Ralph Higgins

Ralph Higgins
color pencil sketch by Gayle Higgins

Quotes I Like

"If you do not take an interest in the affairs of your government, then you are doomed to live under the rule of fools."

– Plato


Monday, July 7, 2014

Business Then and Now

     Retirement has its advantages, but it can also been boring at times; especially if you’ve had an active life, full of challenges and adventures.  Lately I’ve been thinking of starting another business.  I’ve started several in the past, but that idea runs into a wall when I consider the regulations and government rules designed to discourage entrepreneurial endeavors.  I guess I’m too old to put up with it all.

            The last business I owned was a gas station, mini mart, car wash, and deli operation that I bought to give me something to do in retirement.  The financial books looked good and the previous owner told me that the “business runs itself.” The books were accurate, but no business runs itself.

            I hired managers and too many employees, so in addition to overhead costs, I spent the five years of ownership dealing with the ABC, the Dept. of Weights and Measures, the EPA, the Health Department, the ATF, the IRS, and a few other governmental agencies that don’t come to mind at the moment. 

            I remember that in the early ‘70s, when I was teaching high school, writing books, and playing in night clubs to support my family of seven, I decided to build a restaurant in Sonora, California.  I called it the “Relay Station” playing on the Pony Express theme.

            I leased a building that was once a feed store and later a strip joint and took a summer to convert it into a rustic restaurant, reminiscent of the old west.  A year or so later a liquor license became available at a reasonable price, so we added a full bar. I took an option on the real estate, which I exercised after one year.  I had a partner, who ran a restaurant in Santa Cruz, and with a few friends, we converted the building into a very cool steak house. 

            We scoured the hills for barn wood and antiques for an “old west” feel.  We used an ocean buoy as a pressure tank to pump water up the hill from a well to the building and dug a trench by hand in 100 degree-plus heat for the pipe. 

            We made our own tables out of hatch covers and built the facade of old western buildings along the inside walls with authentic antique porcelain doorknobs. Customers could feel like they were eating on the front porch of an old western building.  We even had the traditional swinging doors leading into the bar.

The name designed to be "eye-catching."  (Prior to the fire) 

            I painted the name at an angle in huge letters on the side of the building, purposely leaving off part of the last letter as a way of drawing attention.  It was so hot that I almost passed out standing on the ladder and the paint dried as soon as it hit the wall.  I remember a drunk running up to me trying to warn me that I didn’t have room for that last letter of “Relay Station.”    

            We slept on the saw-dust covered floor, tossed pieces of wood at rats for fun, bathed in the river, and lived on Cool-Aid and bologna sandwiches.   We bought chairs, ovens, stoves, refrigerators, ice machines, dishes, and all the equipment needed for a restaurant operation from restaurant supply stores in San Francisco.  Amazingly, in six weeks time we opened for our first meal. 

Sitting in front of a western facade with my mother.
            I have to admit that I had some pretty creative marketing ideas that resulted in a packed house on opening night.  None of us knew what we were doing as we stumbled over each other trading off as waiters, cooks, or dishwashers. 

            Waiters crashed into each other through the swinging door of the kitchen.  But it was a huge success.  Once we got our balance the restaurant became known as the best place for steaks in the entire county and when film crews made movies in the vicinity, the crew and stars always ate at the “Relay Station.”

            At the end of that very tough summer, I turned the operation of the business over to my partner and went back for the start of the school year as a teacher and band director.

Talking to a vendor with my mother.  Note barn wood walls
           My restaurant concept was to have a 
string of these “Relay Stations” throughout the “Mother Lode,” primarily at the small former mining towns along Highway 49.  

            Unfortunately a fire destroyed the building sometime during the height of our success. We immediately rebuilt and expanded our menu to include lobster and other more expensive items.  This was a mistake. Food costs and labor costs buried us after previous successful years.  In addition, I was hired to write music books for a major New York publisher and lost focus on the restaurant.

View from across the highway.  Note 40 cent gas price.
            But the clincher was that I heard about drug dealing out of the bar.  I put a lock on the business that same day.  We sold the building and equipment and I spent the next two years paying off creditors.  But it was a great adventure and that’s what I like about life – the adventure.

            I got carried away with this story.  The purpose of the article was to demonstrate how easy it was, even in the early ‘70s, to get through all the permits and requirements to build and open a full restaurant operation in six weeks time.  We had room to improvise, like the water pressure tank, and we had building permit latitude.  You sure can’t do something like that today. Our benevolent government shuts down children’s lemonade stands due to permit requirements. 

            The more I think about it, in today’s business environment, retirement may actually make sense.


  1. Ralph, that's why so many are starting online or consultant business'. This avoids all the permits but still does involve all the laws and licences.

    1. That sure makes sense - especially when you don't live in an urban area. But soon the government will find ways to tax and regulate the internet too.

      We're glad to see that your plans have firmed up for a visit this month.