I pay an hourly rate to make my protein bars in the East End Market commissary kitchen located in Orlando’s Audubon Park.
The space is shared by an eclectic variety of other food startups, bakers and restaurateurs who operate their businesses out of the same building in a co-op type setting. It’s Friday night and I’m arriving late, about 9pm.
Not my first choice of times but the holiday season is just around the corner which makes it more and more difficult to reserve reasonable time slots in the commissary. The Winter Park Farmers Market is the following morning so I’ll take what I can get. My 1992 Nissan Sentra is stuck in first gear so the majority of my day was spent driving around Orlando gathering ingredients and supplies at 24 mph.
Unloading my car and bringing everything to the upstairs workspace is my first task for the evening. I know the stairs outside of the building would be quicker but the second story is only accessible by elevator at this hour.
Waiting for the elevator doors to open feels like a lifetime. My arms are locked into place and shoulder blades pulled back tight to support the awkward weight of my cumbersome packaging machine. Storage space in the commissary is limited, so I have to keep the packager in the trunk of my car and lug the damn thing back and forth each time I make a batch of protein bars.
Meanwhile, just around the corner from where I’m waiting, is the side entrance to the adjoining restaurant and bar. A local hotspot on Friday nights. The comforting sound of drinking glasses and dinnerware clinking together over the bustle of laughter and overlapping conversations can be heard pouring down the narrow hallway. It’s a nostalgic reminder of what my weekends used to sound like. But not tonight.
The elevator finally arrives and the doors open. I roll my eyes, step inside, and the doors close behind me. “Here we go.” I tell myself.
The elevator takes me upstairs to the empty commissary space where I’m relieved to set the packaging machine down on a table.
When I flick on the lights and look around, the Friday night energy from downstairs is nowhere to be found. For the next eight hours I’ll be working in silence by myself. Pitting dates, peeling the paper lids off jars of cashew butter, labeling packages, mixing ingredients in my 6qt kitchen mixer, rolling them into slabs, cutting them into protein bars with my pizza cutter, then packaging them for sale.
I start off strong and find a good rhythm but once 5am rolls around, my basic motor skills are deteriorating. Still awake from yesterday morning. Mentally. Physically. I’m exhausted. But now it’s time to load my Nissan with the hundreds of protein bars I just spent the last eight hours making, along with that godforsaken packaging machine. It’s always twice as heavy on the way out.
It’s the last thing I want to do, but I can’t leave without washing all my dishes and cleaning the entire kitchen. Otherwise I can look forward to a scolding from Jessica Tantalo, the commissary manager, and a potential fee. I can’t afford either.
Before leaving, I sprawl out on the hood of my car for a few minutes to relax and look up at the stars in the sky. It’s a friendly reminder of just how insignificant everything is and that somehow this will all work out.
It’s almost 6am by now and the Winter Park Farmers Market starts in one hour. At 24 mph I drive from the commissary directly to the Farmers Market where I unload my 6ft folding banquet table, the supplies for my display, and of course, the freshest protein bars anyone at this Farmers Market will probably ever have.
Once everything is setup I take a walk over to the convenience store a few blocks away. I don’t really drink coffee so I just grab a banana and a bottle of water. I’ve been up for about 24 hours now so I know I’ll crash if I eat anything too heavy. I’ll save that meal until later.
It’s been about nine hours since my last interaction with a human so my exchange with the store clerk is a bit awkward. He probably thinks I’m on drugs. Sure feels like it.
I scarf down the banana and chug the bottle of water on my way back to the Farmers Market where fellow food vendors are scurrying around, taking care of any last minute preparations. I just want to go to sleep but the keeners and early birds are starting to emerge with the rising sun and it’s time to make some money. I head over to my table. “Here we go.” I tell myself.
I transcend my fatigue, switch gears into sales mode, and dig deep for enough energy to push through the next six hours. I’ll be standing in front of my table handing out samples, interacting with customers and selling individual protein bars until they’re all gone. At 1pm I can finally break down my display, load my car, then head home at 24 mph. The wad of cash in my pocket feels good.
When I get home I crawl into bed, but not for too long. The Downtown Orlando Farmers Market at Lake Eola is tomorrow morning so I’ll have to make more protein bars this evening. Fuck I hate that packaging machine.
It was a great place to start but it wasn’t sustainable. I needed my own private production space. Through a total fluke, I found the perfect building just a few miles away from the The East End Market, near downtown Orlando.
There was only one problem. I was broke. Buying all these expensive organic ingredients every week just to make my protein bars was already a struggle. I was on the phone with my bank at least once a week pleading with them to return $34 fees for insufficient funds.
I knew the business had potential but taking on the additional cost of renting a private space for making my protein bars while keeping my own personal apartment wasn’t even an option. It was one or the other. So I repeat my favorite mantra to myself, “Here we go.”
On November 30th 2014, I drive to my leasing office and drop off the keys to my apartment. Time to make some protein bars! I sold my couches, furniture, tv, electronics, and anything else that didn’t seem necessary at the time. Including my bed.
There was a small storage room in the back of the building that I converted into my personal quarters. At first I was in denial about the whole situation and just slept on the linoleum floor. I figured I’d be out of there in no time and that I shouldn’t be getting comfortable. But after a couple weeks on the floor, I decided it was time for a practical upgrade.
On December 17th, I drove my Nissan out to Bass Pro Shops and bought a folding camping cot for $79.99. I figured that would be comfortable enough to get me through the next few months. But it did a helluva lot more than just that!
While building my protein bar business, I ended up sleeping on that cot in the back of my facility for two years and eight months. I showered at the YMCA down the road and ate more $5 Costco rotisserie chickens than anyone should ever be proud to admit.
I finally left my facility and moved back into the forgotten habitat of an apartment building exactly six days after getting my line of protein bars accepted into the Whole Foods grocery store chain on August 2nd 2017.
I was so accustomed to sleeping on my cot, that it became the first piece of furniture in my new apartment. I guess the stars in the sky were right after all. Everything always works out.