Thursday, May 25, 2017

This Was NOT Part of the Plan! (feat. Kenny G)

Here’s the scene: I’m sitting in a crowded but quiet airport lounge in Portugal (Lisbon, to be precise). Dan Uccello has passed out on a chair. His brother, Davide, indicates Dan is not feeling well. Their associate, Alex Garcia, just looks happy to be out of an airplane momentarily. Meanwhile, Michael LaMarca is concerned about our baggage. As well he should be. Even 12 hours prior, none of the five of us had the slightest idea we would be sitting together in a foreign country we had never been to. I never thought when I left the house that I’d end up in Portugal (which is beautiful, by the way). This was NOT part of the plan.
There’s greater concern about our baggage than if we were just on vacation. For me, the contents of my suitcase could mean the difference between doing my job effectively or possibly not at all. For them, the entire purpose of their visit is in jeopardy. Everyone in this party is part of the United States Pizza Team. They have entered themselves as competitors in the 26th annual World Pizza Championship in Parma, Italy. A town we’re having a great deal of difficulty getting to. If the baggage is lost, it means they don’t have many of their primary ingredients and none of their tools, with only one day prior to the start of competition. Currently, in this scenario, I am in good shape. On a whim, I packed most of my clothes in carry-on bags. LaMarca did not. He has no underwear for tomorrow.

The primary cause of our dilemma is one of those things that cannot be controlled (nor adequately predicted, despite all our technology). Weather. Due to inclement weather in New York, all our flights have been delayed and diverted, resulting in us meeting in Atlanta and collectively missing our flight to Milan. So we remain in Lisbon, waiting for a flight.

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Dan doesn’t know it yet, but he will eventually rally from these setbacks to end up being honored at the World Pizza Championship awards ceremony. I will switch my coverage to a DSLR camera for the cheese factory tour that I do not at this point know I will even be going on. Alex will continue to look just happy to be wherever he is. And LaMarca will buy some underwear at a street market. (They may not fit right. He’s built like a Maytag washing machine.)

And, ultimately, that is the point of this week’s Pizza Perspective. If I’ve learned one thing in my almost four decades on planet earth, it’s that nothing EVER goes 100% according to plan. What is most often the differentiator between success and failure in any venture is how you handle the adversity that is created when things go off track. 

Just like LeBron James in last year’s NBA Finals, Dan Uccello of Flo’s Pizzeria in Grand Rapids, Michigan, had to dig his team out of a hole and find a way to win. That’s exactly what he did, coming back from an ingredient and tools deficit to take the top score of any U.S. competitor at the World Pizza Championship. 

Photo: Sarah Beth Wiley Smith

How did he do it? Not alone. Several of his additional U.S. Pizza teammates, already on the ground in Parma, obtained a list of the ingredients he had packed and lost. They took it upon themselves to go to the markets to get them. By the time Dan finally arrived in Parma, he found he had almost everything he needed. When the U.S. Pizza Team said his win was a team win, it wasn’t just hyperbole. Mr. Rogers once said that when times get tough, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” If there’s a cheat code for getting out of a jam, that might just be it. After all, no man is an island. 

As an added bonus, sharing the situation as a collective actually gave me a chance to get to know the Uccello brothers and Alex and served as a bonding experience. It also gave Dan time to pick LaMarca’s brain for marketing advice. This served as another reminder in my many life lessons that there’s always a silver lining to every cloud. (Additionally, I decided to create one of my own silver linings by lining my messenger bag with beers from the airport lounge. Sshhh.)

As an added bonus, we even got to meet legendary saxophonist Kenny G in an airport! Really!

Kenny G!

And what of LaMarca’s underpants? Well…  some questions are probably better left unanswered.

With age and wisdom, I’ve gotten a lot better over the years at handling the times things don’t go according to plan (although admittedly, I’m a slow learner.) There’s certainly always room for more improvement, however. There's an old prayer that goes something like this: “Grant me the ability to change the things I can, the grace to accept the things I cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I’m not a religious person, but I have found this to hold a great deal of truth. And somebody once said, “The truth shall set you free.”

Monday, May 1, 2017

The Mother Road

©All photos unless otherwise noted by Daniel Lee Perea. 

I'm sitting in a motel room that dates back to the late 30s. There's a period bakelite rotary phone on the nightstand that looks as though it may ring at any moment with a Raymond Chandler mystery plot on the other end. (It even still works. So I'm told.) I'm merely one of countless thousands that have stayed in The Blue Swallow Motel on their quest to chase a slice of Americana. It is a well-preserved piece of history along Route 66.

I spoke to the proprietor, a man with a background in the corporate world, and asked what brought him to the remote desert vistas of Tucumcari, New Mexico. We spoke a few feet from the gleaming curves of the '51 Pontiac Chieftain that stays parked beneath the beautifully glowing, world-famous neon sign. He answered "I couldn't go back to another white collar office job. I just couldn't do it. My wife and I stayed here on a road trip, and it happened to be up for sale, and we decided to just go for it!"

This is the sentiment of many a budding entrepreneur. The day you can no longer continue working for someone else and feel compelled to chase your own dream. 

Many times, I've criss-crossed the country along Route 66 (officially discontinued in 1986, and paved over by I-40 in the modern era, thanks to President Dwight D. Eisenhower.)  "The Mother Road." "Main Street of America." It's both a literal and symbolic pathway to economic opportunity. From the earliest agricultural settlers, miners, and cowpunchers who moved west in a bid to control their own destiny, to the destitute hoards chronicled in "The Grapes of Wrath" to the beat generation who pounded out poetry while they were "On The Road," to the paranoid "Fear and Loathing" of Hunter S. Thompson; Route 66 is a literary constant and primary touchstone of American culture.

On my trips out west, I like to muse and wax poetic about the nature of the American Dream. Like Hunter S. Thompson, I was chasing it for a while, not entirely sure what I was looking for. Is it in the sun-baked antique automobiles, gleaming in the sun off the highway? Is it in the trashy, run-down trailers and little league baseball fields that frame and contrast the the kitschy Route 66 Museum in Elk City, Oklahoma?

Is it in the old west ghost town of Cuervo? The ruins of Arizona ranches? In the meek hovels of maverick desert rats who find the company of humankind so incompatible, they move as far away from urban civilization as possible to be one with the wide-open sky and sprawling vistas of solitute? Perhaps some combination all of the above? What IS the American Dream? How does one define it?

Eventually in Las Vegas, at a pizza event, I found what was (at at least for me) AN answer if not THE answer. Reconnecting with a certain Persian acquaintance in the cavernous Las Vegas Convention Center as he demonstrated his innovative pizza equipment wares, it struck me. Here was a guy who grew up in a war-torn nation completely ripped apart by the questionable foreign policy of western powers. At some younger age, he managed to escape his battle-ravaged homeland and make it to America. Working his way up through the ranks of pizzerias, he hit upon a market niche or two, made a leap of faith and developed a company and some technological inventions that would fill some needs in the pizza industry. He built an entire company out of it, and became a jobs creator, while partnering with others to create innovative products. 

In short, he crossed the seas to come to the Land of Opportunity and seize his own bit of it. Self-determination and opportunity. That's been the American story for as long as there has been an America. It's the immigrant story in an immigrant nation. The stories I find in the pizza world are often exactly this story. And despite the Italian origins of the dish, there is, on a fundamental level, nothing more American than pizza; and the folks who make up the industry. What starts somewhere else comes chasing opportunity on a journey to melt in the pot here; and in the process, transform America into something more than the sum of its parts.

Is that the answer to "What is the American Dream?" Perhaps not to everyone. But it's enough for me.


Photo: Brian Hernandez

Now, a bit further down the road and a bit of a detour off Route 66, my colleague Brian and I are standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon. We stare down into the vast, gaping maw of the crevasse. It is almost beyond comprehension. The size is so titanic, it's difficult for the brain to even process what you're looking at. I've experienced this sensation exactly one other time: when I was looking at the gargantuan interior of St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City.

The Grand Canyon is one of the most cherished national treasures and landmarks of America - to the point of being almost synonymous with Americana. The irony being that is has been here for MILLIONS of years before Amerigo Vespucci (another Italian connection) ever even thought about setting foot on a boat of any sort. The Grand Canyon is beyond any nationality. It predates us by millennia and will outlive any of us by more.  It makes one feel as small as they do when staring into the starry night sky in an area far from city lights. Small. Where the infinite meets the infinitesimal.

Route 66 has come and to some extent gone. Humans will come and go, and one day be extinct or perhaps replaced by another species. By staring into the ageless canyon, one is reminded that they are but a very tiny link in an extraordinarily long chain.  And so we press on. Down the road a bit further to see where it will take us. One mile at a time, perhaps better understanding with each stop and detour that there is never TRULY a destination. Only waypoints. So enjoy the ride while you can.

Sometimes you bend, sometimes you stand
Sometimes you turn your back to the wind
There's a world outside every darkened door
Where the blues won't haunt you anymore
Where the brave are free and lovers soar
Come ride with me to the distant shore
Life is a highway; I want to ride it all night long
- Tom Cochrane
©All photos unless otherwise noted by Daniel Lee Perea.