Bob Combs: Pig Farmer

18 February, 2011: Bob Combs: Pig Farmer

North Las Vegas. Much has been written about RC Farms and its founder and proprietor. A cursory Google search shows an increase in headlines over the years as Bob’s legend has grown. His notoriety as the archetypal ‘hold-out against the machine of capitalism’ is a compelling story, as much as it is a topic of debate. Ask a neighbor in the subdivision across the street, and I’m sure you’ll get an earful.

It’s a fantastic hypothetical. Visionary pig farmer sets up shop in the remote desert with a business model brilliantly designed to thrive off the scraps of a city with a reputation for excess. Mirroring that city’s growth, farmer realizes a success that few in the occupation could imagine–until one day farmer finds himself engulfed by that growth. It is a 21st century real estate boom, and speculators are making millions; developers billions. In a market where they can’t build housing fast enough, our farmer is poised to make bank off his land alone. With a career already full of accolades, here is a dream opportunity to take the money and run.

Now let me ask you: If you are that farmer, and given this set of circumstances, what would you do?

* * * *

It’s February in the Nevada desert, and I’m glad to be visiting my friend Bob on a particularly crisp day. This is the best time of year to visit Las Vegas, in my opinion. Instead of being fixated on getting back into the air conditioned casino-hotel-restaurant-amusement park, you can actually enjoy the out-of-doors with nary a hat and some sunglasses. I figure it’ll be a good day to hang with the pigs.

To the first time visitor the geography of RC Farms is a perplexing thing. Occupying two quadrangles on a USGS map, the rambling farm is built of post World War II scraps on reclaimed desert which accommodates the Combs’ ranch home, outbuildings, pig stalls, and machinery. By contrast, the land surrounding the property is a grid of housing subdivisions filled with condominiums and tract homes, some of the most extensive sprawl I’ve seen. The juxtaposition is startling.

Depending on your direction of approach and the prevailing wind on a given day, the first time visitor to the farm will inevitably make an observation predicated on a singular, unfortunate truth: It smells. This realization will hit you in one of two ways, each inherent to the irony of the situation here in North Las Vegas: 1.) You’ll either arrive at the farm, be taken by it’s quaintness, and think how strange this farm can exist in such a developed residential area. Then the smell hits you. Or, 2.) You’ll be driving through suburbia convinced there’s no way the pig farm you’re looking for can be located here, and before you even lay eyes on the farm, the smell hits you.

Accommodating hundreds of swine will do that. And, when the wind blows (as it often does in the desert, sometimes with gusto), that smell moves. Depending on the direction of the wind, your neighborhood may suffer.

Because I am a repeat visitor, I’m fully expecting eau de swine. But today I’m of the upwind approach. I don’t smell a thing until I’m out of the car, walking past the chickens and through the provincial gate to Bob and Janet’s front door. Then what I perceive is not the pigs, but the faint aroma of the familiar: a homemade soup like maybe grandma used to make. With notes of tomato, onion, and a meaty base, it’s nice enough to hope for a lunch invite.

But I know better, and a glance upwind confirms another story. There, peeking just above the formidable line of trees planted as a windbreak for the front of the property, is a metal water tower-like tank array that wouldn’t seem out of place on any farm, save for one detail: This tank is giving off a furious plume of steam. Suffice it to say that there is indeed something being cooked in that tank, and while that something may resemble a soup, it is not the stuff of lunchtime memories. It is, however, the key to Mister Combs’ success.

When the door opens Bob’s tremendous hand envelopes my own and he and Janet greet me with the warmth of a misplaced son. As I am pulled inside I admit to my concern that perhaps my visit was accommodated out of some sense of obligation. “Nonsense!” I am told. “It’s so good to see you again!” The breakfast table has been set, there are ample eggs, ham, bacon, potatoes and biscuits, and right there is a place setting waiting for me. By the time Janet has taken the empty Starbucks cup from my hand and replaced it with a mug of fresh black coffee, I am awash with regard and gratitude.

I first made Bob Combs acquaintance a couple of years prior, when we shot an episode of Dirty Jobs with him. To date it remains a fan favorite, credit due solely to the character of our gentleman farmer. I worked with Bob again on a Mike Rowe commercial for a line of cell phones, where the durability of said phone could be demonstrated through Bob’s use on the farm. It was an effective endorsement, and a lot of fun to shoot. Through both experiences, he and Janet were gracious hosts, giddy to be a part of our strange production world and never wanting more than to make us happy. I remember with a particular fondness the bizarre scene of Barsky chasing a chicken around the dining room in order to set a background element for one of Mike’s stand-ups. In the midst of flying feathers and chicken poop the crew worked in stocking feet in an effort to keep Janet’s floors clean. Despite our dysfunction, she had nothing but encouragement for such shenanigans.

In those two visits Bob made an impression on me. Here was an entrepreneur, business owner, inventor, farmer, husband, father, philosopher, and a plain ol’ likeable guy. But his best quality? I’d have to say his being so genuine. Now we’re catching up, filling bellies to lay the foundation of a day on the farm. I try to get some biographical questioning in between bites, but Bob and Janet want to know more about me and my doings than I am afforded the opportunity to speak. I am transported to my childhood visits to the farm in South Dakota, where family reunions played out at the kitchen table with pot after pot of coffee. Between sips of joe and extra helpings of bacon (of course) I learn the natural history of RC Farms.

It is 1963. Bob’s father is a hog farmer in Otay, California, with some 3,000 swine and a family-operated business. Bob is a resident part of that business, plying his recent education as a Truck Crop Farming major at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to contribute to the enterprise while simultaneously beginning a family of his own. In what would turn out to be an auspicious 70th birthday vacation, the elder Combs heads to Las Vegas and hits the jackpot–not at the tables, but in a unique business opportunity.

Of course the Italians are collecting all the trash from the casinos,” Bob explains. “But they don’t want the liquid or food waste, because without it they can burn better. So they’re happy to have someone ready to take that over for them.”

And guess what: There’s an existing pig farm outside of town, and it’s available. Seizing the opportunity, the Combs sign a $28k lease to take over the 40 acre property, as well as dibs on all food waste from The Dunes, The Hacienda, The Sands, The Fremont, Golden Nugget, Binion’s, Las Vegas Club, and Jerry’s Nugget. With first wife Clarice at his side, daughter Tina in tow, son James on the way, and brother-in-law Joe to help manage operations, Bob and the clan make their way to Vegas to set down roots. (Clint, their second son, would arrive four years later.)

Making nightly runs by flatbed truck is the beginning of an industry. Loads consist of 250-pound drums of food waste, picked up one at a time. Today those runs are made by semi tractor-trailers to pick up dozens of dumspters in the 1,300 pound capacity range.

After breakfast, Bob takes the wheel from one of his drivers and runs a route with me. The tractor-trailer rig we are in is new and sexy, and Bob is still learning the intricacies of such a modern machine. Getting the behemoth off a busy freeway and onto the busier Strip would be a feat for anyone, and I am impressed. For a man who values competence to the extent that he does, Bob is of course embarrassed when he grinds some gears. We have a good laugh, and I assure him that I’ll never tell anyone, though writing is of course on the table. And even if I do the latter, no one reads my blog anyway so he has nothing to worry about.

We pull off the Strip and into a narrow alley, and the landscape changes dramatically. We are surrounded by vertical concrete and steel, and loading docks and security posts and emergency exits and service vehicles. Now I’ve always appreciated the ability of a good truck driver, and the way Bob negotiates this obstacle course and backs the that sucker up to the loading dock has me enthralled. We are at the back door to the MGM Grand, and there’s just a bit of food waste waiting for us. Eight dumpsters worth, to be exact. In fact, there’s so much waste being produced by this hotel-casino that a staff of specialists are employed under the umbrella of RC Farms to manage and sort the food waste and the recyclables from the trash headed to the landfill. This subdivision of labor is known as Waste Management of Nevada, the conception of which is credited to Janet back in 1981. To this staff Bob appears more of a father figure than a boss, as they are clearly glad to see him. Greetings and inquiries about family members are made. It’s a good time out here on the route, and a pleasant reminder that a job is sometimes what you make it, if not what you put into it.

On the way back up the Strip, Bob reminisces about the Vegas of old. Where the Las Vegas of old necessitated discretion as an outpost of vice, the Las Vegas of today touts escapism through spectacle. It’s an understatement to say things on the Strip have changed since his arrival, but it is completely and utterly different. Just as the desert has transformed into a neighborhood around his 160 acre farm, so has the old strip of motels and card parlors become a pulsing skyline of high rises and arenas. The Dunes is gone. The Hacienda is gone. The Sands is gone. New to this landscape (as well as to Bob’s client portfolio) are corporate-owned and publically traded enterprises such as the MGM-Mirage brand, which includes Mandalay Bay, the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, and The Bellagio.

Feeling the heaving weight of our payload behind us, I ask Bob just how much waste the farm can handle in the face of this exponential growth. He grinds some gears, and smiles. “I don’t know, but it sure is fun finding out.”

* * * *

Bob backs the truck up an incline, and the contents of the trailer is hydraulically dumped into a huge hopper not far from the simmering tank I mentioned earlier. If you’ve seen Bob’s episode of Dirty Jobs, you know how spectacular this moment is. If you haven’t seen it, just imagine eight tons of buffet line detritus being dropped from the height of 12 feet. It gets your attention.

Next up we take our positions at the base of the hopper, where a hatch is manipulated by an attentive operator to regulate the exit of the food scraps. This sublime mixture of all things formerly palatable is the source, the origin, the fountainhead if you will, of the tastiest pig slop known to man (and pig, I would presume). The hatch that Bob now works with a controlled deftness allows portions of choice prime rib and fresh caught fish, artisan baked breads and dinner rolls, heirloom tomatoes and fresh vegetables, leaf lettuces and tropical fruits, potatoes–baked, mashed and fried, casseroles and soups, appetizers and desserts, vast entrees and uncountable sides, and so on infinitus to make its way onto a conveyor belt which serves as a transport and sorting table to ensure non-edibles don’t make their way to the ultimate smorgasbord for Bob’s pigs.

Extracted in this process are the ‘non-scraps,’ ie., the rogue silverware, plates, and kitchen utensils that a hotel is happy to get back, as well as the occasional trash that got by the initial sorters: the errant cloth napkins, plastic wrap, aluminum foil, and the like. It should be noted that until Waste Management was formed to respond to this need, hundreds of pounds of silver and china was lost to the landfill on a daily basis. More on that in a bit.

Post sorting stage, the conveyor takes a ninety degree turn to an elevated belt that sends the clean scraps uphill to the aforementioned simmering-pot-in-the-sky. It is there that the scraps are cooked down into a bouillabasse of epic proportions, at a controlled temperature of 212 degrees Fahrenheit for no less than 30 minutes–standards enforced by the Department of Agriculture to ensure that any pathogens cannot survive, therefore preserving the integrity of the food chain where scrap feeding is integral.

Heat and agitation (in the form of mechanized stirring) ensures even cooking as much as it separates heavy oils from the nutritious food portion. These oils are collected and sold off for further rendering as ingredients for chicken feed and cosmetics. Meanwhile, the food portion is ready for serving.

What happens next is perhaps the most fantastic part of the process. Again, I encourage you to watch Bob’s Dirty Jobs episode to see what I mean here. When the cooked scraps–more affectionately known as slop or swill–are ready to be distributed to the pigs, the most decrepit muck-ridden farm vehicle is pulled up beside the tank and is filled, hopper-style, with the explosive force of a giant spigot releasing a muy funky minestrone soup. Oh woe to the slow moving bystander not given fair warning of the slop drop. The propulsive splash and steaming cloud will lodge a sensory imprint into the recesses of your psyche, an impression reinforced by the sinking emotional distress of a wardrobe remorse not easily rectified. On top of that, contributing to this surreal scene is the giddy squeal of Mister Combs, suddenly the mad doctor, as he delivers the coup de grâce in this maniacal process.

Bob is, as Janet will remind you, a big kid at heart.

This kid is the heart of RC Farms. Watching the kid feed his herd is a pure delight: He chats up the braver, more precocious pigs, checks in on the new moms and litters, and simply has a grand ol’ time shovelling slop and holding court over the lot. As any farmer must, Bob values the quality of his animals’ lives and he expends tremendous effort keeping them healthy and content. While visiting the nursery you can’t help but notice the proud father in Bob.

This passion is the core of his work, and it has informed his career path from the beginning. After his complete herd of 2,000 was lost to hog cholera in 1969, Bob devoted himself to revising the way scrap feeding was conducted in the United States. In what was a difficult time for American pig farmers, the Department of Agriculture exterminated entire herds of cholera-exposed pigs. Due to the risk of spreading pathogens through contaminated food supplies, many states made illegal the feeding of food scraps outright.

Incidently it was during this period that Janet entered the picture. As Bob recalls with a laugh, “Here she comes, snooping around on horseback to get a look at these crazy people raising pigs.” Janet’s curiosity and work ethic was a good match for the Combs. It wasn’t long before she was hired on part-time to assist in the repopulation of the herd, and she became an extended member of the family.

In the face of increasing bans on scrap feeding, 1971 was a watershed year for Bob. Flying to the east coast to meet with a contingent of prominent scrap feeder farmers, Bob initiated Food And Conservation Thru Swine (FACTS), a lobby to the Department of Agriculture to develop safe practices for scrap feeding. Shortly after presenting their data and a plan, legislation was enacted on a federal level to mandate cooking guidelines for all scraps before their feeding to pigs. Agreed to and regulated by the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (a division of the DOA), the eradication of hog cholera was certified the following year, in 1972.

While Bob and Clarice were divorced in 1986, it wasn’t until 1991 that things got interesting between Bob and Janet. And much like a disaster brought Janet to the farm in ’69, the catalyst of their intimacy would likewise originate in adversity.

On a routine drive to inspect some pigs, Bob was involved in a car accident. The driver (Bob’s friend and fellow farmer, Tom Collins) and his son emerged with minor wounds, but Bob would suffer major head trauma, and brain damage. “The doctor said he probably wouldn’t live through the night,” Janet recalls, “and it would probably be better if he didn’t anyway.”

When he awoke some days later, Bob had lost the majority of his motor skills.

He couldn’t speak, couldn’t write, couldn’t walk,” she says. “The doctor said he’d need a wheelchair for the rest of his life.” She laughs. “But obviously he’d been wrong before …”

Janet stepped in at the point to become Bob’s caregiver. She made sure he attended daily speech therapy and physical therapy sessions.

But he wouldn’t stay still! He was supposed to rest too, but the man simply would not sit still.”

I ask her if Bob had lost any memory: Memory of his life before, or of himself.

Nope,” Janet says. “He had full memory and knowledge of who he was. I think that’s why he was so bothered to get his body back. I’d go to get him out of bed for his therapy, and here is up already and out walking around the farm.”

During this period, she says things simply became more precious. A bond formed, and was strengthened by the drive and commitment they both shared to get him back to work, let alone on his feet. Together they accomplished both. By 1994 things had returned pretty much to normal, only now Bob and Janet were married.

The only thing Bob can’t do,” she says, “is keep all my Mormon relatives straight.”

* * * *

When discussing the hypothetical, Bob is thoughtful. Now into his seventies, there is little economic need for continuing a career. His children have families of their own, he has the satisfaction of knowing his sons have followed in dad’s footsteps (in partnership as the Combs Brothers, they are actually a competitor to RC Farms), and he is happily married.

What civic protest he’s endured is due primarily to the downwind issue; the EPA’s regulation of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) maintains standards of ground water and runoff from such operations, and RC Farms exceeds their requirements. Under such guidelines, the farm would be allowed 6,000 pigs. The critical path is that smell issue: Due to air quality standards and the proximity of all those houses, the cap of pigs is placed at 3,000. Doing his part, Bob maintains a head count of 2,500.

There has been talk of relocating the operation, but the economics of such a move is tricky. To make the developers happy, the farm would have to move a long way away–which means an even longer way from Bob’s clients on the Strip. Land is a lot more expensive now than in 1963, and there has been some debate over how the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) might accommodate a move for the betterment of all. But so far, no solutions.

In recent years the reputation of Bob Combs has increased as much as the awareness of RC Farms’ sustainability practices. The word is, apparently, getting out that:

Feeding pigs the scrap food of humans is a return to a historical precedent, when the role of pigs was to do exactly that. Accepting the fact that people ultimately consume pigs, the theory is that there is no more sustainable a process than feeding those pigs the food scraps of man, whereas many states and all of the UK and EU still operate under a ban where feed is only of the grain/soy/maize types grown and harvested at great cost (both economically and environmentally). There are scientific models which break this down, but one of the most compelling I’ve seen is this:

The United Nations estimates that if farmers all around the world fed their livestock on agricultural by-products and food that we currently waste, enough grain would be liberated to feed an extra three billion people (annually).

Of course it all comes down to responsible management, which is what FACTS stepped forward to accomplish. There is currently a similar push in the UK from a grassroots movement called The Pig Idea. It’s aim is to evolve the ban there by adopting new controls in much the same way Bob laid out some 40 years ago.

Bob laughs when he considers the draw of tourism to his farm, but his laugh is one of delight, not irony. It’s true that a positive side effect of this PR component is increased understanding from the community; To the informed, perhaps even a source of civic pride.

And what about that hypothetical?

Even if this operation were to expand into BLM areas,” he muses, “I’d still like to see the RC Farms of old remain as a model home of recycling.”

And nearly as soon as his musing is started, it is finished. It’s more simple than that: “Really I just want to see our food scraps utilized and not wasted. Zero waste. Sustainability.”

All noble goals aside, it’s my theory that Bob loves what he does to such an extent that no other endeavor (including retirement) is going to give him the satisfaction of this enterprise. It is his life. Take the farm away from him and … Well, you do the math.

And we’re grandfathered in,” he concludes. “You know, my first pick up ever was Jerry’s Nugget, and they’re actually still in business. If they can make it today, well so can I.”

Bob laughs. “I just need to work on my shifting.”

* * * *

In the time passed since my visit, RC Farms celebrated their 50th anniversary.  While no public celebration took place, Bob did commemorate the occasion in his own meaningful way: By installing a new US flag on the premises.  Janet tells me that a ‘grand 51st anniversary’ is in the works for 2014, maybe after the heat of summer.  I hope to attend.  In the meantime, I’ll be paying a visit to RC Farms later this month for some more country breakfast, and to have a look at that flag.  If I know Bob, it will be no minor venture.

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Allen Feaster: The Shoe Doctor

16 February, 2011: Allen Feaster: The Shoe Doctor

San Francisco. “You are like a doctor in your field. You just brought my shoes back to life.” With such iconic words uttered by a satisfied customer, Allen Feaster’s trademark was born. Some six years later, The Shoe Doctor has been featured in lifestyle magazines to local newspapers, and voted “Best Shoe Shine” by the SF Weekly. As one of the converted, I am here to sing the praises of the best shoe man I know.

Such a reputation brought Allen to the attention of our Dirty Jobs producers in 2009, and that Allen was just an elevator ride away from another one of our dirty stories made a visit with him a no-brainer. So it was that we spent an afternoon down the hall of the first floor of San Francisco’s Westin St. Francis Hotel, our cameras rolling on each other’s haggard boots as we received a much needed intervention in what Allen terms “shoe-icide.” It was a dose of wisdom from an unconventional source, but one that made an impact. Recalling the short-lived overhauls endured by my late great hipster penny loafers from college, it was better late than never.

A military man with a decade’s experience polishing shoes and boots to a lustrous sheen, Allen was a qualified choice to join his cousin, an established shoe shine veteran, as understudy. Gene Cousins had been plying his craft for 13 years, and compared to the military polish technique, had evolved a more civil approach to shoe care involving a conditioning technique. Inspired by a better way–if not Gene’s stoicism–it took an inspired Allen no time at all to unlearn his military training with shoe polish and master Gene’s craft of shoe care. Five years later he found himself sole proprietor of the operation, when Gene handed over the kingdom for good.

Since then, the Doctor has been in. In sharp contrast to his mentor, Allen brings a disarming levity to his work, an enduring joviality that is not only intentional, but as if the day depends on it. If a client is a returnee, you can expect a conversation akin to a reunion, with jokes and stories. But even the most taciturn of out-of-towners wind up smiling, his day brightened by this strange cat who, well, seems to genuinely care about altering the course of the day.

To the uninitiated this might sound odd. Allen’s projection of customer service carries the urgency of that upbeat car salesman you know you shouldn’t trust because everyone knows car salesmen are predators. But, by the time your shoe hairs are being trimmed with precision scissors, any hesitations for shysterism you’ve been harboring have been replaced with a confidence that comes with the satisfaction of having your shoes look the best they’ve looked in ages, and you’ve just been schooled in either: 1.) some life lesson; 2.) how to definitively take care of your expensive shoes; or 3.) all of the above. If this sounds like therapy, well I suppose it kind of is.

Allen brings to his customer a kind of experience. He is a survivor, a warrior, and a messenger. Born in the Bronx in 1954, he navigated an abused childhood with nine half brothers and sisters (with another half sister in Italy) and nine step brothers and sisters (with another step sister in Korea). Alcohol was a part of his life at the age of seven, and it would accompany him into adulthood and the Air Force (for which, along with his grandmother, Allen credits for saving his life). There, despite ten years of superior service, his functional alcoholism caught up with him and he was discharged UOTH, or “Under Other Than Honorable.” That was 1983, though it wasn’t until 1985 that he took his last drink.

On a particularly wild birthday weekend, Allen careened into a gas station when his steering wheel locked up as a result of running out of gas. Hauled off to jail for DUI, he then found himself in the midst of a prisoner riot. In the heat of the moment, Allen prayed.

“All the decisions I’d made in my life had built up to put me right there in that jail,” he says. “I knew that I was responsible for my life and for many things I was not proud of, and it was up to me to turn things around. I told God right then and there that if I ever took another drink, he should take my life.”

Shortly after the upheaval he was released. A few days later he found himself in a night club with some friends. One of those friends handed him a beer.

“I reached out and I took that beer,” he says, reliving the moment with a faraway stare. “And then the strangest thing happened …”

Allan looks me in the eye, and with an expression of wonder and amazement, continues: “I don’t know if that bottle grew smaller or my hand grew larger, but it slipped from my hand and broke there on the floor.”

“I was scared,” he says. “I ran for the door, to get out of that place. I dropped to my knees in the parking lot, and I told God thank you for not taking my life.” He laughs. “There were people driving around me, and they were honking at me to get out of the way.”

“When I stood up, the desire and taste for alcohol was gone. That was my last drink.”

Over the next two decades he would seek to reinvent himself as a better man, as someone who gives back. He would work jobs ranging from warehouse manager to welder, and he wold endure a period of homelessness. He would re-marry a second and third time, father two children of his own, and foster another five kids from troubled backgrounds. He would also become an advocate for the homeless.

We are having lunch at the employee cafeteria when Allen tells me of another major turning point in life. In 1994 he would lose one of his adopted sons while in the custody of a California legal system which Allen considers negligent, if not liable. With but a month left to serve of a year’s sentence with the California Youth Authority (he was first convicted of theft at the age of 15), his adopted son Durrell would die of alleged suicide.

“Durrell was an upbeat kid,” Allen explains. “Though he had ADHD, suicide doesn’t begin to describe him. Yet no investigation was conducted into the circumstances of his death.”

For the next decade, Allen would devote his off hours publishing editorials in newspapers and testifying before the state senate (three times) for general reform in the Youth Authority.

“These kids aren’t given the help they need to reform,” Allen says. “They’re thrown into a violent system which makes them worse. They’re neglected, medicated, and hardly educated. If they survive prison, these kids are different from when they went in. They’re worse off, and experience such despair that they’ll never fit into society. At a critical time in a young person’s life, in their minds they’re criminals forever.”

Back at the stand, Allen feels the weight of our lunchtime conversation. There’s a tiredness there, but not defeat.

“You have to put negativity in your pocket,” he says. “You can’t let the troubles of the world or the people in your life bring you down. At the end of the day, you’re responsible for who’s in the mirror. No one else.” With that said, Allan has a pair of customers. And he’s on.

“What we’re doing here is shoe care,” he says, horse hair brush a-flitter. “When you go to those other stands where they use shoe polish? Well, they’re shoe murderers. If you do it yourself, it’s shoe-icide.” Always good for a chuckle, the customers are nonetheless tuned in by the message; even the serious guy with his Blackberry and clients and concerns on another coast.

Allen goes about his work with dazzling efficiency. As he speeds along, he narrates the process as much for the customer as for me. We are rapt.

“I use a natural bristle brush. Horse hair. And a bit of water to clean the shoe and stitching. NEVER use chemical cleaners because they will destroy glues and erode stitching.”

Allen dabs a cloth into a small jar of Meltonian Shoe Cream. He swipes a tad onto the shoes, and works it into the leather uppers.

“NEVER use shoe polish. And whatever you do, NEVER use wax. They both dry out the leather. I use a good leather conditioner. The leather needs to breathe. Wax and polish don’t breathe,” he says, achieving complete coverage with not a hint of waste. “A little dab will do you.”

Allen moves onto a supple and well-seasoned rag which, with a controlled and practiced fervor, he works the upper to a buttery gloss.

Next is touch up with a dobber. This is a delicate and minimal process.

“NEVER apply heel dressing or edge dressing anywhere but the edge of the sole, and only if touching up prior damage with a dobber.”

The final step is to snip the minuscule hairs you never noticed before–from stitching, laces, and the edges of the shoe leather. This process tightens up the lines, akin to detailing a car.

And just like a good massage comes to an abrupt end, the job is done. All in attendance blink and stretch, shaking off Allen’s brand of hypnosis.

Revitalized shoes are admired by all as coats are gathered and money changes hands.

“Remember–wax and polish does not waterproof shoes, it dries them out, and that junk applied to the top of the sole is the biggest contributor to a shoe’s wear and tear.”

“Shoe-icide!” the customer says, leaving a big tip.

According to Allen’s stringent research, some 90% of his customers won’t sit down at another shoe shine stand after receiving his lesson on re-shoe-vination.

“They know,” he says. “I’m a shoe-ologist who went to the school of shoe-ology!

As Allen tidies up his stand and prepares for the next wave of industry, a recurring question comes to mind, compelling to me where one does a repetitive task.

“Allen, what do you think about while you work?”

Not missing a beat, Allen’s quick with a reply.

“I think about who I’m going to make smile next.”

And he’s serious. “Oh yeah! I come to work not because I have to, but because I love it. This isn’t just a job. It’s my business.

In a storage cabinet next to his stand Allen keeps photo albums and scrapbooks of his family. He has a boom box to play his soul CDs and cassettes, and a stack of motivational books for the quiet times between customers. He also keeps a laptop to write letters and view media from the discs he’s received from his grown-up kids.

He hands me the laptop to check out. In current rotation as screen saver is a slide show from his recent wedding in Maui. The bride and groom are dressed casually in white, exchanging giddy vows barefoot in the sand.

“Terry’s my fourth marriage,” Allen says, with reverence.

The photo dissolves to a pic of the newly betrothed, the bride in Allen’s arms. They’re laughing like kids, waste-deep in the surf.

“… But I call her my first. I earned this one.”

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Christopher Cara: Espresso Machine Purveyor

15 February, 2011: Christopher Cara: Thomas Cara, Ltd.

San Francisco. I made Christopher’s acquaintance in 2005, when I was restoring an old espresso machine I’d picked up on eBay. As introductions go, it wasn’t the smoothest of beginnings. My phone call from New Mexico apparently caught Christopher at a bad time (which I’d later learn equates to ‘annoying customers in the shop’), so his shortness with my questions left me feeling frustrated, if not stranded from bringing my machine back to life.

“Hi, I tracked you down online. I believe I have an old La Cara of yours and I’m in need of parts,” I said.

“You have a what?” The man’s tone betrayed his annoyance, as if my dilemma was far worse for him than it could possibly be for me.

“A La Cara” I said. “Though there isn’t a name anywhere to be found, a knowledgable friend of mine recognizes it. And since La Pavoni o-rings won’t fit it, it can’t be a Europiccola. Can you help me?”

A pregnant moment.

“If it is one of those machines, there isn’t anything I can do to help you. They are extinct, and can’t be serviced.” He was distracted. Annoyed and distracted. “Look, I’m sorry but I have to go.”

My heart sank. I’d spent nearly $150 on a beautiful chrome machine, thinking it was a rather common La Pavoni model whose vintage simply necessitated some TLC. That TLC had cost me another fifty bucks in the way of an overhaul kit I purchased from on online service outfit. Now I had little baggies of o-rings and gaskets that I couldn’t use, and a burning realization that I had spent considerable time in purchasing the wrong machine and the wrong parts, and now the right man on the line was a dead end. Was I genuinely screwed? My jack-of-all-trades friend, Jerry, seemed to think the machine was an anomaly, rare indeed, and perhaps unserviceable without help from the shop that created it. And that ray of hope just hung up on me.

How could it be that in the world of lever-operated home espresso machines, where the market is dominated by La Pavoni and their fifty-year old line of Europiccolas, I would stumble upon a contraption that looked so similar I wouldn’t know the difference? Granted, the lack of a label might be a flag. But come on–these machines are so specialized that obvious appearances would preclude any confusion between models. Like comparing a Dodge to a Ford to a Chevy, you can usually tell the difference.

I sat down at my kitchen table. The derelict machine was before me, its thick chromed brass a showcase of beguiling curves and planes of a simple design, it’s massive form an expression of a bygone era. I was looking at the likelihood that I would never get to see the beautiful machine operate. I was looking at an artifact.

With a sigh, I fired up the Mister Coffee that I relied on for my daily espressos. It was inherited from an old girlfriend, and served as a replacement for the second DeLonghi Sorrento I’d used up in only a couple of years. Of the pump machine variety, these machines were considered ‘entry level’ espresso machines. As such, they were composed of plastic (for the body), a soft magnesium alloy for the hot parts (tank and portafilter holder), and decanter-carafes made of such delicate glass to necessitate a thrift store vigil for their regular replacement. While I was by no stretch a wealthy coffee drinker, I had felt justified in elevating my experience by buying a used machine of good reputation, and further, a machine in need of some work. With a price point within the boundaries of reason, my latest reality was as bitter as the Mister Coffee’s double shot.

I poured some organic milk, added a dash of cane sugar and vanilla extract, and steamed it to frothy perfection. The resulting latte was far better than the Mister Coffee’s espresso served neat, but herein a dilemma hounded me: how long would I continue to to downgrade my steamed milk with inferior espresso?

The phone rang.

It was Christopher: “Look, I’m sorry I hung up on you. The store was busy, and it’s difficult to have a conversation with people wandering around the shop.”

My spirits rose, if only a little. Would he help?

“The La Caras are dinosaurs,” he continued. “They were few to begin with, and haven’t been sold since the seventies. I don’t have parts and I can’t service the machines anyway. I’m sorry you spent money on one. I hope it wasn’t much.”

My spirits tanked, even lower than before. It was implicit that there was more to this than was being told, and this would likely be my only chance to glean an explanation from Christopher, so I pursued it.

“I only need parts if they’re exotic, and I’d be really grateful just for the parts specifications. I”m willing to do the work on my own.”

“Really?” (A tone of doubt.) “Well, I don’t have the specs. And I’ve never heard of anyone servicing one of those machines.”

“What do you mean you can’t service them?” I asked. “Do you mean you don’t want to service them?”

There was no response. I continued: “Look, I’m really committed to restoring this, if you think it’s worth it. Any help is better than none, even some advice on where to go next.”

A sigh was extruded. Somewhere in San Francisco some considerations were being made.

When Christopher next spoke it was in a hushed tone. This tone carried the weight of discretion, if not implicit danger. Thus began the saga of The La Cara Espresso Machine

Christopher Cara’s father went into business in 1946. He had discovered espresso while spending a year abroad post college, but it wasn’t until later, while stationed in Italy during the war, that he made the acquaintance of the Pavoni family and took on west coast distribution of their machines in the United States. Over time he sold a variety of kitchen equipment, much of which carried the ‘Thomas Cara Ltd’ name, often modified or even fabricated to his specifications. In the early seventies the La Cara was a lever espresso machine that was an example of this vision. There were four generations, each with subtle refinements. They were only a few– maybe 200 or 250–in each production run.

Christopher’s tone got lower, as one would suggest scandal in the king’s court. “Well,” he emphasized, “certain manufacturers didn’t like their American distributor selling a competitive machine. So an “agreement” was made with my father to stop production and support of the line.

“A cease-and-desist order?” I said.

“Essentially. Which is why we haven’t touched those machines since. They’re not on our radar,” he said. ”So I don’t know what to tell you. I suppose if you have power and there’s no corrosion, then you might try scrabbling together the seals at an auto parts store.”

My machine was doomed. Maybe. But … maybe not. It did power up, the tank got hot, and for all intents and purposes it did seem to work. And it was very clean. All I really needed was to stop the jets of errant steam issuing forth from the many seals of the machine, which should be no more complicated than rubber o-rings and gaskets. Oh, and I needed a new sight glass; mine was cracked at the top.

With this odd history to inform my dilemma, I was ready to take up the challenge of restoration with a renewed vigor. Grateful for the sideways encouragement, I thanked Christopher and figured he may have found some entertainment from the diversion. We said our farewells.

* * * *

A year or so later I was in San Francisco with DJ. While out on a jog I stopped by the shop. It was an unannounced recon flyby. Admittedly intimidated as a newbie restorer who might fall short of industry standards, I went literally prepared to run out of there should I prove myself inadequate, or worse yet, one of the irritating class of customers Christopher had conveyed in our prior interaction.

The storefront was located at the edge of North Beach on Pacific Avenue, a narrow, boutique-y lane filled with professional firms and retail design galleries. With minimalist class in mind, it was a manicured if not pleasant side street in a desirable part of town.

Tucked discreetly behind some iron gate work on the shady side of the street, I nearly ran by the shop. Across the gate in gold letters was spelled out Thos. E. Cara, Ltd. Unlike typical store frontage, nothing grabbed my attention or even attempted to pull me in. Forget the seduction of foot traffic; clearly this was a shop for the intentional customer. Just within the gate, a sidewalk mosaic of a large copper espresso machine suggested the destination. It was a message of exclusivity, maybe even exclusion, a clue to a riddle you need to be looking to solve.

Through the window beyond the ironwork, my eye was at last drawn to an array of chrome, brass, and copper sculptures spotted by overhead track lighting. They were espresso machines of various makes and manufacture, esoteric and mysterious––H.G. Wells-ian constructs of industrial extraction.

A trim man in a white oxford shirt and dark smock was chatting with a couple in business attire. Now self conscious of my sweaty presentation, I slipped through the door. A brass entry bell announced my arrival, and a bubbly Dalmation trotted from the back of the shop to greet me. Her brown spots and white coat accessorized the crisp lines and pooled light of the modern, understated showroom.

“Lottie, you get back here.” The honeyed voice Christopher used carried the authority of a lap dog owner.

I wandered about the boutique, ogling at the ornate coffee making machinery, while Christopher wrapped up the business of the young couple. From what I gathered, they were dropping off a La Pavoni for maintenance. Christopher made some notes and filled out a service tag, which he hung on the machine.

After the couple left, I introduced myself. Christopher was congenial but harried, an impeccably scruffy man with good posture, fitted clothing, and too much to do. Emanating a vibe of compelling commitments, he was nonetheless eager to hear how my restoration worked out.

I recounted the trips to various auto parts stores to wrangle the myriad o-rings in varying specifications of inner and outer diameters, made more complicated by the fact that the old o-rings I needed to replace were often too hard, brittle, and impacted to extract in a way that could be measured in the first place. It was an exercise in trial in error, with lots of hand tools and delicate maneuvering to deconstruct and reconstruct the piece. I recounted the process of having a sculptor friend cut and temper a new sight glass tube, the dimensions of which were critical. After two attempts in the kiln, the end result was a perfectly working and super clean La Cara, and most importantly, the best espresso I’d tasted.

“That’s fantastic,” Christopher said. He leaned against the counter and crossed his arms. He was intrigued. Maybe even impressed. “I don’t know of any working La Caras anywhere. You might have the only one in existence. Do you have pictures?”

Me, have pictures? Being that I was out for a run, I did not have them on me. But on my laptop, well, there I had a series which documented the overhaul. I’d bring them by, I told him. Looking like my seal of approval was imminent, we resolved to reconvene in a day or two.

Ultimately, after a pictorial review of my effort and the difficulty of replacing the ‘group’ seal (an obscure chevron-shaped o-ring), I learned that a specialty tool (ie., a homemade one) was needed to make the process foolproof and to avoid damaging the piston. Christopher opened a drawer at his work bench and casually produced said tool––basically a brass tube with opposing notches at one end. He tipped over a Pavoni that was in the process of an overhaul, and inserted the tube up into the sleeve of the cylindrical group. He demonstrated the locking effect of the notches around something up in there, and then gave it a wrench-assisted turn. The piston dropped right out.

“Damn,” I said. “That sure beats pounding the hell out of the top of the piston with a rubber mallet.”

“Trade secret,” he said. “You’ll want one of these sleeve tools for your next overhaul. The dimensions should match, if you want to take some measurements.”

Christopher opened a door and disappeared down an old stairwell. I took the opportunity to take measurements and sketched specs for The Tool. I figured my buddy Jerry should be able to fabricate such a doohickey easy enough. He’d want one for his old Pavoni, anyway.

As I finished up my armchair schematic, Christopher returned from the depths bearing a familiar relic of a bygone era. He set it down on the bench before me. Coated in dust and wearing a decrepit service tag was another misfit La Cara. It was nearly identical to my own, but bore a monikered label on the front of the base.

“No telling how long this has been down there,” he said. Indeed, the ink on the service tag had faded from existence. It was now anonymous, forgotten in time. I rubbed at the dust, and the chrome beneath seemed in decent shape.

“Wow, it’s beautiful.” I was inspired. “Don’t you just want to … Bring it back to life?”

“For what?” he said. “I couldn’t sell it. I can’t sell it.”

“Use it, then.”

“Look around,” he said. “I’m surrounded by Porsches and Lamborghinis–and they work just fine. I’m not sure the effort would be worth it, as I know you can relate.”

Fair enough. It occurred to me that my restoration had become an obsession. I couldn’t blame Christopher for not being as enthused as I, even if the machine did carry his namesake. I mean, if someone someone showed up on my doorstep with a vintage Pfaff sewing machine they’d fixed, would the course of my life be forever altered? Lineage be damned, probably not.

But that hardly quieted my imagination. “So Christopher, what other goodies do you have in the basement?”

He laughed. I might have asked him what skeletons he had in his closet, the way he looked at me.

“Wouldn’t you like to know.”

The dusty La Cara went up on a shelf. At least it was liberated from the basement.

As a thanks to Christopher for his time, I bought a snazzy 60th anniversary wooden knock box emblazoned with the Thomas Cara Ltd name. It would complete my barista set up, and serve as a functional souvenir of the occasion. We shared a laugh, and made an intention to stay in touch.

Over the next couple of years I popped in on Christopher to say hello, once to buy some quality cappuccino cups and saucers. I was pleased to report a profound reliability with my machine. I had yet to need (and therefore make) the group tool, as I had required minimal maintenance to keep things humming. I loved my espresso machine, and had grown as faithful to it as it was to me. This was was emphasized by the comparisons I was making with contemporary lever machines in the La Cara’s class, notably late model designs being manufactured with standardized parts. It became clear that, while shiny and new and with a handy warrantee, the machines of recent years were not up to the build standards of the vintage machines.

Coincidentally, during this period of time, my insider buddy Jerry had taken up a hobby of doing his own restorations on the vintage Pavonis previously mentioned. Being that Jerry brought the skill set of mechanic to this endeavor, as well as espresso knowledge gleaned from his entrepreneur period in the pre-Starbucks days of Seattle, I was provided a unique opportunity to experience firsthand the pros and cons of the oeuvre. If there’s a summary of my impressions from the experience, it’s a return to this handy euphemism: They don’t make ’em like they used to. A concise history of the Europiccola line and examples of the vintage best can be appreciated at Jerry’s retail site: http://goyathlaysvintagepavonirestorations.com/.

* * * *

I thought Christopher’s trade a stretch for the Journeyman Project until I experienced the bench-top environment where an artisan’s attention to craft informs his job. On a macro level, the culture of coffee is undeniably elevated by the micro pursuit of extraction. It doesn’t hurt that the exotic machines and specialized individuals who build and maintain them are an intriguing lot. So it came to pass that I asked Christopher for a visit to take his photograph and learn more about the history of the family business. If I was lucky, I figured I might even get a look in the basement.

“We’ve been in North Beach from the start,” Christopher says. “My dad opened the store in 1946 at Grant and Green, for $35 a month. In the early fifties he moved to Broadway and Columbus, where there were tunnels in the basement going back to the Chinatown opium trade. I remember working there as a kid, down in that basement drilling holes for pressure gauges in the old Atomic machines.” Christopher laughs. “I’d thread them crooked, and Dad would sell them in the shop as more artistic.

“In 1960 my parents moved the business here.”

To say that San Francisco real estate is desirable is an understatement. In North Beach it is more so, where the majority of the neighborhood is historic.

“The best thing my parents ever did was buy this building. My father resisted, of course. But my mother, Mary, made him.”

While we’re talking, I notice some professional types use the outside stairwell to the upper floor. “And you lease the upstairs,” I posit.

“Sure,” Christopher says. “It would be a challenge to keep the shop in the neighborhood otherwise.”

Growing up in the Telegraph Hill neighborhood of San Francisco, he recalls a respectable but modest lifestyle, not of luxury per se, but with exposure to the elite class. “Rather similar to The Merchant of Venice,” as Christopher puts it. “A life of privileged access.”

Indeed, Christopher has lived a theatrical if not dramatic life. Act One includes his education at the University of San Francisco and the American Conservatory Theatre, followed by a wild decade in 1970’s New York City living the Broadway dream. Act Two finds Christopher the Prodigal Son returning home to begin work at the family business. His older brother John joins the clan a few years later, reuniting the Cara family under one commercial roof. In 2002 Mary dies suddenly of cancer, followed by Roberto, Christopher’s partner of twelve years. Thomas–ironically, Mary’s senior by 13 years–dies in 2004. In a critical time for the shop, Christopher buys out his brother’s share of the business.

Act Three is unfolding daily. Our leading man maintains a conscious existence, navigating the business which bares his namesake while aspiring to the bon vivant.

Christopher is coy. Especially when he says “Things are quiet now, but not stagnant.”

He is one of those guys that is older than he looks, knows it, and is protective of the data. I respect that, especially when this person seems to understand some fundamental concepts of quality of life: Keep it simple; seek authenticity; take nothing for granted; do your best; use it or lose it; keep moving. For instance, today is his weekly Italian lesson. Surely this is a work necessity. Right?

“You need to speak Italian with the Pavoni and Zacconi folks,” I presume.

“Ha! My salary isn’t great, but the perks are worth it. I travel to New York and Italy every year (for manufacturer-distributor meetings). The best coffee in the world is at Café Eustachio, in Roma. And there is only one Broadway. I enjoy the world. This arrangement suits me.”

I believe I can relate. I relish travel, and meeting people in the context of their real life. I’d rather experience a new place through eyes of purpose, with an objective that comes with an assignment.

Christopher methodically prepares the afternoon meal for Carlotta (named, by the way, after Eugene O’Neil’s wife’s stage name). He is interrupted, yet again, by another phone call. As I wait for Christopher’s question-and-answer protocol to play out, I envision myself on the other end of the line. Customers typically know enough about their machine to make their needs known, but when it comes to conceptualizing the work required to stop the leaks or restore power to their daily drinker, they are often quite clueless. Christopher must explain, in plain language, what the fix is (or not, as the case may be, for those particularly difficult customers). For a one man show, this aspect of the business must be a drain. Being his own boss likely gives Christopher vital leeway and, ultimately, relief in dealing with difficult clientele.

I wonder about the fate of the family business. By retail stats alone, Thomas Cara Ltd. has a future–if not a legacy–ahead of it: Deriving 40% of revenue from sales and 60% from machine service, the espresso machine emporium has a 50% return rate of repeat customers, many of which are 3rd generation. The annual revenue growth is 4%, far better than our country’s GDP.

After Carlotta is fed, I implore Christopher to show me the mysterious basement from whence came the old La Cara, as well as all the spare parts he relies on for repairs. Reluctant at first, I assure him I didn’t come all this way to photograph his basement. Thus, he acquiesces.

If the shop is Christopher’s proscenium, then the basement is his backstage. Packed with bins and boxes of parts, espresso machines in states of disrepair, and cobwebs worthy of a horror film, the space (or lack thereof) is spectacular. The place also serves as storage for decades of family memories, many of which are neglected. It doesn’t take long before Christopher’s having some fun, and yes, I’m shooting it all. As evidenced by yellowed scrapbooks of the family business, it’s clear that someone valued the family legacy. Christopher is distracted now, pulled in by artifacts. He vows to clean the place up, get the memorabilia organized.

After the adventure that is the basement, we make our way back upstairs to one of Christopher’s ‘Lamborghinis’ for what I hope will be a lesson in the finer points of espresso making. Christopher first grinds up some beans in his Bunn mega burr grinder, and we head over to the top-of-the-line Vibiemme pump machine that’s hard-lined into the shop’s plumbing.

What transpires is a rather snappy and anticlimactic demonstration, as if really, I should know better: “Make sure your grind is fresh. Not too fine, not too coarse;” after which wise words the grounds go into the portafilter and are tamped, the portafilter goes into the portafilter holder, the portafilter holder into the group head and is tightened, the demitasse set into position below. The sequence culminates in the pushing of an electronic button.

This last bit is the fundamental difference between lever and pump machines. Whereas the pump machine requires no piston and releases its pressurized hot water with the press of a button, the lever machine requires the manual exertion of your arm to control the piston-driven rate of release. In both cases, hot water is subsequently pressed through the group shower head into the portafilter basket packed with your grind, and exits as espresso into the demitasse (small cup) which awaits.

The resulting syrup begins with a trickle, then a delicate stream. A perfect ‘pull’ yields a viscous two ounces of espresso with a silky top layer of crema. The pull should take roughly twenty seconds. The time is a subjective but useful gauge of your grind’s consistency and degree of tamp. To the casual observer, the process is akin to ceremony. I’ve noticed that the moment of espresso release usually results in a peculiar silence, providing a unique opportunity for meditation or productive thinking; your mileage may vary.

“Look, I’m fortunate” he says. “I’ve inherited the silver, and I haven’t had to hock it.” Christopher views the shop as a continuation of his family, and with that comes obligation. The business provides him freedom, yes, but it also represents a necessary grounding. There is a legacy in place here. “This place keeps me focused and honest,” he says.

The espresso we share is pretty perfect. I’ve opted for no sugar to really ‘test the quality.’ Christopher rolls his eyes and adds a teaspoon to his own.

“Is it true,” I ask, “that some people will do two pulls through the same grind?”

“Sure,” Christopher says, in a rather nonchalant way. “For many, one pull is a waste of grind. And time, of course.”

Now, I personally never do two pulls from the same grind. I think the second one takes on a comparative bitterness. Am I a disappointed?

“Oh, get a life!” Christopher says.

* * * *

Thomas Cara Ltd. does not have a web site because, as Christopher proclaims, “it is an old fashioned business.” Christopher can be reached via email, however he will not diagnose or advise on your machine’s ills with such discourse. For that, you’re best using the ol’ telephone.

Email: cvcara@gmail.com; Telephone: 415-781-0383

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