My mom had run the Shack before. In 1980 and 1981 she ran it along with my older brother and three older sisters. She had a pretty simple formula for business: Stay open on a regular schedule, give the people what they want, and most importantly: use portion control. We sold hamburgers, hot dogs, french fries, clam-cakes, chowder, ice cream novelties, candy and soda.
In the years between the first and second time we ran the Shack, it had fallen into moderate disrepair and disarray. Some college kids ran it a couple of times, each with the same result: They were rarely open for business. It is difficult to make money when you aren’t open, but it is also difficult for most 19 and 20 year-olds to resist the allure of partying all night and sleeping in the next day. On other occasions, people that tried only to gouge customers on price ran the Shack. This system had it’s own set of flaws. Namely, if the food sucks, and its too expensive, you aren’t going to sell very much.
The Shack was a popular place for kids to hang out at when they got tired of sitting on the beach, and especially at night, when they were looking for a place to meet before going back to the beach, to build bonfires out of the fences used to keep people off of the dunes. My mom knew this, and she ran the place accordingly. In return for a place to hang out, the kids would spend their money on cheap fried stuff and sodas. The renters (people who would come the Charlestown for a week or two in the summer) would provide the main source of income. They typically had at least two or three kids in the family, and so they could easily go through a half-dozen bowls of chowder, two-dozen sinkers (a name we often used for clam-cakes) and 6-10 hot dogs and hamburgers. Throw in a dozen sodas, and you’re all set. If we could do 15-20 orders like this in a day (and we did), the Shack would be profitable.
The other part of my mom’s formula that I forgot to mention earlier, was that the only help you hire is family. You don’t have to pay them and you can pretty much guilt them into doing what you want. With that kind of overhead, it had to be a pretty crumby summer to not make money. Even when the weather was bad, we’d stay open. Rainy days were “clam cake and chowda days” to my mother. And she was right. It always amazed me how well she understood people’s habits. I guess looking back on it now as an adult with a family; I can see it more clearly. Renters down for a week, paying nearly $1000 bucks for the place they’re renting are not going to miss out on their vacations just because of a little rain. Even more so, having shared a 900 square foot house with up to 25 people staying in it (this is not an exaggeration I can give you a complete list of names) I can certainly understand the importance of “getting out”. If you don’t, you’re liable to say something hurtful to somebody, and then the tension just mounts until everyone’s had enough wine, and then the comments really fly. OK, so I’m digressing a little. I’ll definitely give you more insight into that later, though.
So, we had a concession stand right near the beach from Memorial Day through Labor Day. It was rewarding, challenging and exhausting. And that was before we even opened for business. My mom still used many of the same purveyors she had relied upon in 80 and 81. As the deliveries came in, we stocked the freezers, refrigerators and shelves. We also spent a lot of time cleaning about 7 years worth of grease buildup off of the grill. I kid you not. I could’ve been knocked over with a feather when, after going through about two-dozen steel wool pads and a full spray bottle of degreaser, I actually saw the shine of silver beneath the crud. I seriously thought it was supposed to be black, and that my mom was crazy for thinking it wasn’t. That was the first of many times I was to be proven wrong. However, that only means I was wrong for thinking she was crazy for that particular moment. As I shall clearly demonstrate later, she really is crazy. So, after cleaning that grill until it shined, and scraping the equivalent of muddy grease from the exhaust fan, and removing about ten pounds of sludge from out of the bottom of the fry-o-later, we were ready to get cookin’. If I had known what was to come during that summer, I might not have been so quick to clean that equipment.
Coming Soon: I’ll tell you about the hazards of crossing my mother, not exercising portion control, and the dangers of working a fry-o-later while wearing only a pair of boardshorts. Oh, did I mention there would also be some swearing? Don’t let kids under 12 read the next post!