Food Service Fits and Starts

The Price was Right

Years ago, a group of friends and I went out for pizza every Friday night after work to the same restaurant. We were regulars and became favorites of the manager, Price. He was a good manager, skilled in his craft. One night he told us about food service managers he had no use for: the mom-and-pop shops. These were people who had no experience in food service management: didn't know proper operating margins, organization, training, supplies, regulations, etc. Often these mom-and-pop operations start with a lot of their friends saying "You make such wonderful XYZ, you should open a restaurant." Where I live, XYZ seems to be mosty BBQ. What are the most common where you live?

The vast majority of these mom-and-pop shops fail quickly.

BBQ to Gone

My wife and I went to one such nearby mom-and-pop BBQ place a couple of years ago. The food was good, but there were some rough edges. I went to their Facebook page and listed how they could improve their customer experience. They liked my post, then implemented none of my suggestions. They reorganized their service model from table service to ordering at the counter, which introduced even more rough edges. They were gone inside a year.

Another new local BBQ place sprouted on the other side of town recently. The food was, again, pretty good. But you could tell that nobody behind the counter had ever had any commercial food service experience. There was a new teenage boy on staff, probably his first day. He was being trained by the "watch what I do" method. There were no stations or duties. Everybody just pitched in and did that they perceived needed to be done. I doubt they'll make it till next summer.

I grieve for these families and the amount of effort, time, money and frustration they expend on a failed enterprise.

Welcome to the Cottage

But there is arising a new mode that doesn't put as much of a family's resources at risk: The cottage foods movement. This is a carve-out of most states' food service licensing regulations that allow people to cook certain types of foods at home and sell direct to the consumer. There is of course some regulation, commonly: completing a food handling online course, labeling requirements, can't cross state lines, etc. The requirements vary from state to state, but the regulations are only a fraction those for traditional food service. Here's a typical one. Their fare would be fresh sourdough bread, apple cider donuts, kettle corn balls, etc. It's often seasonal, as the kitchen owner will rent a table at a local Fall festival and sell to the hungry fair-goers.

Supporting this cottage industry are a number of Facebook groups, generally organized by state due to the regulatory landscape.

It seems to me that there may be a business opportunity here. If someone with food service experience could partner with those adept at developing and supporting online vertical software, they could have thousands of easily-reachable prospects. Such an online offering might include:

  • State compliance checklists
  • Label templates
  • Simple bookkeeping
  • Social media management
  • Order tracking / point-of-sale
  • Inventory management
  • Safety and management training
  • Scheduling

There are a number of apps that do most of the things on the list. Perhaps this is an opportunity to launch a minimum viable product using the current raft of no-code utilities that stitch together online services.

Ghost Cottages?

Another major trend that came out of the COVID-19 pandemic was the rise of Ghost Kitchens. These are food preparation services that have no on-premises seating. Everything is delivered. It would seem at first glance that a Cottage Kitchen could become a Ghost Kitchen. I'm not so sure. One of the common restrictions of Cottage Kitchens is that they make only "safe" food. i.e. food whose temperature doesn't have to be monitored and maintained. Alas, this leaves BBQ off the menu. I think it might be difficult to prepare an entire meal via Cottage Kitchen. There are specialty food delivery services that make cookies for college students away from home, but this is a very narrow market. Maybe I have a blind spot. Let me know if you can think of a full meal bill of fare that would work.

Streams in the Dessert

Many small businesses thrive on multiple revenue streams. Successful Cottage Kitchens will probably be the same. For example, restaurants have both dine-in service and provide catering. My favorite doughnut place not only sells donuts but cookbooks so you can make your own. Ghost kitchens could do delivery, catering, mail-order of non-perishable items, online classes, affiliate links to cooking utensils and supplies, co-marketing, and other revenue sources I'm probably not thinking of. Let me know your ideas. For the truly successful Cottage Kitchen, I believe there's an opportunity for business process syndication to help others in non-competing geographic areas to start their own Cottage Kitchen.

You out there, Price? Your wisdom is needed.

Frictionless Restarting

It's a well-known adage that "The hardest part of any job is starting". This is the real reason people organize their workbenches, so that they don't have to spend effort looking for the stuff to start a new job. In my favorite Tolkien short story "Leaf by Niggle", our hero learns to put down his tools and materials so he can easily pick them up again and continue work. As software developers we hate going from task to task because of the cost of "context switching": that picking up and putting down that takes so much time and effort. Is there a way we can make restarting a software development job more frictionless? How can we put down a development task so that it's easy to restart it? One part is the IDE, that can take us back to what we were working on. But just being plopped down in a forest doesn't remind us where we were going or why. How can we quickly regain the context of our work? Should the IDE replay the last handful of edits to remind us what we'd done? Or would it be better for us to narrate to ourselves what we're doing? Could the IDE record our voice and replay it along with the edits? The makers of serial television series have done this for years. "Previously on XYZ Adventures..." where we see critical scenes from the past couple of episodes. This sets the stage for tonight's installment. Could an IDE synchronize our narration and previous edits to help get us up to speed quickly when we take up our work anew?

A Surprising Technology Winner During the Pandemic

I claim a surprising winner during the pandemic is the humble QR code

That Was Then

First, some history. For a fuller accounting, see the link above. QR codes were developed for the Japanese auto industry in 1994. They've been reviled, despised and abused since. Their use is mainly to take you to a web page. Some people miss this concept. I remember one friend who had a client who insisted that the QR code for their website appear on the site's homepage. Think about that for a moment.

COVID-19 in the US Venn Diagram

Covid-19 in the US Venn Diagram




Current US population: 331,062,902



Probable number of actual COVID-19 cases: 20,000,000 - 36,000,000



Total number of COVID-19 tests given:




Total tests that were positive:




Excess Deaths in the US:

115,061 - 159,464



COVID-19 deaths in the US:



Latest One-Page Fun Site

I've been thinking about doing this for a while, so I used it as an excuse to learn something about the JAMStack. See: https://everylinuxprocess.com/

Household Chemical Formulas from a Bygone Era


When I was a kid, I had a chemistry set. I wrote off to a bunch of scientific supply places for catalogs. This is part of my favorite. In addition to the standard catalog, the first part of the booklet was practical chemical recipes. I was fascinated. I've scaned and OCR'd them in below. DISCLAIMER: DON'T DO THESE!!! Some of them make me shiver, like the lead-based paints and glues. It is interesting, however to compare the modern smartphone sepia filter with the actual process. Make sure you click the "read more" at the bottom for the full contents.


For Laboratory Use

Haines Solution for glucose in urine

3 grams Copper Sulphate, 9 grams Potassium Hydrate, pure, 100 grams Glycerine, water to make 600 ml. Boil 4 ml. of solution, add 6-10 drops urine. Boil again. If sugar is present red precipitate of cuprous oxide forms

Millon's Reagent for albumen in urine

Dissolve mercury in an equal weight of strong Nitric Acid, applying moderate heat. Dilute with equal volume of distilled water. When added to urine which may contain albumen, a reddish precipitate is formed on warming.

Boas Solution for free Hydrochloric Acid

Dissolve 1 gram resorcin and 3 grams cane sugar in 100 ml 50% alcohol. Gives red color on adding a drop or two to solution containing Hydrochloric Acid.

Test Solutions

The general rule for test solutions is to take 10 grams of C P. chemical, dissolve in about 50 ml water and make up to 100 ml

Cement for mending wood handle pestles

Melt together equal parts india rubber and shellac. Fill cavity in handle and retain in position

Test for leaking ammonia gas

Tie a piece of phenolphthalein paper on a long stick and move in vicinity where ammonia leak is suspected. The paper will turn a brilliant red when hit by leaking ammonia fumes.

Test for hydrogen sulphide gas

Lead acetate test paper will turn black in presence of hydrogen sulphide. Likewise it will turn black when dipped into a solution containing soluble sulphides

Litharge and glycerine cement

Stir litharge (lead oxide, yellow) into glycerine until it becomes a paste. Apply where needed. Hardens in a few hours. An excellent all around cement for glass, metals, coupling, etc.

Glass and porcelain cement

Casein 1 part, sodium silicate solution 6 parts. Apply to broken parts

Aquarium cement

Graphite powder 6 parts, slaked lime (calcium hydrate) 3 parts, barium sulphate 8 parts, linseed varnish oil 7 parts. Work into a putty-like consistency and press into place.

Loyalty Cards, Digital Marketing and Cluelessness

Businesses keep making the same mistakes. Here's one I see periodically, illustrated by a startup I consulted with briefly a few years ago. It was an app/discount card that gave people discounts at local businesses. Commonly 10% off or so. They had an online map showing where you could use their card. I knew they were doomed when I saw two florists on the map a mile apart on the same road. All their card did was spark a price war. 

Loyalty cards can be great, but there's two sides to success. 1) The business should use programs like this to gain marketing insights into their customers so they can do personalized, one-to-one marketing. Kroger does a great job of this. The more you use your Kroger loyalty card, the more you get a personalized batch of coupons for stuff you actually use. The business gives up a share of the profit in exchange for greater insight into their customers' habits, not just a hoped-for increase in sales volume. They can then use these insights to laser-focus their marketing efforts on their most profitable customers and drive better engagement, which then increases profits. 2) From the consumer side, a loyalty card is worthwhile if the more you use it, the more valuable it becomes. Chick-fil-A is a good example of this. When you start using their app, you get 10 points for every dollar you spend. Then you move up a level and start getting 11 points. Finally you can hit the top level and get 12 points per dollar. Thus the app ends up being 20% more valuable to the user. They also periodically give you a free sandwich or such. This builds on a positive reward feedback loop in the consumer's brain and thus builds brand loyalty (by playing on the consumers' sunk cost or loss aversion cognitive biases). Otherwise, the app or card just becomes a package of coupons that can be thown out without a second thought, much like bundles of physical coupons one gets in the post. 

Discount apps or cards that don't gather valuable marketing insights for the business or become more valuable to the consumer over time are, in my opinion, doomed to failure. I've seen several of these come and go and have yet to be proven wrong. 

Above Ground Pool Service

The pool place we use only deals with in-ground pools. They say almost nobody maintains above-ground pools. So... this sounds like an opportunity to me. If one could systemitize the maintenance of above-ground pools: filters, chemicals, remote sensorts, maintenance schedule, etc. There should be a good business there. Then one could franchise it, or at a lower cost do a business process syndication on it. To really make it go, one would need a counter-seasonal business to run in the cold half of the year with similar manpower and skills. Maybe chimney sweeping, duct cleaning, or... I don't know, what are your ideas? 

The Auto Industry Needs to Change

The auto industry is ripe for a total upheval. If you don't believe it, read this article that was originally on Quora and then picked up by Forbes about industries in general, then check it off against the auto industry: Four signs an industry is ripe for upheaval. 

Tesla's just the vanguard, the tip of the iceberg. For what wll really revolutionize the industry, see Laminack's Law of Technology

Once Telsa becomes successful, it will leave behind a wake of n-1 generation technologies that will suddenly become a LOT cheaper. Here's some other factors that will be contributing:

The nascent open hardware movement. There are several open source automotive platforms, but they haven't gained traction yet because they haven't reached scale. 

Next: Auto manufacturers (OEMs) hate their distributors and vice-versa. There is no economic reason for car dealers to exist anymore. These need to be replaced by distributors, not dealers. 

The manufacturing of drivetrains and bodies needs to be distributed, done by smaller manufacturers in many places. This eliminated huge start-up costs and eliminates single-point-of-failure supply chains.

Cars can be assembled on-site and built-to-order. Car bodies will be stocked in one color: primer. They'll be painted to order on-site. Why not? There are a number of national paint-and-body chains that can do this. But can a car really be built while-you-wait? Yes. If properly designed, a car can be easily assembled and disassembled. The advantage of this is greater flexibility for the customer and substanstanial cost savings for the distributor, since they don't have to floorplan 100s of different styles and colors. 

The drivetrain will be the n-1 generation of electric drives. The console can be a generic android touch-screen tablet that 3rd parties can write software for. 


Laminack's Law of Technology

The primary use of the Nth generation technology is that is pushes down the price of the N-1 generation technology.

Acceleration in Star Trek

Just watched episode 1 of Star Trek Discovery. Commander Burnham takes a jet-pack to an unknown ship 2,000 km away. She has to go and return in 20 minutes. So she has to cover the 2,000 km in less than 10 minutes. That's a long way, over 1,200 miles in 10 minutes from a dead start. Is the acceleration reasonable? Let's assume linear acceleration to 1,000 km in 5 minutes, then linear deceleration the rest of the way. I decided to use a new website I found to solve such things, fxsolver. Plugging into the linear acceleration forumla 1,000,000 meters in 300 seconds from V0 =0 and X0 = 0 gives an acceleration of 22.22 m/s^2. Since 1G = 9.8 m/s^2, that's a sustained push of 2.2G forward then back for the 20 minute ride. That's uncomfortable, but looks like humans can probably tolerate up to 4G sustained. So though the top speed is around 15,000 mph, it's still within the range of possibility. I doubt she could dodge asteroids at top speed, but that's another question.

How Much Larger is the New TV?

We bought a new 50" TV this week. The kids said they didn't see any difference between it and the old 37". So how much bigger is it?

TVs have always been measured along the diagnoal. This gives the marketers the largest possible number to advertise.

Modern HD screens have an aspect ratio of 16:9, that is for every 16 units wide the screen is, it's 9 units high. (old analog TVs were 4:3).

So some algebra later, we find that to get the height of an HD screen, multiply the diagonal by 0.49. To get the width, multiply the diagonal by 0.87.

To get the area, multiply width by height, or to save a step, square the diagonal size and multiply by 0.4263.

So the 37" screen has and area of about 583 square inches, the new 50" is about 1065.75 square inches, or 180% the size.

Don't know how much larger it has to be for kids to notice.

Why FitBit Failed

Fitness trackers, like Fitbit, been shown in several studies, like this one, to be ineffective helping with weight loss or fitness, and may have negative effects. Why? Several theories have been advanced, here's one of my own.. First, let me say that I'm speaking from experience. We have a couple of these things around our house and nobody knows where they are now.

Excercising with a Fitbit goes something like this:

I'm ready to go for a walk. 

Where's the Fitbit?

I thought it was on the nightstand.

Maybe I left it in the car.

Or the bathroom.

(looking... looking... 5 minutes later...)

Here it is! 

Oh, rats, I need to charge it.

I'll charge it up and walk tomorrow. 

There's an old adage that says "The hardest part of any journey is the first step". Fitbit fails because it takes the hardest part of working out (getting started) and makes it even harder