Sunday, November 16, 2014
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Saturday, October 25, 2014
If you'd like to read a few fun entries from my trip blog, they're at:
Wednesday, September 17, 2014
Okay, now I'm bombarding you with stories, as I will be doing for the newspaper. I have a whole cache of them prepared for when we're gone, so here you go with the next one
How does one control a boisterous biergartenful of customers, during peak World Cup action, with Germany whupping Argentina?
Worse, try managing a crowd of opinionated German diners, each of whose mother made the perfect potato pancake according to her own inimitable recipe.
This calls for a mix of Teutonic sass and beauty, alongside the experience of a 6-foot-3 German athlete, drill instructor, celebrity bodyguard, and events coordinator. Meet hosts Sandra and Rainer Ruhland, of Punta Gorda’s Sandra’s Restaurant.
Oktoberfest for such a pair should be a piece of Apfelstrudel.
The dimpled beauty on this team grew up in East Germany before the Berlin Wall fell. Rainer came from a different world: Ludwigshafen, in the West.
Already shaping up as an athlete, Rainer started equestrian camp at 7, was a tennis pro at 17, and had a trainer’s certificate by the end of high school.
Then, like all German youths, he was drafted for a 6-month army stint. On duty when the Wall came down, he marvels, “Before that, we hadn’t seen the other side. We drove over the border, and there they were, armed, mounted on tanks, ready for war, like we were the enemy!”
He enlisted for two more years, becoming an officer. “As a drill instructor, I had to motivate kids who didn’t want to be there. To expect someone to do something, you must do it yourself, so I became one of those DI’s whom they’d bet each other they could beat.” Mostly, Rainer won.
Given his experience and athleticism, a natural career choice was launching a 50-person security company covering events for universities, clubs, the women’s tennis Federation Cup, even the fierce Adler Mannheim ice hockey team.
He worked with many tennis players, including legends Anke Huber and Steffi Graf. One of his first bodyguard jobs was a trial-by-fire assignment handling volatile tennis dad Peter Graf, who earned the nickname “Papa Merciless” for his iron-fisted mismanagement of Steffi’s career and winnings.
One day, after Steffi retired, an agency called and said, “Rainer, how would you like to go to Barcelona to Formula One?”
“What do you need me to do?” he asked.
“First you drive the Porsche director’s wife to Barcelona. Then you escort the nephew of King Juan Carlos of Spain around for a week. We’ll pay you ten grand. The only problem is, we need Alfonso up at 8 every morning, and he never is.”
Rainer smiled to himself. “No problem.”
So he rousted the handsome young royal out each morning at 6. Turns out they were the same age, Alfonso showed him the time of his life in Barcelona, and he got paid for having fun.
Then a career with Porsche, as events manager on the Formula One circuit. Porsche backed Rainer’s ordering a million-dollar, 40-foot truck with a built-in 5-star kitchen, walk-in freezer and fridge, ice machine, and dishwasher. Hospitality tents flanking each side ran twin buffets where Austrian chefs served thousands of mechanics, drivers, and VIPs. Talk about Dinner Impossible.
“So now I cooked, too. Of course, I’d always liked cooking, since my mother taught me. We serve her recipes at Sandra’s.”
It was back in Germany during the 2006 World Cup that Rainer met the restaurant’s namesake while she was waitressing at a Ludwigshafen café. After months of her knowing exactly what he’d order, he proffered his phone number. Sandra, no easy catch, staunchly refused to call him. He finally had to ask the owner for her number.
Once he was a family man, the 18-hour-day pace became punishing. Sandra laments, “He’d be home only one day, doing laundry and paperwork. This was no life.”
Rainer knew Florida, so in 2008 they bought a house in Englewood, where they opened their own German place—in a trailer a bit more modest than his 40-foot rolling galley—next to Beach Road Snack Bar.
“In September 2011, we ran into a German friend in Punta Gorda, who knew a turnkey-ready place, just the right size. We figured, Punta Gorda’s not bad, eh?”
At first customers complained, “This food came out too fast! You microwaved it!” Wrong. Rainer knew how to cater for thousands, prep for and handle a crowd, and revel in promoting special events.
Tennis is still his life, too. His and Sandra’s 5-year-old, Nils, has been playing since he was 3. Rainer plays in the USTA, participates in Punta Gorda’s annual Shoes for Kids Tennis Shoot-Out, and gives lessons to talented kids who couldn’t otherwise afford to play. Given his exposure to the Peter Graf school of sports parenting, it’s no surprise to see him taking a nobler path.
Wednesday, September 17, 2014
What favorite place might you leave not smelling as good as you feel? If you’re a cigar aficionado--a cigar bar.
Pity the poor cigar smoker. Venues for smoking are few, and that stinky stogie compels even liberal barkeeps to fling up “No Cigar Smoking” signs. Smoke a cigar in the comfort of your family room, watching college ball with a Yuengling in hand? “Are you kidding me? If I’m lucky, the better half might let me smoke in the garage. With the door open. And a fan on.”
In the day, gentlemen could retire to the library to make or break deals over an after-dinner cognac and cigar, while the ladies gathered to do whatever they did in the parlor. For God’s sake, how could a lady get herself a cigar?
Lynn Davies could. She was such a serious archaeology/fine arts major at Florida State that she didn’t even know what a ‘Nole was until sophomore year. And yet, this studious young lady had cigar smoke in her veins. Eldest child of a Lee County judge who smoked “really nasty” cigars at home, Lynn is unquestionably her father’s daughter. “Firstborns are usually overkill and have to live up to those expectations,” she grins.
Ever since a Cuban émigré buddy introduced Lynn to her first primo cigar in 1993, she hasn’t stopped. In fact, she claims to have smoked each of over 30 brands and countless singles, boxes, bundles, samplers, and limited editions carried by her and husband Bill’s Port Charlotte cigar emporium, Tobacco Locker.
Lynn and Bill met over cigars, on a cruise. After a year of cross-country courtship, they moved together to Florida. Wherever they went, they gathered cigars—to the tipping point where Bill made a purchase and Lynn groaned, “If we collect any more, we’ll have to open a store.” His eyes lit up, and the rest is history.
When they moved into their current location 7 years ago, they filled its 1,000 square feet with scientifically humidified inventory and began selling online (tobaccolocker.com). Four years ago, the couple added a living room to the store.
The Locker is tucked away in a mini industrial park off Collingswood, so it takes some word of mouth to draw customers in. But the word is out. Here you can sink deep into a leather club chair and relax like nowhere else.
Consider this your other living room and kitchen, where you can help yourself to a cigar and craft beer or wine, with Bill or Lynn recommending the perfect pairings. You might even have your own cedar-lined cigar locker with a brass plaque engraved “Tiger Man” or “The Godfather,” and conduct likeminded conversations with other connoisseurs.
“There’s a surge of interest in the cigar business,” says Lynn, and there’s no question that Florida, with Cuban enclaves like Tampa’s Ybor City and Miami, is its hub.
Clients come from all over--Venice, Punta Gorda, Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Bonita Springs--seeking the quality and variety of Tobacco Locker cigars. Any given day, you might find doctors, lawn care pros like Dave Precht, CEOs, the mayor of North Port, or Vince Powers, disabled for years, all hanging out in a cloud of camaraderie. “They’re very accepting of everyone here,” says Vince. “And there’s no membership fee!”
Lynn agrees, “We have a good crowd. Smoking cigars is a social event, so when new people come in, it’s easy for them to join the conversation.”
The Davieses recently took 28 clients on a road trip to see their own cigar factory in Nicaragua—a casa (“house”) where workers roll cigars and tend the tobacco.
They give back through fundraisers for the Cigar Family Charitable Foundation, a nonprofit created by the cigar-making Fuente and Newman families to provide education and health services to poor families in the Dominican Republic. They also work with the Cigars for Warriors organization, through which they serve online customers in Afghanistan. One of them, John Callahan, just returned from his third tour.
What does Lynn’s dad, now a former cigar smoker, make of all this? He congratulates them, laughing, “When the big bust comes, you’ll have something to barter with!”
Wednesday, September 17, 2014
“Where you going, Kayoon?”
“To the market! I need more candy!”
Was this the whine of a chubby kid, giddy with a little extra allowance? Hardly. It was the excited cry of a 12-year-old Bangkok entrepreneur.
Kayoon (June) had spread newspapers on the floor, laid out an array of brightly wrapped treats for sale, and experienced her first taste of business success. She had exhausted her stock, made a 104-baht ($5) profit, and was already darting down a crowded Bangkok street to reinvest.
At 13, she advanced to street cooking: meatball-on-a-stick, with her own sweet-and-sour sauce, and flavored gelatin in a cup. “I was like a kid with a lemonade stand,” smiles June Tang, now chef-owner of a much larger enterprise: Royal Thai Restaurant in Punta Gorda.
Her parents had long ago left a life of poverty in rural China in search of the opportunities Bangkok offered. There they ran a successful leather-goods business, producing everything from belts to briefcases, and were no strangers to hard work, rising every day at 5 a.m. and stopping only for meals.
June worked hard, too. “I wanted a bicycle so bad, and I saved money to buy one. My parents said, ‘That’s a man thing, you can’t do that.’ But in college, I bought a motorcycle even though everybody thought it was weird.” Off went June, buzzing around the wildly congested Bangkok streets before girls were supposed to do any such thing.
After graduation, her parents didn’t expect her ever to leave home, because extended Chinese-Thai families stay together. At the tender age of 22, she was running the family business’s leather-goods showrooms all over Thailand. “I loved it! I was good at it!” she crows.
But it wasn’t enough. June was her parents’ daughter, after all, and seeking opportunities.
“I thought about America all the time, ever since I was little. It was more independent there, men and women more equal. I loved my parents, but they kept telling me, ‘You’re not allowed, you’re not allowed,’ so I wanted to go to America.”
At 28, June moved in with a cousin’s family in Memphis, where she worked two jobs, went to school, and visited Graceland as often as possible.
Years later, her friends finally convinced her to take a break and visit West Palm Beach. At a Ft. Lauderdale country club she landed a job—as well as assistant chef Eddie Tang from Hong Kong. “I never moved back to Tennessee!” she laughs.
Working their way through two country clubs, as chef and assistant chef, June felt this was what she was always meant to do. When she and Eddie had saved enough, they agreed, “We both love to cook; let’s open our own business.”
So, 24 years ago, on a 1.5-acre parcel of land in the boondocks, on a two-lane country road, they opened Royal Thai Restaurant and raised their daughter.
As effervescent and energetic as June is, her daughter, Christina, now 27, is the picture of calm groundedness, competently learning all aspects of the family business. “Ma and I run the business, and I love cooking as much as she does. All my life, I’ve lived at the restaurant, 16 hours a day. After school, I’d come here and do homework in my office in back. Home is just a house to sleep in and hold our stuff.”
It’s hard for Westerners to fathom the love and respect that binds Asian-American families so fast. In this land of freedom that June so yearned for, kids can’t wait to get a job, their license, a car, an apartment--and leave home. “I’m first generation in the States,” says Christina. “It’s sad to me that so many Asian kids become Americanized and don’t speak the language or hold onto the culture. We still go home every year to see family.”
Christina went away to start college and had been accepted at an Orlando pastry school, her dream. But when her father fell ill with cancer, she didn’t hesitate to move home to help at the restaurant.
“I hear from my friends, so often, ‘Your mom is living with you?’ I say, of course, it’s normal to live together, not weird at all. It’s my choice to live with my mom. It’s part of Thai culture. It’s not common for American extended families to live together, but it is in Thai culture.”
It’s a small thing, but symbolic, that Christina still gives June a good-morning and a goodnight kiss, every single day.
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