Saturday, November 23, 2013

Real Jobs Series: Samantha from Sierra Water Gardens, The Wedge Ceramics Studio and Stremmel Auctions

*all photos courtesy of Sierra Water Gardens.

I am crazy excited to share Sam's story as the first in this series.  Sam owns my very favorite (FAVORITE) Reno shop, Sierra Water Gardens, as well as a ceramics studio across the street, AND she helps out with the family auctions business.  I met Sam a couple of years ago at Sierra Water Gardens after my mother tried for weeks to get me to go to "the pond shop" (sparking quietly worried conversations between my brother and me about what exactly our mother was pawning).  Finally, one of our mother-daughter days out found us at Sierra Water Gardens and I haven't been able to shut up about the place since.  They are a shop/nursery with a fantastic selection of beautiful and interesting water plantssucculents and air plants, but they are also a beautiful and welcome retreat right outside the heart of the city, with commerce gracefully and cleverly worked into the property.  Sam and Sutter live on the riverfront property and have gravel paths winding through numerous ponds, the whole things strung over with cafe lights.  They've balanced this soft tranquility with modern touches, including structural planters and a stunning greenhouse full of creatively arranged Tillandsia and an inspiring vertical gardening display.  It's pretty magical.  (Side note: Sam provided all of the beautiful air plants I used to make my wedding bouquet, sparking my verging-on-unhealthy devotion to her and her shop.)

I'm so grateful to Sam for launching this Real Job Series.  She has such a unique experience and her answers are clearly very personal and honest and a perfect representation of her.  Enjoy!

Age(ish): 26. 

Tell us a little about the iterations of your career aspirations:
I've never aspired to have a certain career....hence I graduated MSU with an English Literature degree. I knew I didn't want to teach. I didn't want to work at a desk. So I guess I knew what I did not want to do which helped eliminate things. I also knew I didn't care about money. If I liked what I did then I would be fine I figured. However, I graduated college and I found out making money was pretty important to functioning in society. 

What has been your work history to this point?
I grew up working on my family's vegetable farm. So we grew organic vegetables and sold them at Farmer's Markets in Kalispell, MT and Whitefish, MT. I liked it when I worked there in my 20's, but hated it growing up. Looking back I'm grateful. Then I worked at a local nursery called Hooper's Nursery owned by our neighbors. In college I was a nude model for the Montana State University Art Department for 2 years. In the summer's I worked for Glacier Raft Company in West Glacier. Then I worked in a coffee shop as a barista for 3 years. Now I work at Sierra Water Gardens, The Wedge Ceramics Studio and Stremmel Auctions. 

Current job title(s): Owner, manager, and everything else with my husband for our two businesses. I am the tech, web site manager, clerk and registrar for another business. 

How many hours are dedicated to your job each week?
I'm not entirely sure all the time. During the busy season 84 hours a week or more. I'm trying to cut that back and be more efficient with things. We don't have any employees. In the fall winter season 40 hours a week to 20 hours a week. 

Do you have flexibility in your schedule?
Yes and no. Yes in the winter. No in the summer; I am tied so tight to the job. We live where we work so I can be out at night watering and someone can yell over the fence and if I'm in sight I have to answer. Even just to say we're closed, or sometimes let people in to walk around or buy koi food. We can't afford for people to have bad experiences so when it comes to the customer, I can't be flexible with my time. This year we were better about it, but we are working on creating separation between work and our non-work life.

How did you get this job?
Bought one. It was in foreclosure with the property and home. Took a lot of work to get it going again in so many ways. Sutter and I built the other together. The third is Sutter's family's business. 

Is a job in this field something you specifically pursued?
Not really. I wanted to own my own business someday and that was about it. I would say we had opportunities and it is what we did with these opportunities that created our jobs.  

What factors played into you taking this job?
Timing. We had graduated college with English Literature degrees and didn't want to go to grad school and we didn't want to teach. So we were open to possibilities. We also wanted to own our own businesses. Maybe also being stubborn and not worrying about things we should have been worrying about.

Is the job what you expected?
Yes and no. In practical terms yes. The basics of running both businesses are what we expected. But the emotional toll has been tough. I've learned so much in 3 years and the most traumatic is the emotional roller coaster. The highs are so good, but when things get stressful, there is no going home and forgetting about it. I'm still learning about how to deal with certain situations and keeping my emotions out of things so I can deal with it. ALSO… saying No. I'm a people pleaser personality so I have had to learn to say No for my own emotional health. No is a complete sentence. Although I say No thank you. But with all the craziness and hard work and stress it fulfills me like I thought owning a business would. I've learned so much more than I ever thought I would about business and myself. And being about to run businesses with my husband has not been the nightmare everyone told me it would be. We have grown together and at the end of the day, if we talk about work we know exactly what the other person is talking about and our empathy for situations or joy for situations is shared. I love being able to share these experiences with my husband. We've had times where we've had to learn how to work together and respect each other. And we've had to keep any argument or personal frustration with each other out of our business. I know my job is not about my husband, but working with him is the biggest part of my job and a huge joy. We also thought we could do our own accounting and we were wrong. We hired an accountant because we were doing the accounting after a 12 hour day and that was not good for our books or our personal health. It is also hard because sometimes one of us has to make an executive decision without the other and then hopefully we agree. 

One business pays our bills and takes care of our needs. 'Wants' are a different story. We sometimes have a little extra to do fun things, but not often. If we have extra money in the business accounts, we save it to pay bills or improve our property. Our home is on our property where our business is so our business pays for our home. That is so nice and truly makes owning a small business possible for us. Our overhead is low; we are the only employees, we rarely advertise, don't have company vehicles and we don't commute.  The other business was built from what we made at our purchased business and now sustains itself. We make no money at our second business for ourselves. Every cent gets put back into the studio for supplies, bills etc. but Sutter has a studio to work in, and that was the idea and reason we created our second business. . It is feast or famine, and we have to budget so that what we make during the summer can pay the bills through the winter. So income is hard to track, but we talked about the value of our businesses and if we ever sold….. and our lifestyle and sense of purpose is priceless and worth more than any money.

Outline for us an average work day for you:
During our busy spring and summer season we are open 7 days a week. I wake up in the morning get lots of coffee brewed, check emails, Facebook, return phone calls. Maybe shower, get ready for the day. Then, about 7 or 8 a.m. we get outside to water, pick up dog poop, rake, clean up outside, fill the ponds if they are low on water, check the koi tanks. Back flush tanks. If I have time we can run a couple errands, make deposits or check on a couple ponds that are in our Sacred Koi Club. At some point one of us will run over to the studio to check on things. Then we open the shop at 10am and we are usually busy with customers until close at 5:30 helping pick out pond plants, explaining pond plants, trouble shooting algae problems, listening to koi pond stories from customers, watering plants, rearranging displays but we are usually interrupted by customers so the task might be left half finished for a while. Then we get a delivery and I have to open the box take inventory, price things, get them on the shelf. Again we often get interrupted, which is a good thing! But we have to get product out on the shelf quickly because we often have people coming to get it. Then we catch koi out of the tanks, put them in bags with oxygen. We do a lot of talking throughout the day with people answering questions, giving tours and hanging out with friends that stop by. Oh did we get something to eat? This last year I got better at preparing lunch meals the night before or in the morning. But it is so easy for our day to get started without us and then by 2pm we are both crashing. So this is something we have had to work on. And drinking lots of water, which seems easy, but is not always. Sometimes we have events going on at the Wedge so we end up running back and forth. We don't have totally average days, but the nice thing is we are rarely bored. I do get tired of explaining how UV lights work or what options are for combating algae. And things I take for granted as common knowledge about koi ponds and water plants are often things I need to explain over and over to different customers and I feel like a broken record. And then there is the circumstance where we work so hard and people come in and don't want to spend anything, taking up all of our time asking questions, and I mean hours of our time, and then they go buy everything online. That is hard, but then when we spend hours answering questions and the customer buys everything from us it really pays off. So we have to take our time with everyone and hope we've done a good enough job for people to want to spend their hard earned money with us. So our day is spent trying to make every customer happy and making our place a place where people can have a special experience. Because my husband and I are the only ones who take care of our customers, we have relationships with all of them. As our season slows down we spend more time making sure our place looks good, or over taking care of the studio more. And we take more time to have a beer in the afternoon and make sure we have a good lunch. Sutter or I can take time and go do things and leave the shop to one of us. We close for the season Oct. 15 and then we have a lot more flexibility and we take advantage of sometimes doing nothing or going fishing or traveling. We also spend time planning classes and events for next year  for both businesses and setting up and doing auctions. 

How much of your energy do you invest in your job? Do you feel it's a good trade for you?
I put in 100% of my energy. Sometimes I don't have much energy, but of what I have I give 100%. I love the trade. I have a lifestyle I enjoy and I know every year we are getting better about time, business, and personal management.With owning our own business we "eat what we kill", or, the harder and smarter we work, the more we make. What we get out is a result of what we put in. We also live and work on the Truckee River. We love being able to fly fish and enjoy our river front property. So if the business does not work out, at least we have a nice place we like to live or could sell. 

Is there room in your job for personal progress or promotion? Is that something that's important to you or that you seek out?
There is always room for personal progress or promotion. And it is very important to me. Everyday I want our business to be better and to look better. I want to learn more and know more. Be better to myself and to my customers. I want to grow personally and I want our business to grow. I like working and doing a good job, it is fulfilling for me. But i also like to be creative and spontaneous. So I have lots of room to work and play throughout the year. It feels good when people want to be at our business and be our customers. And I would love for our businesses, one or both to be featured in a magazine…. like Sunset….. and that would feel good to me. Not only would that help our business, but Reno as well. A rising tide lifts all ships.

What are some things you find fulfilling about your job?
Doing a good job. The challenge. Working with my husband and being about to hang out with our dogs and cats all day. Being creative. Learning new things. Having the freedom to do what I want with our businesses and not having to wait for a boss make a change. We also work our own land, which pays the mortgage on the land. We are the captains of our own ship. 

What are some things that you find challenging about your job?
Separating work and personal life. Defining our own personal space when we allow people into our backyard all day. Keeping the face of our business fresh, so customers see something new and different each time they walk in. Keeping our inventory alive. Keeping it clean, because it is displayed outdoors. Retail environments can also be difficult. Competing with the internet. Answering the same questions all the time and being nice about it. Working with my husband. Being inspired everyday. Some days I just don't feel inspired and I want to be and feel like I SHOULD be. 

Is this what you want to do? Aka is this the job?
For now. We got here by being open to opportunities and new paths. 

Do you feel like you have a relatively balanced life? If, so what do you think helps you feel that way? If not, what do you think would need to change for you to feel that way?
There is no real separation between home, work and social life. Our home is where we work and because we are rarely absent from the street where our businesses are and we have a close community with others on the street, our social life is here as well. We try to take occasional moments to enjoy the tranquility of our yard which we work so hard to keep for the enjoyment of others. We are working on a balanced life, but we are happy and like what we do. Maybe getting away on trips and getting off of our street is good for us. Also locking the gate and doors, but then I sometimes feel trapped.

Of the five markers of a quality life (positive emotion, engagement, relationship, meaning, achievement), which does your job allow you to fulfill? Does your job allow you enough time/energy to fulfill the other ones in your free time?
All. I feel positive emotion everyday, I feel engaged everyday, and I have lots of relationships, I feel meaning in my life and with work for sure I feel achievement. That does not mean that there are not periods of time in a day where I feel like a failure or frustrated, when I wonder if this is all I am meant for. Believe me, I have those afternoons or evenings. If there is anything I'm lacking in fulfillment in my life, I can try to get fulfillment in the off season. My philosophy on my purpose of life is that I must gain knowledge in my life, be kind to everyone and love everyone. Gaining knowledge is easy enough. Being kind is much more difficult, but I strive. And then loving everyone is nearly impossible, but that means my purpose is never done. It may sound like a religious purpose which it is not for me. 

What are your general thoughts about work/this job/life?
I have used two pronouns for these questions. I and We. I think sometimes it is hard to separate the I and We of my job. I do a lot and so does Sutter, but we really feel like a team. I feel that I speak for Sutter and Sutter speaks for me, but we really have to talk to each other.  There is no USB link between us, no telepathy. Our goal and aim is the same, we can never assume we are on the same page. One thing gratifying about our job is that it works well for our marriage. It may not be for everyone, and it may not be for us forever, but for now it works great. 

Free style (anything else you feel compelled to explain/share):
I think an important component of our businesses and our business plan is that we don't have a typical business plan. We go with what feels right and if it works, we keep doing it and if it doesn't, we change. Sounds cavalier maybe or hazardous, but it has led to some good things. Also, we felt like taking big risks on business this young in life is a good idea. I would rather lose everything at age 26 and have time, health and energy to recover financially then take a risk much later in life with more burdens.


Friends, can you believe how beautiful their shop is?  It is clearly a labor of love.  I'm already counting the days till they open again in the spring.  Sam, thank you ever so much for sharing.


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Real Jobs Series

Since I began looking for a job last July (and probably for quite a long time before that), not a day has passed that I haven't thought about what I want to do to earn money in my life.

I know I'm supposed to say, "what I want to do for a career," but the truth it it's about the moolah.  Sure, in the most perfect of perfect worlds, I want the activities I choose because they speak to my soul to be the same activities that someone wants to pay me to do, but I've become a bit wary of that fantasy.  Ultimately, what I'm coming to grips with is the fact that I am going to spend quite a lot of the remaining hours of my life engaged in activities I do mostly because I get money in exchange for doing those activities which I then exchange for things I need to stay alive.  I can work with that reality.  I have quite a lot of faith that many of those hours spent exchanging my time for money are going to be enjoyable and rewarding and relationship-building and all those good things that create a quality life.  Truthfully, part of my middle-class worldview is that work is, unto itself, a good thing, so I don't intend to cast a negative shadow on this reality that most of us share.  However, knowing I have a limited number of hours left in my life, I don't want to waste any of them.  I want to get the most bang for those hours, to be smart about what it is I'm willing to exchange those hours for.

As I've waded into this full-time-worker world, I've been shocked at how isolating it is.  We don't talk about the nitty gritty of what we do day to day and we certainly don't talk about how we're rewarded for it, whether that be financial reward or something other, and I think that lack of talking closes us off from a comprehensive understanding of what's out there, which in turn makes it very difficult to make informed choices about what we can really do.

I am almost always in favor of being more open, more honest, of talking more about the nitty gritty of our lives, no matter how mundane it might seem.  I am also selfishly and desperately wanting to better understand this work world in the hopes that, as is the theme of my life, we might not each have to independently reinvent the wheel.  Each of us has learned a lesson or found a new question or something that another person can benefit from knowing; let's share.

I've been thinking for quite awhile about compiling a series about work lives.  So this is it.  I'm putting the call out.  I will, of course, write my own, short though my history may be.  But truly. These are our lives.  If we're going to spend such a hefty chunk of them working, why not do it up right, or at least explore how we can do it better?  I think connecting with and learning from others is a critical part of that journey.

That said, if you're willing to tell us about your work (And please don't self-censor.  I want to hear from those who aren't sure they're in the right place just as much as I want to hear from those who feel they've struck gold.), please leave a comment or e-mail me at  I'll e-mail you some questions for guidance, then when it's all set and ready to go, I'll share your story here.

Please take the leap.  I think this could be a very good thing.


Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Best (secret ingredients) Classic Blueberry Pie

Friends, let's talk about pie.

Growing up, we  had pie twice per year, at Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Because we lived in interior Alaska and it was difficult for most people to travel home, we had big gatherings for the holidays.  My parents invited those friends and colleagues who couldn't make it to back to their families in the lower 48 into our home, together creating a kind of surrogate family that required multiple card tables unfolded and stacked onto the ends of our humble dining table to create enough space, the whole thing spread over with white tablecloths to create a cohesive unit.  We didn't have a large house or kitchen, but I don't remember either of my parents ever worrying about space.  My father's graduate students and colleagues, my parents friends and our neighbors would pile into our home on dark Alaskan winter holiday afternoons, stomping snow off their boots and piling parkas and other protective gear into mountains in our entryway before filling our home with that bubbling energy of the holidays.

And, of course, nobody came empty handed.

I was always most fascinated by the pies.  The wife of one of my father's colleagues always made the most perfect pies and each year it was taken for granted that she would bring them, always carried in her double decker woven grass pie basket that she probably found at one of the ubiquitous Native Alaskan craft fairs.

Can I say this?  Having somebody bring homemade pie into your home is such a loving gift.  Receiving any gift of food is special, but there's a very warm place in my heart specifically for a pie.  Maybe it's because it recalls those cherished Alaska holidays, our modest house filled with 25 people who became our family during the years we lived there.  Maybe it's the story that pie crust is prohibitively difficult to make, so putting in the effort to do it anyway indicates special intention and care.  Maybe it's that a pie can't really be eaten until there are others to share it with, unlike the more individual cookies or cupcakes.  Maybe I'm just neurotically attached for pie.

Regardless, let's talk about the specifics, okay?

My first several pies were...not great.  I remember once when I was about 8 or 9 buying a regular Halloween pumpkin and roasting it before pureeing it in our neighbor's 20 year old food processor that didn't work very well so I had to use a wooden spoon to push the puree down toward the blades, resulting in a little extra woody fiber being added to the mix.  The pumpkin pie recipe I used was from an ancient Joy of Cooking and called for cooking the filling on the stove top then transferring it to a pre-baked crust instead of the more common baked custard method.  Of course, the pie crust shrunk halfway down the pie plate while it was baking and the fibrous, lumpy filling didn't smooth out and looked quite a bit more like cinnamon tinged cat vomit than a proper pumpkin pie, but I walked the pie over to our neighbors' house anyway, as my friend's mother had requested I bake some pies for a dinner party they were hosting.  Unfortunately, since it was the dead of winter, I was wearing over sized mittens and the pie plate slipped off of my mittened hand while I was ringing the doorbell, the pumpkin pie flying out of the plate and landing face down in the snow.  It is a testament to the sturdiness of that pie that I was able to bend down and pick the entire pie up in one piece, placing it back into its plate, apparently unscathed, and dutifully delivered for their waiting guests.

Thankfully, I've figured a few things out since then.

Number one:  Food Processors Make Happy Pie Crusts

If you like to cook and you don't have a proper food processor, please get one.  I know they're not the cheapest kitchen appliances (I have this one) but it will quickly become the workhorse of your kitchen.  Pesto, nut butter, falafel, hummus, bread will use it more than you expect.  But the real doozy is its ability to practically make pie crust for you.  The key to a great pie crust is to use cold fats and to work them very quickly into the dry ingredients.  You can certainly do this by hand, but you risk the fat becoming too soft and integrating overmuch into the flour.  A food processor gets the whole process over in less than 30 seconds with very little guesswork on your part.

Number two: Use vodka for half of the water for a more tender, easy to work with crust

This is a Cooks Illustrated trick that I've been happily using for the past few years.  One of the more difficult components of pie crust making is adding enough water to make the dough workable without adding so much that the gluten starts to develop (overdeveloped gluten=tough pie crust).  I used to be so cautious about adding water that I'd end up with a hard to work, crumbly crust that was a royal pain in the ass to roll out.  However, gluten will not form in alcohol.  Using a high alcohol liquor like vodka creates a pliable, easy to work crust without sacrificing tenderness.  The alcohol is not at all discernible in the final crust.  Even if you don't use the recipe below, start using half and half water and vodka in your favorite pie crust recipe--it's a game changer.

Number three: Use both butter and shortening

Lots of pie bakers have strong opinions on using all butter or all shortening in their crusts.  Those who prefer shortening say it makes a flakier crust (which is true, but really one for the first day).  Those who prefer butter say it gives a better flavor (which is also true, but butter also has a higher water content which means it encourages gluten development and a tougher crust).  Why not just use both?  You get the best of both worlds.

Number four: Chill your crust

Many of the pies in my life have had their crusts fall off in the oven.  Chilling the dough gives you a bit more structure to work with, and (in my experience) helps the crust hold its shape while it's baking.  Chilling the dough also lets you get away with working the crust less and using less flour while you're rolling it out, resulting in less risk of a tough crust.

Number five: Add grated apple to blueberry pies 

My dad's very favorite pie in the whole world is blueberry and he has asked for a blueberry pie "birthday cake" most years I can remember, but my blueberry pies always turned out soupy.  Adding a grated apple that has had all of its liquid squeezed out and discarded provides the perfect amount of natural pectin to thicken up a blueberry pie.  Again, this is a Cook's Illustrated trick, and it works beautifully.  You can't detect the apple in the final product unless you're really looking for it.

Number six: Cook down your fruit before baking the pie

Fruit tends to cook down quite a bit, which often ends up in a pie with a gap between the fruit and the top crust.  Cooking some of the liquid out of the fruit ahead of time helps prevent this problem.

And finally...

The Best Classic Blueberry Pie

adapted from Cooks Illustrated

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.


Into the food processor, place:
  • 1 1/2 c. unbleached all purpose flour
  • 2 T. sugar (optional)
  • 1 t. salt
Pulse a few times to distribute the sugar and salt into the flour.

  • 12 T. butter, cut into about 12 pieces
  • 8 T. shortening, cut into about 8 pieces (I like Spectrum)
Process this for about 15 seconds, until the mixture starts to form clumps and very little loose flour remains.

  • 1 c. unbleached all purpose flour
Give it about 5 2 second pulses.

Transfer the mixture to a large bowl.  Sprinkle over:
  • 3 T. ice water
  • 3 T. cold vodka (tip: If you're not a vodka drinker, keep a few mini bottles of vodka in your freezer for this purpose.  In my experience, even the cheapest vodka works just fine.)
Mix the liquid into the dough very quickly, making sure you're working the dough as little as possible.  If the dough takes on the texture of play-dough, you're good.  If it's still a bit dry, a bit more liquid until it reaches that play-dough consistency.

Chill the dough while you get the filling ready.

Place into a large sauce pan:
  • 15 oz. frozen wild blueberries
Turn the heat to medium high and cook the berries for 10-12 minutes, until they have reduced by half and most of the liquid is evaporated.

While the berries are cooking, grate:
  • 1 medium apple, peeled (I prefer Granny Smith or Braeburn)
Transfer the grated apple to a fine sieve and place it over a bowl, pressing the apple with your hand or a spoon to force the apple to release its juice.  When the apple is mostly dry, transfer it to a large mixing bowl.

To this bowl, add
  • 15 oz. frozen wild blueberries (yes, another bag)
  • 3/4 c. sugar
  • 2 T. tapioca flour or cornstarch
  • juice of one lemon
Mix this together to evenly distribute the ingredients.  Set aside.

Remove your pie crust from the refrigerator and squeeze off about 2/3 of the dough for the bottom crust.  Return the remaining third to the fridge.

Generously flour your (very clean) counter or a Silpat with about 1/4 c. of flour.  Coat the dough with a thin coat of flour and shape it into a disc, then begin to roll it out, always starting from the middle and moving outwards.  Continually rotate the dough to encourage it into a round (ish) shape.  You'll want to roll the dough until it is about 3 inches larger than your pie plate on all sides.  Periodically check that the dough is not sticking--if it is, lift it up and sprinkle more flour underneath.

To transfer the crust, fold the dough into quarters and quickly pick it up to place it in your nearby pie plate, unfolding the dough and arranging it evenly once it's placed.  Trim any overhang beyond 1 inch and return the crust to the refrigerator.

Your stovetop blueberries are likely ready, so remove them from the heat and add them to your frozen blueberry/apple mixture.

Remove the remaining 1/3 of pie dough from the refrigerator and roll it out to just slightly larger than your pie plate.  Remove the bottom crust from the refrigerator, quickly transfer your berry filling into the crust, gently mounting the berries in the center.  Fold your rolled out top crust into quarters, place it on top of the berries and unfold the crust before adjusting as necessary.  Trim any excess crust to about 1".

Fold the overhang of the crust underneath itself and crimp or pinch the crust as desired (I usually go with this method), making sure the crust is sealed well.  Cut 8 generous vent holes in the top crust, then sprinkle with a mixture of:
  • 2 T. sugar
  • 2 t. cinnamon
Bake the pie for 30 minutes at 400 degrees, then reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake for another 25-30 minutes.  Your pie is ready when you can see the juices bubbling and the crust is golden.

Remove from the oven and allow the pie to cool uncovered for several hours or overnight.  Do not cover the pie or the crust will lose its flakiness.

Eat up, preferably with a dollop of cinnamon ice cream.