What was missing from the previous post, about my return to LA, was how surreal it was. Antigua life and SoCal life are completely different, in nearly every way. And yet, it wasn’t culture shock that settled in almost immediately upon landing in Los Angeles. It was a disconnect with reality. LA felt familiar, as would be expected. But as I started doing the same exact things I had done before leaving (driving to see friends, walking around my neighborhood, hanging out at my parents’ house), it was both comfortable and bizarre at the same time. It’s hard to describe, but the best way I answered the question when people asked me what it was like to be back, was, “When I’m here in LA, the Antigua life seems like a dream, and when I’m there, LA seems like a dream.” Each place feels normal when I’m there and unreal when I’m not.
Anyway…while I was sad to leave friends and family behind, there was a calmness that returned when I landed back in Guatemala. Red-eyes are never fun, so while there was calmness, there was also a bit of disorientation borne of exhaustion. Jeffrey had been maintaining the sourdough starter, so he met me at the bakery and we sleep-walked through our typical Monday prep. As soon as he was gone, I collapsed!
Meanwhile, I couldn’t rest for long because we needed to hire a new employee. After letting someone go right before my LA trip, I posted in a few Facebook groups about my hunt for someone new. I had plenty of great-sounding candidates reach out to me, and we scheduled them all to come in on consecutive mornings that first week back. With Jeffrey leaving for six weeks in mid-October, we were on a tight schedule to get someone new as trained as possible.
However, as luck would have it, the very next morning, I had to head into the city for a (not serious, but necessary) doctor’s appointment. So not only was I leaving the bakery open without me for the first time ever, I was also missing out on a promising candidate, Alis. I made it back to Antigua before she left, and did get a chance to chat with her a bit. I didn’t get to see her work, but Jeffrey shared all the details with me. He felt she was very comfortable in the kitchen and could be a great fit.
Over the coming days, we interviewed one man and two additional women. Everyone brought different skill sets to the table and Jeffrey and I both felt that three of the four could immediately jump in and be a help. The only upside to business continuing to be slow as September grew to a close was that we were able to spend plenty of time with our candidates and not feel rushed or pressed for time.
We chose to go with the one guy who had interviewed, as he seemed the most ready to not only step in right away and be a help, but also seemed like he’d be in a position to take the lead when Jeffrey was gone. And that was a relief. I couldn’t wait to get back to two people in the kitchen, as well as have someone ready for when Jeffrey leaves.
The first week back ended with a trip into the city on Friday night, for the Kol Nidre service. This is the first night of Yom Kippur, the most important holiday in the Jewish religion and the culmination of the ten days of atonement that accompanies the new year in the Jewish calendar. Three years ago, I was also in Antigua for Yom Kippur, but celebrated on my own. There weren’t any Chabads back then (there are now two), I didn’t have any connections to the Jewish community (I have plenty now), and I didn’t have a ride into the city even if I’d known about this small congregation!
It was a warm, friendly and small mix of Guatemalans and ex-pats. Maybe thirty people in total. The congregation is official Reform, and doesn’t have an on-site rabbi. However, for the High Holidays, they bring in someone from somewhere else. This year, it was a rabbi from Colorado, who came with his wife. He led the service in a combination of English, Hebrew and Spanish, while a young woman from the congregation translated most of his English into Spanish, and she did the bulk of the chanting. She was great.
The crew from Antigua was Jay, who had attended here the previous here, and Obed – a new friend I met in the bakery, who is Guatemalan but grew up in Chicago. We committed to spend all of Saturday at the synagogue – that meant morning service, break, study session, and back to final prayers. All on empty stomachs and no liquids. A complete and total fast.
Spending the whole day at a synagogue is something I’ve never done before on Yom Kippur, although it’s a common practice amongst the more observant. I always leave after the morning service, and occasionally returned for the conclusion. It’s much easier to make it through a fast day by taking a nap, let me tell you. No luxury of that this time, although I did read my Kindle during some downtime.
When the holiday came to its conclusion, it was very nice. We could finally eat and drink, and the level of the conversation perked up a bit as everyone received sustenance. I brought both challah and babka to share with the group, assuming it would be a big meal to break the fast. That was not the case. There were a few pastries, and a big pot of chicken soup (served with tortillas – because we are in Guatemala after all). That was it. Needless to say, Obed, Jay and I were still hungry when we left and picked up some french fries at the McDonald’s drive-through on the way back.
Everything had gone well at the bakery too. Seidi came in to help Jeffrey, and it seemed like it was a good day, from what they reported. After never having the bakery open without me there, it had now happened twice in one week! A little scary, but a very good thing. I need to be able to walk away from there – to relax, to run errands, and more.
While I was in LA (and, actually, a little bit before then), I had been planning a variety of new features for the bakery. I used my time away, with the bakery closed, to announce most of these new things. That kept Canela on the mind of my customers and my mind on Canela, and hopefully got customers excited about my return. The timing was pretty fitting to bring about all these changes and additions, because it was the start of a new year in the Jewish calendar. New staff, new menu items, new garden…so much new stuff!
One of the key things I wanted to launch was a rewards program, and I decided on doing a buy-ten-get-one-free program featuring sourdough loaves, cookie half-dozens and babka loaves. I got a positive response from the original post, and was very excited to start handing out cards to people.
We went through about forty cards over the first few days, which was a fun start. As of this writing, I’ve given out about 85 cards and have had a handful of people cashing in. I originally envisioned it as a limited-time program, but I plan to keep it going indefinitely for now. Seems to make people happy, and that’s what I’m all about!
Another project I wanted to launch after returning from the two-week closure was bagels! I’d been asked about it a bit and couldn’t wait to get started. The response on social media seemed strong, and I was hoping it would be something that would attract people to the bakery.
To get started, I went with a small batch of a different type of bagel each day. I wanted to make sure that the dough worked, that they tasted good and that people liked them. We began with plain (or “water”) bagels, followed by whole wheat, and egg.
If memory serves, we sold out of the small batches every day and got great feedback. As a promotional price, we sold them at Q5 each, and they were sold as is. Not toasted, no toppings. Just to try out as a bagel by itself. The response was positive and we were all inspired to launch it in a larger format.
Before I left for LA, I ordered some tables and chairs to be built, so that we could start serving people outdoors. I have this great garden area – but I had no furniture out there, as well as nothing but overgrown grass. So I met with a gardener before I left for LA and we agreed to get going once I returned. The tables and chairs were due right when I got back…but took a few extra days, in local style. I was so happy when they finally showed up!
Meanwhile, speaking of arrivals, the LA newlyweds Beth and Mark also showed up at Canela Antigua! I was so excited to have them visiting me. They arrived on a Tuesday morning and spent the first few days trading off exploring Antigua and doing work remotely for both of their jobs. We did go to Pub Quiz on Tuesday night, and had a fun time. Luckily, they ended the week with some “vacation” days and got to spend more time having fun and relaxing.
As the weekend was beginning, Mark and Beth decided to take a trip up to Lake Atitlan for some additional relaxation. It was originally going to be one night (or maybe two?) – but they decided to spend an extra day there. I didn’t blame them!
I took advantage of their absence by meeting with my new gardener at a nursery on the south end of town, where we picked out a bunch of plants for him to get started with in my garden. We spent about an hour there. Delivery was arranged for Monday morning, when he’d get to work turning my overgrown garden into something of beauty.
The weekend was filled with plenty of fun stuff, including the homemade version of the Little Debbie oatmeal creme pies, and the formal debut of bagels. We had plenty of bagels, cream cheese and butter on hand, and while it wasn’t a smashing success, we had a nice day. Some bagels were left over, but those could be enjoyed later.
That evening, the Hardisons came to me for Sunday Game Night, and we noticed some amazing clouds forming as the sun set that evening. Mark and Beth were originally going to be part of game night, but with their trip extended by a day, they’d be getting back to my place as we were wrapping up. We decided on Rummikub for our game, and because there were five of us, we’d added in extra tiles from our two sets. That meant when Beth and Mark came back, we had plenty of tiles and racks for everyone to play. It was a fun way to end my workweek and begin my one-day weekend!
On my day off, and Mark and Beth’s last full day in town, we had a lazy morning and then headed out on a food tour, with Arianna. She is from Austin, Texas, and moved down here a few years ago to do some non-profit work. However, she fell in love with the food scene and has been leading Taste Antigua food tours for a while now.
Arianna leads a great tour. Cary and Mike took one when they visited, but I didn’t go with them. Now that I could attend, I learned about a few new places to get local food (such as the excellent pepian found in the back of a tienda near La Merced.) We had full bellies when we got back and were already swearing off dinner. That didn’t last as long as we’d thought it would.
We had been planning to stay at home and relax. Then we’d been planning to order in pizza. Then we decided to go out for pizza. We ended up at Central Park, not just because it’s probably the best pizza in Antigua, but also because Beth could watch her beloved Chicago Bears play in Monday Night Football. It was a delicious final meal together.
It was sad to see Beth and Mark head back to LA, but it had been so much fun to have them visit here. We had a great time together, and I’m glad they got to do some individual exploring as well. It’s hard to both manage a business and entertain friends when in town, but I seem to have found a good balance. Plus, I have very independent and adaptable friends.
As we prepared for Jeffrey’s departure, I was happy that he was able to squeeze in time to paint the Canela Antigua logo on our back wall. He’s a talented artist and did a great job. Plus, walking in to not see a big, tall blank wall makes an enormous difference. I love having the logo up there.
However, as Jeffrey’s last day approached, I found myself in the unfortunate position of needing to let our new employee go. It wasn’t a choice I made lightly, considering I was about to lose Jeffrey too, but it was a decision that had to be made. Leaving myself shorthanded was a bit scary, but I was able to reach out to the runner-up from our candidate trials, Alis, and she started the very next day. So while I was training someone – alone – right from the start, it was going to work out. At least, I told myself that it needed to!
And as you can imagine, the timing of being alone with a brand-new employee couldn’t have been worse than starting her on the day I was going to host a birthday party at the bakery after closing! Jay and Jill’s four-year-old younger daughter wanted to have a cookie-making party and Canela was the place! Guests were scheduled to arrive at 3:30 on that Saturday, thirty minutes after closing. It ended up being a crazy day in the bakery, and so some of the prep I had been sure I could do that day…was a bit rushed.
In the end, though, it all worked out well. The kids had fun, the adults enjoyed themselves, and the place proved capable of holding a large crowd. While I’m not sure how many birthday parties are in the offing, I think it would be fun to offer the bakery as a venue for special events. Time will tell!
Meanwhile, as the events above had been transpiring, my beloved Dodgers were making their way through the playoffs. The first round of playoffs started with Mark and Beth in town, and then on the next Sunday game night with the Hardisons, I said I was happy to play games as long as we had the game on TV too. They’re not baseball fans, in general, and have no history of rooting for (or paying attention to) the Los Angeles Dodgers. However, as we watched, I could see the interest level rising.
After the Dodgers won the game we watched together, my superstitious nature kicked in and I felt like we needed to keep watching together to make sure the Dodgers succeeded. I mean…the Dodgers hadn’t been in the World Series for 29 years. I didn’t want to be responsible for making that streak extend to 30. I, of course, couldn’t have done so without the full support of the Hardisons, but they were (literally) game. They got more and more into it, and what may have sealed the deal for them as Dodger fans was Justin Turner’s walk-off home run against the Cubs in Game Two of the NLCS.
The regular baseball action with the Hardisons led to many more pre-game games. In the picture above, E is using a partially-completed diorama from a school project to not only house and protect his Rummikub tiles from prying eyes, but also his collection of snacks! It was too funny not to capture. And it’s quite emblematic of the kind of kid he is – funny, spirited, and creative.
October business started to pick up as the month reached the halfway point, and continued to strengthen – partially on the success of the popular Bagel Sundays. After a sell-out Sunday, we tried to offer bagels during the week, but the market wasn’t there for it. So we decided to stick with Sundays only, except for any special orders.
With some free time on our hands, we looked to expand the menu even more. Based on the success of toasted-and-topped bagels, we decided to offer sourdough toast options during the week for those looking for a more filling, and savory, fix. We make our own peanut butter, hummus, and jam, so those were all available, in addition to regular butter and cream cheese.
Meanwhile, as I looked ahead to the first weekend of November, I began to worry. Why? Because I had a quick trip to Los Angeles scheduled for Thursday to Sunday to celebrate my mom’s birthday. With just Alis in the shop, there wasn’t a way to keep the bakery open for that weekend. I was lamenting this fact one evening to Bethany, and she said, “You don’t have to close! I can be there while you’re gone.”
Considering her and Paul’s experience running a granola company, plus their infallible trustworthiness, it was a no-brainer. Plus, with Paul taking the boys up to the mountains more frequently for the work they’re doing in Guatemala, it would provide a great and fun way for Bethany to fill her time. (And I was excited to hang out more!) It was an easy yes, and we began to plot out a training schedule.
How did it go, leaving the bakery open while I skipped town? That’ll be covered in the next blog post…