Lots of people don’t like to take orders. They don’t want a boss telling them what to do, or spending the entire work week doing work they hate and having to deal with nasty co-workers. What they do want is to escape these situations and be their own bosses. One way of doing that is opening a store. Some, but certainly not all, budding entrepreneurs have been amazingly successful, and while there are no guarantees, the potential rewards make the risks worthwhile.
Being a retailer has unique challenges. It’s never easy to figure out how to keep the customers satisfied, and getting the product mix right is only part of the solution. Other problems include losses caused by shoplifting and inclement weather, intense competition, and changing demographics. More important, they also need access to a large enough financial cushion to ride out tough times; this is probably the leading cause of retailers going out of business.
Following are stories about people who were willing to work very hard, risk most or even all of their assets, and plunge into a new world. The names of the individuals involved were changed to respect their privacy, but otherwise all of these events happened exactly as described.
Cooking Up A Storm
Max loved cooking and was very good at it. He was very happy to cook for family and friends and was delighted when they complimented him. So one day, when he saw a “store for rent” sign, he decided to take the plunge and open a cafeteria.
As with all beginnings, this one had start-up problems, such as deciding which items to offer, and since it was impossible to predict how many customers would show up, how much food to prepare. But all this was a labor of love for him and customers flocked to his store. The work was incredibly tiring, but when he went home his pockets were full and the steady business was the best feedback he could ever ask for.
After a few years, Max had done quite well, and decided to move to a smaller store where he could still make money but wouldn’t have to work as hard. He found an opportunity in a neighborhood that was clearly becoming more frum, and a location where there was no competition. Armed with the recipes he perfected and years of experience, he was optimistic about the future.
On opening day he set a bunch of colorful balloons next to the entrance to attract attention while lively music blared from a speaker. As a perk, free soda was offered with every order. Max waited patiently behind the counter for the crowd to come.
But it never did. For the first few days the quiet was shocking; after that he took it personally. Could something be spoiling the food, he wondered? Was a competitor somehow sabotaging his business? It just did not make sense.
After more than a year of steady losses, and having to toss food every day because it was no longer fresh, he decided he’d had enough, and decided to sell. A buyer stepped up very soon, someone who obviously had no experience in the food industry in particular and in retail in general.
When the buyer opened his store, Max couldn’t contain his curiosity, and asked a friend to purchase some takeout items to sample them. The inexperience was obvious: The pizza clearly didn’t have enough cheese, the tuna had too much mayonnaise, and salad and tehina were falling out of the pita. In addition, the prices were quite high. Max felt sorry for the new owner because he seemed to be a very nice guy and was about to be shocked by how tough it was to start a successful business.
But Max was the one who was in for a shock. Customers flocked to the new owner’s store, and there was never a slow time; clearly they were willing to pay high prices in return for the huge portions they got. The few workers couldn’t keep up with the crowds, so more people were hired, and a counter was extended exclusively for takeout orders. Money was coming in hand over fist, and after a while the new owner had made what he wanted and decided to sell.
But the story doesn’t end there. He sold the store along with the recipes. All the help stayed at the same salary and the new owner expected to rake in as much profit as his predecessor had. But he too was shocked because those large crowds were staying away and the store was hardly getting by. Some months later it was sold again and now it is a florist shop.
No one ever expected that Jack’s small bakery would ever generate much profit - not even Jack. For one thing, the store was small. The help in the back had to squeeze past the cashier to refill the tiny display shelves and that was no easy feat. And the little standing room in the front meant customers waiting to be served had to brush against the walls, which was an even more amazing because bugs were climbing all over them.
By anyone’s logic, who would want to shop there? But life isn’t always logical -and neither is business. The store was always filled with customers, and sometimes the lines stretched far into the street. Customers would sometimes ask Jack to open a larger store and offer a greater variety of baked goods. Jack would listen quietly and thank them for their suggestions.
One day, a much larger store across the street became available and Jack decided it was time to move up. He figured that since the new store was just across the street, he wouldn’t lose any of his customers. And while the rent there was much higher, there was plenty of room to expand the product line, which would more than make up for that.
But things did not work out quite like that. The person who took over Jack’s first shop opened his own bakery, and most customers continued to shop there. Sometimes Jack would stand in front of his new store and watch, heartbroken and amazed, that the customers he knew and served for years would not walk across the street to patronize him.
What explanation is there for stories like these? On a very simple level, one can say, “A person plans and Hashem laughs” but actually they raise complicated questions. Can one say that whatever parnasah is decreed on Rosh HaShanah will come in, not more and not less, whether we understand that or not? Does the idea of “change your location, change your luck” factor into this equation? What would explain why a person’s luck would change so suddenly and drastically?
Sometimes, people unexpectedly come into a windfall, from a stock that takes off, an inheritance, or a winning lottery ticket, but that’s the exception. Most of us have to sweat for our parnasah, and that’s the way it has always been.
And if we’re lucky and open a popular store or get an unexpected windfall, it doesn’t mean that we’re home free. The stress and pressures could very easily come from a different source.
Hakol Biyedei Shomayim is the credo we live by.