Menu choices

It’s odd really. There’s a, to me, overwhelming desire to have a long menu where I can hope to please everyone. But then there’s the fact that there’s not much room to store things. Also, I really want to deal with “exceptional finds”, where I suddenly get some wonderful large traditional ham, or maybe there’s a new shipment of rare raw milk cheese that I just had to get a piece of. If I prepare a fixed menu ahead of time, I could do specials,  but again there’s that space thing.

So the decision is made for now. I’ll have a chalk board. It will have room for 2 or 3 savoury galettes that change when I get a new batch of fresh, tasty, high quality ingredients. There will be a couple of sweet crêpes fillings that will also depend on availability. Not forgetting the small number of “the usual pastries” that I’ll make regularly once things settle down. I’ll post the current menu whenever it changes. Some items will be recurring options for when I don’t have a wonderful new find to share. Others will be here and gone, like a young summer passion.

I can only hope people appreciate the approach.

Minor scheduling hiccup

Slight change to the plans. Due to a scheduling hiccup where our inspector is away for a week, then we’re away for two weeks, it looks like our health authority application is going to be delayed. Nobody’s fault really, just unlucky scheduling.

This shouldn’t affect our planned grand opening on 8 May, but depending on how quickly things move after we get back it might result in us not being able to do any pre-opening days in late April.

Odd things about Canadian pricing

What’s stranger than having to get a US mailing address in Port Angeles, Washington to get stuff delivered from a company in Kodak, Tennessee, that’s then shipped from a company in Chicago?

When the item in question, a Garland SunFire X60-6R24RR, is MADE IN CANADA, and was originally shipped from Mississauga before being sent to the USA, where it sold for FAR less than a Canadian distributor was willing to sell it for.

In my opinion there’s something wrong with a country where we have to shop internationally in order to get deals on stuff made in our own country. Where we simply cannot get those deals unless we buy it from outside the country. This isn’t the only example. There are many instances of products made in Canada that are actually more expensive to buy in Canada than the USA.

Oh, and the range is now at our place. Next event: getting the sucker into the trailer. THAT will be entertaining! I’ll try to take and post a video of the process, assuming anyone survives.

Automation – part 2

This was meant to be a 3 part post about monitoring temperature: decide to do it, describe the installation, then a bit later review how it’s working out for me. The more I learn though, the more I think it’s now going to be a serialized novel, or at least have much more than 3 parts.

In this chapter, I decided that it might be useful to go through the process I’ve used to get to this point. How am I approaching this research and design project, and why am I selecting the products I’ve selected so far.

In short, the process was:

Normally, at this point the “best” solution would present itself. The first part would simply have served as a look into the progress on a field that I’m already familiar with. However, this is a technological field that I’m definitely not very familiar with yet, so I decided to do extra research to see if my currently determined price point is valid, or to see if my requirements are either too limited, or too broad. That means that the above process is repeated several times, and I’ll stop when I stop finding new solutions or new ways to do things. So far each time I’ve repeated the loop above I’ve learned something new, so I’m still repeating the loop. I’m not counting how many times I’ve done this. Research is fun!

Looking at what already exists

So far my iteration of searches have found a real mess. The area is rife with proprietary solutions that are big on marketing, and very low on what they’re actually offering. There are also far too many providers who categorically refuse to put out even a ballpark price for their “solutions”, instead requiring that you talk to a salesperson to “discuss your needs”. This is an approach I’ve seen a lot in several industries, and each time I’ve gone ahead and talked to a salesperson, all they had to offer was a high pressure sales pitch for a fixed “solution” that might or might not meet my needs.

Individually, the sensors themselves are a commodity product that sells for $1 each, retail, and much less in bulk.  Unfortunately, they’re being re-packaged into proprietary solutions that are then being sold for anything from hundreds to thousands of dollars. I can see the reason for some of those costs – low volume, for one. But that doesn’t excuse some of the apparent attempts at gouging that I’m seeing.

So far I’ve seen three general types of companies:

  • the companies that claim they have a solution, and have beautifully crafted marketing brochures that don’t actually give any details. They also refuse to give ANY details online and want you to call to talk to a salesperson. In my opinion, these people are stuck in the pre-internet days when information wasn’t readily available. I won’t be dealing with these companies. Ever.
  • the companies that offer fixed solutions, with zero flexibility and only one or two hugely underpowered products that don’t even meet the needs of a single-person kitchen, then a huge jump to enterprise level systems meant for huge commercial kitchens.  Nothing in-between. They’ll have some information about the systems, but not a lot since there’s no flexibility. I might deal with one of these, assuming that one of their low-end systems actually meets my needs. So far, no luck.
  • the companies that offer solutions that more or less scale, and aren’t afraid to put their prices, technical data, and other information online for people to be able to make decisions on their own. These are the companies I’ll be looking at. Luckily, there are several of them out there.

Determining initial requirements

This was easy, but it’s still being decided. Count things I want to measure. Add it up. The tricky part was determining what was even possible, and what is “must have” vs “nice to have”. At the moment, my personal list is:

  • Must have:
    • Alerts to my phone (either direct SMS, or email-to-SMS gateway).
    • An alert strobe or audible alarm for when I’m actually on the trailer and not paying attention to the phone. I can then check the unit to see what set the alarm off.
    • I will take care of internet connectivity – either through a home wifi network (when the trailer is parked at home or close to a hotspot I have access to) or through a GSM mobile hotspot if I determine I need one.
    • 3 wired temperature sensors: fridge, freezer, and water system to prevent freezing in winter.
    • 1 wired motion sensor for a simplistic alarm system.
    • 1 wired power sensor: since my refrigeration is solely on the trailer and a power failure is kind of critical if I’m not there to notice, and it would be useful to have a warming before the temperatures get critical.
  • Extra safety stuff: (probably “must have” at some point, assuming I can find a vendor that sells these for less than $EEK!)
    • Propane leak detector
    • Carbon dioxide detector – esp in winter when I close the trailer doors.
  • Nice to have
    • No monthly charges. I want to buy a solution and not be charged for it over and over. Then again, a cloud solution lets me avoid having to do too much I.T. work in the trailer, I can see myself liking this benefit.
    • 1 wired air flow to alert me if venting stops
    • chlorine sensor so I don’t have to continuously remember to use test strips.
    • generator fuel level – I may need to go wireless since the generator will hopefully be located away from the trailer when possible. Still, it’s not big deal to check the level a couple of times per day, so not really required. A toy.
    • propane gas level in cylinders – this is a bit more important, as I’ll be using large amounts at certain times and running out would be bad. But this is a “later” thing, since usage is low to start, so I can check the levels manually much less often.

As you can see, just for the “must have” I’m already up to about 5 or 6 sensors and one output relay. Some rather expensive “starter” solutions assume that I’ll need no more than four. So I’m already looking at mid-level systems here, just for a fairly simple trailer. I can only guess what they consider “starter”.

Pricing out solutions

Since the companies I’ve decided to deal with aren’t afraid to put their prices online, or have suppliers that provide those prices, this wasn’t that difficult either. I even managed to find Canadian distributors for some of the solutions of interest, which saves a lot of hassle since American companies often don’t realize Canada exists.

However, pricing is odd. Many companies use proprietary connectors that won’t work with any other products. Even though the actual physical cost of the sensor they’re selling is about $1, they’re selling these for anything from $12 to $120 each! All because they use proprietary connectors, so they know that if you pick their product you have to buy sensors from them. So one company has an expensive central unit that uses inexpensive sensors, and another has a cheaper central unit that makes me purchase expensive sensors. At the minimal configurations the prices are similar. As soon as you start to build up with more sensors suddenly the price differences get really serious.

… to be continued.

Health Authority application

In today’s news, we reveal that I submitted the first Health Authority application yesterday. I say “first” because I fully expect at least a few rounds of “you forgot this” or “could you re-word that”. I’d consider that “normal” and I’m not all that worried about it.

I would like to say that dealing with the Health Authority has so far been fairly pleasant. Some might wonder at the need for all that oversight, or question it as little more than make-work folderol.  The way I look at it is that one, just one confirmed case of food poisoning can destroy not just my business, but might also destroy me financially, plus the impact on those poisoned. In a risk assessment, this would be called a “high impact” event. If ignored it becomes a “high probability” event. The worst combination, requiring that I deal with it.

The best way to deal with this is to adopt a mitigation strategy of controlling the risk, to turn it into a “low probability” event. The most effective way I know of to do that is to follow the generally evidence-based rules and guidelines provided by the Heath Authority, and cooperate with the inspections because they’re done to make sure I’m following all those risk reducing policies and procedures that I wrote. It’s a team effort, geared towards one goal: don’t poison people. I can get behind that goal.

It helps of course to have inspectors who also understand the situation that way, instead of them being power-mad martinets who hate their job and whose only purpose is to make everyone miserable. Luckily, the inspector I’m likely to get isn’t one of those people.

The kitchen has landed!

It’s taken a while, but we have a kitchen! The trailer is now sitting our driveway, waiting for all the work it needs to get it ready for action.  As promised, here’s the first “before” picture, before anything happens to it.

Bistro Breizh trailer, before.
Bistro Breizh trailer as it looks when we first got it.

Still lots of work to do of course. Kitchen needs some remodelling inside to accommodate a crêperie, and the outside needs some decoration and a couple of accessories before we’re ready to roll. But it’s really happening folks!

Temperature monitoring automation – part 1

I’m working through the final design phase of the food safety plan, and one thing that strikes me is the need for temperature logging. Lots and lots of temperature logging. Yet nowhere in the documents I’ve been given so far is any discussion of what tools to use other than a hand thermometer and a sheet of paper. Now, this might have been just fine a generation ago, but in today’s world it seems that wasting so much time manually transcribing this information is not only inefficient, but ineffective. The time interval it’s done at almost guarantees disaster when the problem is actually discovered. A single refrigerator failure early after closing time can cost a restaurant thousands in wasted food that is then thrown out the following morning, not to mention the lost business from not having any inventory on hand for that day’s work!  There is a solution that avoids this risk entirely.

As some know my background is in computers.  Over the years I’ve worked with systems administration, process automation, and disaster planning/mitigation/recovery. Since the easiest way to make sure food stays safe is to make sure it stays outside of the “danger zone” (specifically 4°C to 60°C), controlling that temperature is possibly the most important step.  Yet all that’s proposed for doing that is a manual thermometer check every 2 hours, only during working hours, written on a piece of paper. It might work, sort of. A large restaurant probably has the resources to use someone’s time doing this, and has the resources to recover when it goes wrong. But for the smaller restaurant with limited staff and zero spare time this problem just screams for an automated solution. ESPECIALLY in a food truck, where staff is going to hopefully be busy as all get-out, does not have the time to make these important checks, and where getting it wrong can become much worse than just a financial disaster.

In this case, however, there is an easy technical solution. One that’s been around for many, many decades. Temperature data logging with alarms. Today’s products are ubiquitous, fairly easy to set up, and some are even inexpensive. Personally, unless I find something that better meets my requirements in the next week or two I’m probably going to order either the TemperatureAlert WIFI or Watchdog 100 (edit:02Mar) or SensaPhone 600 or some other unit I might find. Unlike many of their competitors they provide useful descriptions and prices online, their product is reasonable priced, and they meet the requirements I have. Instead of readings every 2 hours only during business hours, I can have readings every 5 minutes every hour of every day. With warnings to my mobile and/or email that something is going wrong BEFORE it becomes a real problem, and with enough time to fix things before it costs too much. I’m leaning towards the Watchdog product as it might be a bit more flexible, although it’s a bit more expensive.

Part 2 will deal with the purchase, installation, configuration, and use of the solution I’ve chosen. Let’s hope it goes well.