Things can change in a business at any time. Even in the golden orange autumn glory of October. The very best time of the Chicago year. Even then it can happen.
A small neighborhood storefront on the north side of the city quietly papers over its front windows. Shuts off the lights. Locks up the door. Tapes up a simple thank you, we’ll miss you, and goodbye.
And as you watch people stop at the papered up window, read the note, and then you watch the confusion and sadness like a puddle on their faces. As you watch this, you are seized by the strangest question,
“So you’ll have the grilled ham and cheese. And would you like the chopped onions with that?”
But before you can shout a joyful “Yes!” you realize no one will be asking you that again because Vanessa closed up her shop.
You stand there on a block with more empty storefronts than full ones. Eight miles south is the Art Institute of Chicago. Inside that building you’ll still find Picasso, Monet and O’Keefe. Some of the world’s finest art.
Just like inside Vanessa’s place, “SuVan’s”, you’d find the world’s finest sandwiches, soup and chili.
Oh that chili . . . . .
If you think comparing a sandwich to fine art is a stretch, you never had one of her "Arabian Seas" Or as some would call it, "tuna fish."
You have never picked up one a “Tom Turkey.” Fresh roasted turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce on homemade bread. Or the Bacon. Lettuce and Tomato. So much more than those three ingredients!
And don’t get me started on the vegetarian chili. Normally, the word “vegetarian” translates to “keep reading.” But not when you walk in the door of SuVan’s and she’s got that vegetarian chili simmering. Not then.
The note on the door said that they thought they’d make it through the down times of these past few tough years.
And you remember before all the store fronts on the block started going dark. You remember when Vanessa moved from the smaller space a few hundred yards north to her larger place. You talked about how hard it would be when she had a larger place to fill. You told her you hoped she could do it. And you still, so very clearly, remember her answer. Not just the words. But the matter of fact, quiet way she answered. She said, “It’s gonna work. It has to work.”
You remember that quiet, solid, expectation of success.
And through the years, having been in and around the business yourself, and from being in the business of helping business, you knew from the rhythm of the place, the way it sounded and smelled and felt, you knew that she had tried every angle, shifted and changed and sprinkled in a little but of this and a little bit of that. You knew she gave it everything. And didn’t blame anyone or anything for that door now being locked.
You imagined lots of sleepless nights of pondering, “What the hell else can I do to make this work?”
And the answer of course was “Nothing.”
The scorecard of the business is of course the books. And the scorecard said it was time to close.
But the scorecard, you realize, standing out front of the papered front windows, the scorecard is not the game. The scorecard is not the business.
The business is a cool autumn day in October when you have been thinking about that chili all morning. You walk inside and find your way to a table, wave to Vanessa, a young lady brings you a dark roast coffee without you saying a word, and you take out whatever paperback book of a lunch companion you’ve brought for that day.
The business is feeding people. And doing it in a way that can only be called spectacularly successful. Did this business fail?
Nope. Bad scorecard at the end. But the business had a spectacular run.
Did I mention that chili?
At the end of that note on the door, it says. “We’ll be working on the catering business now. And the dream is to have Vanessa’s Vegetarian Chili in every grocery store in the country.
That’s the new dream.
Will it work?
Taste the chili. It will work.