Have a Life Worth Living?
Sirio Maccioni, who some call the greatest restauranteur of our time, is dead. He died eighty-eight years after the same day of his birth. There’s something beautiful in that symmetry, something artistic. Which is fitting as Maccioni was a member of the creative class. He was the kind of person who made things that were unnecessary. Sure, we all need food to stay alive, but we don’t need the kind of food that was served in Le Cirque, the restaurant that made Maccioni famous. Food like that is a luxury. It’s one of those precious things that make life worth living. It is art.
Jeremy Engebretson is a member of the creative class as well. He owns the best restaurant in Billings, Montana. Which is fitting, as he’s also the best chef in Billings, Montana. Normally this is a good thing, but we aren’t living in normal times.
Making a living by producing things that people don’t need is tough. Every member of the creative class knows this. They’ve been constantly reminded of this fact (by everyone), since they first picked up a paint brush, a camera or a sauté pan. They knew it was going to be tough, but they did it anyway. They accepted the challenge.
When it comes to creativity, Billings isn’t the most inviting place. It’s not the town’s fault, it’s just not in their DNA. The place was built on tangible things. Products one could load onto a boxcar. Traditional luxury in this part of the world is defined by a full belly and a warm bed, which, with a lot of hard work, is about what the land around here can provide.
Engebretson knows this as well. He knew going in that his passion for great food would be a tough-sell in these parts, but again, he accepted the challenge. Creative types normally do things that don’t easily pencil out. Which explains why he opened his place, Lilac, the aforementioned best restaurant in Billings, eight years ago. These creative types, smart as they are, just can’t seem to help themselves.
That said, Engebretson went about opening Lilac in a very smart way. His business plan is humble. His monetary needs are modest. The food he serves is both delicious, and affordable. In the past, Lilac was open five days a week and employed somewhere between nine and twelve people each night. Currently Lilac is open five days a week and employees three people, Engebretson and two other chefs. In the afternoon, he might have an extra person in to handle the phone and package orders, but that’s only for an hour or so.
To help put this in perspective, without diving into the numbers, during normal times, the restaurant and its employees survive on serving a mere forty plates a night. Think about that for a second. It’s nothing, but it’s enough to support a place that makes Billings, Montana, which is a nice enough place to live in the first place, a much better place to live.
I’m guessing every interesting place, the kind of place that people visit on special occasions, like an art gallery, a club, or a restaurant that isn’t a part of a chain, has a similarly thin margin.
When one has guest from out of town visiting (back in the olden days) nobody every said, “Oh, you have to try our McDonald’s, it’s one of the best!” No. they say you have to try Lilac, or whatever your own version of Lilac happens to be in your neighborhood. These are the kind of places that we are proud of. Places that we want to share. Places that raise our quality of life.
Ironically, Lilac makes almost the same amount of profit as it did before, the difference is the number of workers on the payroll. There are ten families out there who’ve lost their paycheck. That might not seem like a lot, but it is to those families. When you extrapolate that across all the small business in this small town of about 100,000, it is downright scary.
The kind of food currently being served is a tad different. One can’t properly prepare a monk fish (for example) for takeaway. Lilac modified their menu to be more travel friendly. French fries and fried sandwiches are flying out the window, sea bass, not so much. Call it Covid-Comfort food if you like.
When you put this all together, you’ll find that the restaurant isn’t quite reaching the standards or goals on which it was founded. It’s serving food that is obviously better tasting and healthier than a typical fast-food place, but also kind of similar. Meaning it’s fried and comes out of a box. Not the kind of thing that you’d normally find on the vision board of a respectable chef. Not the kind of business model that is sustainable in the long-run when it comes to fine dining.
And then there’s the jobs. One can easily see how heavily the weight of those lost paychecks sits on Engebretson’s shoulders. It’s tearing him apart. He readily admits he’s drinking too much, too early. The stress of it all is magnified by the fact his wife, the real bread winner of the family, lost her job right when all of this started.
The fast-food industry is doing fine. The drive-thru lines wrap around the block. Micky D’s stock is up. The smart play, if you weren’t a member of the creative class and actually had a choice in the matter, would be to own one of these joints. That’s what they always say, the one’s who play it safe. They’re also the ones who wouldn’t have anything to look forward to on Friday night if it wasn’t for places like Lilac.
We all like the junk to some degree. Wether it’s a greasy bag of burgers (the fries never do make it home), or an episode or two of Top Model… Tyra is fierce and that’s a hill I’m happy to die on, but nobody wants to live on that stuff full-time. It’s impossible. A diet like that makes us lazy and fat, both physically and intellectually.
We need our artists, are creative types, we’re lessor without them. Except for the ones that inspire us in the gym, we are unfortunately greater without them, and I have the sweatpants to prove it.
Le Cirque, was performance art. That’s what we’re really talking about here. The food was spectacular, but that was only half of the show. The other half was the people. People packed together on tables crammed tightly into a small room. Famous people, characters, weirdos, all sitting so close that they could overhear one another’s conversations, entertaining each other.
That’s what Lilac and places like it have. Well, maybe not the famous people, Engebretson is rightly the celebrity in this show, but it certainly has the characters, the weirdos and they are all entertaining each other.
For what it cost to open his place, Engebretson could have easily opened a franchise. He could have played it safe, but that’s not what artists do. Artists take risks, most of which are unnecessary. In return, they make our lives better. There’s huge value in that, but it’s hard to quantify, but forty plates a night, five days a week is a good place to start.
You’ve got your own Lilac, and your own Chef Jeremy, in your neck of the woods. Reach out, order a meal, and buy a gift card. Enjoy the meal today and think of the gift card as a bet you can cash in when your favorite place reopens.