When I first joined the Peace Corps, I wasn’t expecting to use my college degree all that much. Hospitality Management in a Third World Country. I’m thinking that hotel training and restaurant management is probably not on the list of first things that the people in this country are worried about. However, two large projects have fallen into my lap the last month: the Hostel I have already talked about in previous posts, and a high-end café in my village. Website development, marketing education, and financial education have consumed my life these past few weeks. And now product development has been added to that list.
I never thought HRT 484 would ever play a future role in my work. Culinary Product Development and Evaluation was the class I had signed up for two years ago. Little did I know what I was getting myself into. It should have been obvious from the name of the class. For some reason, I was under impression we would be creating products to be used by restaurants. Those absurd machines that can both boil and chop eggs at the same time, open a can of tomato sauce and warm it before it’s even out of the can. But in actuality, we were divided into groups and paired with restaurants. We had to develop a new menu item for each restaurant, test it, and present it to the organization the last week of class. My version of cooking for the first 21 years of my life, sticking a individual frozen meal in the microwave. So you want me to create what?? You’re kidding yourself.
But I also have the philosophy that whatever I start, I finish. It probably dates back to dropping 2nd Semester Calculus my senior year of high school. I hated having to drop that course because I just didn’t it get it. The first day of HRT 484 scared me so much, I almost dropped the class. Especially when our teacher Dr. Chesser told my group we were going to be working with Red Lobster, while every other group was working with a mom and pop shop. No pressure, no pressure at all. I don’t think my expert skills of pressing 1 0 0 ‘start’ would come in handy for this class.
But I decided to stay, thinking this would be a great opportunity to learn and see what it took to make a new menu item for a restaurant. The class was by far the hardest class I ever took, required more time and commitment then the units allotted to the class, and was a lot of pressure for a senior in college to deal with. But my group pushed through, created not just one, but three new menu items for the California chain of Red Lobster, in which case, one was taken to Alpha and Beta testing in Florida, and while our exact fish taco recipe didn’t make the menu, a variation of it was rolled out this past year. Sure we can take no credit for it since it was a school project, but I’d like to think that we four small Collins College students made an impact on a large food chain…right Louis, Marisa, and Adrianne?
So with that class under my belt, the last place I would expect to whip out my HRT 484 skills would be of all places, in a rural village in Madagascar. However, that’s what I’m doing currently. Balika is a quant hotely (café) that is located along the side of RN7, a major highway (if you can call it that) in Madagascar. The atmosphere and owners are very welcoming and love when customers come in. They cater to the higher end customers, the Malagasy population that have some if not any discressionary funds, and you can definitely tell that from the look of the establishment from the street. But that’s the problem, customers. Right next door to Balika are three tiny hotelys. Each has maybe three small tables, enough to squish in ten patrons if everyone nearly sits on each other’s lap. Each sells the same items as Balika but for a cheaper price. Currently, Balika averages three to four patrons a day. Coffee hotely, credit hotely, and soup hotely (as my sitemate and I fondly call them) averages in the upwards of 60. So the problem therefore lies in product. Why go to Balika for pork and rice, if you can go to one of those other three hotelys for maybe half the price? Yes, Balika takes care in properly preparing their food, cooking their meat to the correct temperature and for the right amount of time that you won’t get sick. They SurEau their vegetables, meaning they clean them in a bleach-like solution that will make them sanitary for non-nationals to eat (sidenote: SurEau is essentially one of my best friends in country. When in doubt, SurEau it.) And by far, Balika’s food is the best tasting in town. But villagers in Alakamisy don’t care if the meat is safe to eat, the vegetables are clean to digest, the food tastier than the others. They care about prices. And I’m not going to go tell Balika to lower their prices. They have a great reputation in town, just not enough customers willing to spend the money to eat there. Think of it this way, would you ask Wolfgang Puck to lower the price of his meals because the restaurant next door sells the exact same thing for a fraction of the price? No, because they’re paying for the service, the experience, the quality of food.
So this got me thinking, how can Balika still cater to high end customers but have more money coming into their organization? First I thought, Friday karaoke nights, a Monthly Movie club, etc. All great ideas I might present in our next meeting. But then I came to the conclusion, what Balika needs is something that other hotelys don’t have. A food item that is not easily copied by other hotelys but easy enough to make. And affordable enough that villagers can come in, eat it, and be on their way. They can still provide their amazing food for the customers that wish to eat at the establishment, but also have a reputation for having the best/only ice cream, chocolate pudding, fruit sandwich, etc in town. An inexpensive food item, with a large profit, and a constant income of money into the business.
Now, all I need is a food item to test on the general public….