Van will need to be purchased. Being a seasonal, part-time operation that doesn't make a whole lot of profit to begin with, going forward has become a very complicated undertaking which may not make sense to pursue. In a nutshell, If I go forward, I'm forced to build a "Monster Operation" to make it all work.
Although there may be excellent rationale to close the business, it's not my desire to do so yet. I'm trying to pick up the pieces and move forward *somehow*, but this won't be resolved overnight. A commercial property search remains underway, but the acceptable affordable solution hasn't presented itself yet. The situation is fluid. Please check back right here for status and updates. (Please don't throw away my business cards just yet).
Don't feel bad for me though. I didn't miss catering one bit!!! The Year off was a godsend. It's been a breath of fresh air to "Have a Life" again. I'm not sure I'll be able to operate in the 2013 season either.
FEB 2013 UPDATE: I was looking very seriously at a commercial property in Rockaway Boro, but I backed away from it. Environmental issues, spiraling hidden costs and a whole lot of work necessary made this one a bit scary. There's another crappy property in Wharton that caught my eye, formerly a small bar, but it's yet another non-perfect situation. I'm trying...I'm trying.
I also pulled down the majority of the website...People were coming into deeper pages, bypassing the main pages. They assumed I was still operating as normal, and were constructing huge emails about their event plans. I just had to put a stop to it. The minute I get my act together, it'll all go back up.
For more in-depth details of my "Go Pro or Go Home" dilemmas, please read this overly-long, meandering and boring manifesto:
PLANTING THE SEEDS FOR PROBLEMS: After a few years of operating somewhat "under the radar", In 2006 I decided to become completely legitimate. I applied for my catering license for my "Home Based Operation". When my first Dept of Health inspection came along, I honestly thought I'd be laughed at and told not to operate from my home. Much to my surprise, the Health officer loved what I was doing, encouraged me, and provided guidance on how to operate safely. Although everyone knew that the facilities were not perfect, they were considered "Good Enough". Based on the apparent "Green light", I moved forward with the business. The business demanded that I make additional investments (more trucks, trailers, roasters, equipment). I also made sure I remained in total and immediate compliance with the Dept of Health. The business steadily grew...
My "Base of Operations" was conveniently located on my 1/5 acre private residence on a residentially zoned lot. An over-stuffed house with a single car garage. Under normal circumstances, a "Home Based" catering business would be completely disallowed, but I "skated by" because of my uniqueness. On my property, no commerce took place, no cooking or food prep took place, no actual jobs were conducted ...and my food safety was impeccable. (I took all the required NJ State Food Manager's training). What *did* occur at my property: Job staging, trailer/truck parking, dishwashing, cooler cleaning, and trailer restocking/maintenance. Activity took place on occasional Fridays-Sundays, for just a few months, and was generally short duration. But I always knew that having a growing commercial operation on a residentially zoned lot was going to be an issue, sooner or later. As my name got out there, I was performing multiple jobs per weekend, for ever increasing headcounts. Truck/trailers and Staff were coming and going at all hours. More and more food was being handled. It was clear that I had outgrown my facilities, but I limped along anyway for 6 years and made it all work. I kept my fingers crossed that the Zoning Officer wouldn't serve me a "Cease and Desist" letter. And I tried very hard to keep the operation stealthy so it wouldn't annoy the neighbors. In the mean time, I initiated a real-estate search for the next "EPPO World Headquarters", but failed to find an adequate affordable solution.
THE DEFICIENCIES: I operated legally and safely for 6 years achieving "satisfactory" inspections every year..roughly 30 jobs/season. I had a great relationship with my inspectors, and rapidly responded to any suggestions they had. All my customers knew that I was the cleanest mobile operation they'd ever seen. (In fact I catered one of their private events!). Everything changed when I contacted the Dept of Health for my annual 2011 inspection. The new health officer made me aware that the NJ Health Codes have been updated, and that there was a state-wide thrust to make foodservice operations more compliant. (seen as a boost to the economy). What was "allowed" (or tolerated?) before, is no longer going to be allowed/tolerated. Unfortunately, the operation is now considered deficient in 2 areas. Deficiency #1.) Safe Pig/Meat/Food Holding. In the beginning, the DDoH instructed me to surround the pig/meat completely with large bags of ice in a massive marine cooler to hold overnight. The new guidance dictates that FOOD CANNOT BE STORED ON ICE FOR GREATER THAN 4 HOURS. Anything longer than that must be under mechanical refrigeration (or dry ice). To fit in with my established job logistics, the "Fix" is a Heavy Duty Diesel Refrigerated van, capable of towing my large trailers. It would be helpful to have a large exterior grade walk-in cooler too, but I can't have that on a residentially zoned lot, nor can I even fit it. Deficiency #2) Dishwashing. In my garage, I was previously approved to use a dedicated Double-basin Stainless Steel sink for the few things I needed to wash (a bus bin full of knives, cutting boards, tongs, and a few other items).. The sink in my nearby bathroom was considered to be good enough for the hand washing station. A Triple Basin SS Sink w/ a nearby Separate handwashing station has always been the desired equipment, but due to the small volume of dishes to be washed, I was granted an exception. That exception is no longer granted! I now need to be in full compliance with the code. Although the two deficiencies are generally simple to resolve in theory, they CAN'T be resolved on my residential lot. If I don't resolve the deficiencies, I won't be granted my Catering License and won't be able to operate.
[It is important to note that I was never formally "shut down" by the Dept of Health. The public was never at risk. I've never failed any inspections. I was always compliant and followed the guidance of the Health Inspectors immediately and they were happy with me. The DDoH are NOT seeking to shut me down, in fact they are trying hard to work with me. They even allowed me to complete the 2011 season, allowing me to satisfy my remaining list of contracted events. The plan was to resolve the shortcomings in the off-season. For that, I'm appreciative. Although I may dislike how it's effecting my operation, I have to agree with them on the facilities findings. My facilities were always marginal!! I will however state that I completely disagree with the "Food Storage on Ice" code change... Why freshly caught Tuna can come in from the ocean packed in ice for days, but pigs can't be handled that way...makes absolutely no sense to me. (I'm certain the code is in response to shady operators who inadequately ice down food, don't drain coolers, and generally put the public at risk with poorly handled food). ]
ZONING: The Denville Zoning officer DID visit me recently, in conjunction with my inspection. He did NOT see a reason to shut me down for the "current" operation...as long as the DDoH was happy. Zoning goes hand in hand with the DoH though. At my house, to make the improvements to comply with the DDoH, I'd violate the residential zoning codes. I simply cannot add the triple basin stainless steel sink and hand washing station to my garage. There's no more room. But even if there was room, the garage itself is noncompliant. (jammed with other crap, no tile floors, no plastic walls, etc). I can't add exterior grade walk-in refrigerators to my property. I can't add any more outbuildings. I shouldn't be using the interior of the house for anything, especially food storage. Trailer parking is limited to one only! Parking a refrigerated van in my driveway may violate noise ordinances. Any noise complaints would result in the Zoning officer having to shut me down.
DOING IT RIGHT: The RIGHT way to operate is out of *my own* custom outfitted warehouse on a *local* Commercial property somewhere, so I can legally set myself up for professional operations, and have all the room I need for commercial apparatus. This is a place where I can park all the trucks/trailers, can have trucks/staff coming and going at all hours, receive deliveries from suppliers, clean whatever I needed, etc... and there'd be no impact on neighbors. A facility such as this would allow growth, and would allow the development of additional income streams. (examples can be: A Vending branch, a Rental equipment branch, Roasted Pigs available for Pickup). Easier said than done. Downside is this forces "The Monster Operation", discussed below... Trying to work out of borrowed facilities such as a church or a corporate kitchen is a nightmare so I won't even consider it.
LOPSIDED FINANCES: The over-arching limitation is the finances. I have to be smart about this or I can do a lot of damage quickly. This is a part-time seasonal operation. It's a hobby that only had to make a few extra $$$ to be worth my while. (I already have a well-paying full time professional career which pays the bills, which I can retire from in 6 years). I operate for about 5-6 months with the lion's share of work jammed into 3 months, when the money actually flows. The other 6 or 7 months, the business doesn't make a cent and actually has negative cashflow (trailer parking, insurances, accounting).. There's really not a huge profit margin here, in fact it's a bit depressing and sometimes laughable how much money actually goes into my pocket, given the sheer amount of time/energy/aggravation put in. Without making any changes at all (operating rent free at home) it's marginally worthwhile to operate. But I do it because it's a passion! Money isn't necessarily my main attraction, but I refuse to become yet another person bankrupted by the Foodservice Industry, nor am I going to work that hard just to "break even". It just has to be "worth my while" or why bother!?. It remains clear that in order to survive, the business *HAS TO* move to more supportive commercial facilities, and get the right refrigerated trucks in place. In fact, many of the problems I'm experiencing now are simply a result of inadequate facilities. The Facilities Upgrade is my Number 1 Priority, going forward!! The reality is that to forge ahead properly, I have to drop $30K-56K on each refrigerated van, and anywhere from $300K to $450K to put some minimally respectable facilities together. In round numbers, I have to invest *Half Million Dollars* or more to make a couple of measly dollars on summer weekends!! How much sense does that make? Remember also, we're in a downturned economy. If I drop the big $$$, now I have to get serious and figure out how to pay for it all. Risky and somewhat unnerving. The Bottom Line: The business model as it stands now simply can't tolerate a huge increase in overhead. A huge increase in Overhead forces a Monster Operation! The Risk-O-Meter goes into the red. Being a glutton for punishment, a bit crazy, and most definitely a complete idiot... I *still* hope to go forward anyway. I recognize that I can tend to overanalyze things, and I'm open to the idea that Pleasant Surprises occur. As an example, when I bought my first pigroaster, I could never have imagined I'd be doing things to this level!
FACILITIES: Here's several real-estate scenarios under consideration to resolve the long term needs:
1.) LARGER RESIDENTIALLY ZONED PROPERTY: I can easily find a nice house on a level 2 acre property, and build a wonderful dedicated outbuilding. With the house being approx $550K, and the building of my dreams being another $100K-$200K, it's a $650-$750K undertaking to improve a lot to the point that it would work for me. But if it's a residentially zoned lot, I risk running into all the same problems I'm faced with now. For Zoning compliance, I'd have to pursue a "Land Use Variance", which is a long shot. (Inconsistent from town to town). Highlands Act limits the construction of the outbuilding. This path would have been a big mistake.
2.) RENTING OF COMMERCIAL PROPERTY: At a minimum, I'd need about 1500sq feet warehouse just to get me started. A commercial rental property can physically be the answer for the logistical needs, but it is clearly not the financially responsible path forward. With rentals typically going for $2K/mo, I'd be ok during the few months of catering season, but for the other 7 months, I'd decimate any profits by carrying this huge overhead. Parking for 4 trailers/2 trucks greatly narrows choices..
3.) PURCHASE OF RESIDENTIAL/COMMERCIAL PROPERTY: This would be very desirable, since having the operation at my residence is what I've been used to all along. But this is a very complex undertaking since there's other zoning issues to contend with (relating to outdoor storage), and limitations imposed by the Highlands Act. It's also very expensive in my area. I'd need approx 2 acres. With the house being approx $550K, and the Building of my dreams being another $100K-$200K, it's a $650-$750K undertaking to improve a lot to the point that it would work for me. Most of the available properties aren't in locations where I'd actually want to live, or are very far north and/or west from where I'd like to live. Some of the lots I've seen have been disasters that likely have environmental issues (former junkyards with spilled oil).
4.) PURCHASE OF COMMERCIAL PROPERTY: The purchasing of commercial real estate seems to be the best path forward, as the investment would be it's own financial maneuver which should result in equity growth. But this is also a very complex undertaking, and very expensive for my area. I've already been looking, but it'll take years to find and improve the right place. It's certainly not the immediate solution.. Before I make this plunge, I have to be sure I'm doing the right thing, as I need to fully understand the complicated zoning and constructional issues to contend with. So far, I've not found the perfect place that both supports the logistics and is affordable. ($600K seems to buy what I need in this area ). An added complexity is that many commercial lots in this area don't allow "outdoor storage", which means I cannot keep trucks and trailers, or "conex" storage containers outside. Advantage to separating my business from my residence is that the whole business can be sold someday as a turn-key operation. And if it grows, I won't have employees lingering around at my residence. I keep looking though.
THE MONSTER OPERATION: Whichever way I go with real estate & very expensive infrastructure, this forces a major overhaul of the business to increase revenue. The establishment of new income streams would be a requirement. Forces the "year round" operation to keep the bills paid. Or it forces multiple sets of equipment to perform more concurrent jobs during the season. That equates to more people (full timers), Several very expensive refrigerated vans, more trailers, more roasters, more equipment, advertising campaigns and inevitably more headaches. This goes from a casual business to the "Monster" operation, which was never my goal. However, it may be inevitable if I go forward from this point. Moving forward with the Monster Operation is a decision I'm not comfortable with 6 years BEFORE I retire. I am clearly at a major decision point that has been aptly described as "Go Pro, or go Home". I feel like I can't go back, I can't stand still, and I can't go forward.
SO NOW WHAT?? CAN WE LIMP FORWARD? I understand fully the negative ramifications of an extended hiatus: Loss of customers, loss of staff which equates to the evaporation of years of experience and training. And I may very well loose my momentum enough so that I won't start up again. I'm not ready to throw in the towel on this business yet, so I'm exploring "workarounds". But Limping forward is not my goal...setting myself up for the long haul is!
ADDRESSING THE FACILITIES ISSUE (SHORT TERM?): Several Workarounds have been presented to me, mainly to resolve dishwashing and food storage issues. One involves working from another local caterer's facility. The other is the possibility of working from Sussex Meat Packing, my meat supplier. I'm very reluctant to go down these paths due to the complicated logistical hurdles. I'd rather sort out my needs permanently in my own facility, which can be freely re-arranged and modified to support my unique needs.
ADDRESSING THE "FOOD ON ICE" CODE CHANGE (REFRIGERATED VAN): To continue to offer the same full service catering menus that I've done in the past, I have to invest in a Refrigerated Van strong enough to tow my Heavy Trailers. This is a large block Diesel Engine, set up for Heavy Duty Towing, with a Refrigeration system with Electric Standby (Allows refrigeration to be powered from a house). A $56K investment for a Brand New 2013 Vehicle. Used vehicles so far, seem to fall short of my needs, but seem to come in around $20K-$30K for something older/higher mileage that I might be able to work with. (I've seen a few interesting ones online around the nation). I'm curious to see the refrigerated vehicle's impact on the overall logistics of the operation. Keep in mind that I'd probably have to purchase several reefer vans to run concurrent roasts. I won't invest in any more vehicles till the facilities issues are ironed out.
LIMPING ALONG WITHOUT REFRIGERATED VANS: (assuming I have proper facilities) If I overhauled the business to a "Pig Only" operation, I could limp by. I could load out pigs directly from the walk-in coolers super early in the morning, before leaving for the job. The pig would only be on ice during transport to the job, where it would be immediately put on the roaster (less than 4 hours of ice time). I would not be able to offer full service menus (Chickens, Salads, sides requiring refrigeration) since they would violate the food storage on ice code....unless I coordinate "just in time" deliveries on ice. Another vehicle/staffer in the mix, and more costs. But I can probably offer some simple sides that don't require refrigeration (Baked Beans, Baked Potatoes, Corn). Not optimum, but could be done. If the business was modified to a "Pig Only" operation, to make it worth my while, I'd have to run more concurrent roasts which equates to more vehicles, roasters, trailers, and manpower.
STRANGE WORKAROUNDS: Some folks have kindly offered all sorts of creative solutions to allow their particular events to happen. Examples are the use of their kitchens for dishwashing or client's provision of all meats and supplies. I appreciate the offers, but these kind of workarounds take great amounts of coordination, and often present higher risk situations. Some folks have even begged me to operate "illegally" without DoH's knowledge. I'm not interested in going down any of these paths. If I can't do it right, I'd just rather not operate at all. Please don't be the millionth person to suggest putting a standard chest refrigerator in my van..
ONGOING HIATUS: The 2012 season came and went and I didn't operate at all. The break was a huge breath of fresh air. Imagine having free weekends again, like all the "beautiful people" out there! I've gone Mt biking, attended several music festivals, had a big home party, attended several friend's parties that I've had to miss year after year, had some friends & family visit, and had several very low key uneventful weekends. I wrapped up my kitchen renovation project. And I participated in a BBQ competition with the Texas Smoke BBQ team. All in all, it was real easy to not be a caterer... The Hiatus looks like it will continue into the 2013 Season too.
INDEFINATE HIATUS: Basically the whole business remains on the blocks until I can set myself up properly for the long haul (The Monster Operation, discussed above). Why should I work in temporary facilities, and deal with two bases of operations? Why should I limp along? There's a lot of wasted energy that goes into using the wrong tools for the job. Why not focus all of my energies on resolving the problems once and for all, and come back strong when the time is right?
WORST CASE: IT'S OVER!!! THE FAT LADY SUNG! I have to be completely honest here. I'm pretty disgusted with the entire situation, and there are "Quality of Life" issues that have never been more apparent at age 50! I can make a very compelling argument to shut the business down, have a massive series of yard sales, take the money and run... I have a full time very well paying job that pays my bills, the catering business is NOT A REQUIREMENT in my life. The catering business is nothing but endless grief and aggravation. Dealing with DoH oversight, Endless Equipment issues, Staff Issues/aggravations, Client Issues/aggravations, Weather related nightmares, Complex Financial issues, Mindboggling Real estate issues...and endless sacrifices at great cost to my personal life....has made we wonder why I put up with it at all. It's never been more clear to me that this beast is swallowing me whole. The recent DoH issues is a great opportunity to get the hell out of this before I do any more damage. (The next step is really a very very deep dive into the industry, which there's likely no exit from). I have made other big changes in my life, cutting this ball and chain off of my foot is a VERY ATTRACTIVE OPTION right now. I'm open to the idea that the foodservice bug inside me can manifest itself differently.
IN SUMMARY: So, friends, clients, and staff... I'm truly in a pickle here. Because I've been unsuccessful in the establishment of proper facilities, my business has hit a huge roadblock, and I'm the only one to blame for it. I was hoping the long term facilities issues could be worked out in a more seamless fashion, gradually, and invisible to clients...but here I am today with a train wreck on my hands. As you can see, I'm hoping to rise above these issues anyway, and move forward in one way or another. I'm not ready to fold this business yet, as it always seemed like the perfect retirement plan (6 years away from retirement). But I have some serious behind-the-scenes issues to wade thru before I'm able to take work again. If I can't string together the right equipment & facilities that make logistical & financial sense, then I'm forced to take either a temporary break, or a permanent break! This may take some time to resolve. Let's hope something sorts itself out.
The story is evolving. This is just my feelings as of right now, given everything I know. Please check back. Thanks for reading this far!