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Jams - Essay from Newsletter 83

Breaking impasses

Untangling a jam

There’s a puzzle game I used to love called Rush Hour. Cars and trucks are oriented horizontally or vertically and can move forward or back. A red car sits just a few moves away from the exit but there are vehicles blocking its way.

Maybe there’s a green car sitting across its path. The green car can move one space forward but that won’t get it out of the way and a truck is preventing the green car from backing up. So the truck has to move but there’s a vehicle blocking its path.

You move the vehicles this way or that until you free the red car.

With the harder puzzles you often have to move the red car forward towards its goal to get another car past and then move the red car backwards to allow something to temporarily move in the red car’s way to free something else.

In real life the problems are harder.

Traffic jam

This weekend I visited with Kim’s family in her parents’ garage to celebrate my mother-in-law’s birthday.

Kim’s dad had been a Cleveland policeman for years and was telling stories from his time in the mounted unit.

He was riding his horse downtown as a ball game let out at the old Municipal Stadium.

One intersection was completely gridlocked so he rode his horse into the middle of it and started directing traffic. He would point to a car and motion for them to move through the intersection. It took him an hour to clear the jam before moving on.

He told another story about directing traffic when the Lorain-Carnegie bridge was closed.

This was in the days before your phone could show you alternate routes in a minute. People who only knew one way across the river were baffled when a man on a horse told them to drive down a side street instead of across the bridge. Some tried to get past him to drive across the bridge.

It’s the real life game of Rush Hour where you know this green car has to back up for just a moment to free the car that’s in everybody’s way - but that green car has a driver who doesn’t want to give up any ground and now no one moves.

Soaring costs

Henry posted an image the other day about prices of items that restaurants are now paying.

I don’t know that I’ve seen Henry since he was five or six in my mother’s first grade class at Eastwood school, but we’re connected on social media and he runs a popular restaurant in the town where we grew up.

I’ve since seen this image elsewhere but it’s worth considering.

It begins by saying that fryer oil was $21 a year ago, $35 six months ago, and $45 today. More than doubled in a year.

The price of a case of chicken wings went from $45 a year ago to $175 today. That’s nearly four times as much in a year.

A case of take-out boxes went from $25 a year ago to $95 today. Again, that’s nearly four times as much in a year.

People who run your local restaurant were already running on thin margins.

In the past year and a half of the pandemic, business is off as the number of people they serve has gone way down.

For a while, they just absorbed these increased costs. When fryer oil went from $21 to $35 the local joint didn’t bother raising their prices.

Now, they have to.

But they can’t raise the price of chicken wings by a factor of four. You’d stop going out.

These places aren’t raising their prices to make more money - these places are raising their prices to keep from losing money. And raising their prices may put them out of business.

Squeezing the middle

On the latest BBC Food Program podcast, a group of chef/owners talked about the problems they were seeing.

Part of the issue were around personnel - and often the sticking points were not money.

They worked long and hard hours and when they were off their family was either asleep or off at work or school.

In the UK the problem is compounded by Brexit and many local places are changing to allow three days off in a row and a limited number of double shifts worked.

The problem, as they see it, is that the local family restaurant is in danger.

Chains will survive. In the US big chains often pay their workers less than other places and have enormous buying power so they pay less for products and are often the first to get them.

I know there are people who think Olive Garden when they think Italian food - I’d rather support my local place where they cook a red sauce they learned from their mother.

On the other end, the fine dining, high priced restaurants will survive. The destination places that charge a couple of hundred dollars for a meal won’t lose customers if they have to charge $250. Their customers have already reckoned with a large price tag.

It’s the guys in the middle that will get squeezed. The ones who can’t charge $30 for chicken wings even if that doesn’t cover their costs.

These are the places where the customer has to look at the value being delivered and say, “well, maybe the Olive Garden isn’t as good but I do get unlimited bread sticks.”

Critical moments

The problem is that once these places are gone, they don’t come back and we lose something.

It’s like climate change. At this point, no matter what we do, the oceans are going to rise. The decisions we’ve already made are going to cause damage we can’t recover from. But it can and will be so much worse if we don’t act now.

It’s overwhelming.

We need to support local businesses or all we’ll have are big chains and online commerce. Our neighbors won’t be chefs and artisans - they’ll be delivering goods made elsewhere.

We need to support voting rights and candidates who care about their constituents or we’ll lose our democracy. Our economy and resources will be plundered by a very few.

We need to do something about climate or we lose our planet.

I don’t know who rides in on a horse and points and says “that goes over there.”

I don’t know what helps the red car get where it’s going.

Perhaps we start by getting all of those containers off those ships so that fry oil returns to $21 and we can get together for wings and work all of this out.

Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 83. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe

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