Special Report

Waste Not, Want Not

Life lessons from a Swiss entrepreneur in Big Sky country.

By 8.19.11

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Everyone in Manhattan, Montana, a farming community of about 1,500 people, knows Nick Schmutz, the outspoken owner of the Garden Café, which is open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. -- doing a brisk business at all hours of the day. Farmers and ranchers, most of Dutch extraction and strict Dutch Reformist views, come to his place from miles around. Nick calls it "the talking café." As he describes it, the verbal brew at Nick's café is a rich blend of "BS and BS" -- one of those being Bible Studies.

I came to know the 56-year-old restaurateur -- who is quick-handed as well as quick-witted -- as a result of a perilous circumstance involving my wife. He pulled her to safety before she was carried out into swirling rapids at the uppermost stretch of the Missouri River. Here's how that happened.

The Property and Environmental Research Center (PERC), a free-market environmental think tank in Bozeman, invited me to spend a week with them as a visiting journalist and fellow. I was delighted to do so. My wife came along to enjoy Big Sky country in the full glory of summer, and she set out one day to explore the headwaters of the Missouri.

While studying a pair of placards at the site, she realized that she was there on an historic day -- it being the 25th of July. Captain William Clark reached the headwaters on this same day in 1805. Less than three weeks later -- on August 12 -- Meriwether Lewis, having caught up with Clark and taken the lead in the next stage of their expedition, crossed over the Continental divide at the Lemhi Pass on the (now) Montana-Idaho border. Friendly Shoshone Indians led Lewis to this pass ("a large and plain Indian road," Lewis called it) in the otherwise impassible Bitterroot mountain range. From there it was clear sailing (or canoeing) down the Clearwater, Snake and Columbia rivers to the Pacific Coast. The Corps of Discovery expedition arrived at the Pacific Coast in November.

My wife's reveries of that long-ago adventure were interrupted by a sudden apparition. Nick popped out of the river and climbed over the embankment at the spot of the historical markers. He greeted Beth Ann, my wife, with a friendly "hi!" and, shortly after that, introduced her to his wife Ann, who was waiting for him nearby.

Unlike Clark, Nick did not arrive by dugout canoe padding upstream. Instead he had bobbed downstream, a single swimmer borne along by the swift-flowing Madison River to where it meets the Jefferson River, and thence the Missouri.

Beth Ann was keen to repeat Nick's journey. So they walked back through the tall grass along the shoreline to his original starting point, and plunged into the Madison River. At the end of a 20-minute journey, made without life jackets, Beth Ann misjudged the strength of the current in kicking for shore. This is when Nick intervened and pulled her to safety.

Hearing of this deed, I very much wanted to meet Nick and Ann, his partner in the restaurant business and a jazz pianist who has played in concerts in a number of cities. Two days later, Beth Ann and I met the couple at their restaurant and we all headed to the headwaters for another late afternoon swim: the women in one car, Nick and I in the other. Beth Ann and I tarried at the headwaters for an hour or two after they left, and rejoined them for dinner at their restaurant.

As we were bouncing along the bumpy road leading to the headwaters, Nick, who was born in Bern, the Swiss capital, and lived there until the age of 20, told me what the Swiss newspapers were saying about all the hijinks between President Obama and John Boehner over raising the national debt ceiling. They were saying that the two political leaders were playing dice with world economy.

What else could Boehner do, I replied, given Obama's profligacy -- and his apparent desire to do everything possible to repeat the tragedy of modern-day Greece?

Our conversation turned to the National Recovery and Reconstruction Act. Nick had strong feelings on the subject, knowing how stimulus dollars had been spent in his community. He told me:

"It was absurd -- like throwing fertilizer on gravel. They gave money to guys just before they went down. And the guy who was actually doing it right, they wouldn't have anything to do with him."

Nick was one of the people deemed unworthy of federal largess. He had begun a $100,000 renovation of his 5,000 square-foot restaurant when he learned that the federal government passing out $30,000 loans to small businesses at zero or almost zero interest. He could have used the federally guaranteed loan. But he couldn't get it. He was too good a credit risk.

"I went to the bank and they said that in order to qualify your business has to go down 20% and you have to be in debt. At the height of the recession my business was down maybe 3 or 4 per cent and I had no debt, so I didn't qualify."

Not long after that, Nick went to the local car dealership looking to turn in his 1992 Nissan four-by-four pickup for the promised $4,000 under the administration's cash-for-clunkers program. Once again, he was turned down. This time it was because his pickup was too fuel-efficient -- and also because the dealership have already accepted ten applicants before Nick . . . and had yet to see a dime from the federal government. The dealership was therefore $40,000 out-of-the-pocket, and worried about its own liquidity.

At the age of 17, Nick went to cooking school while serving a three-year apprenticeship at a local restaurant. "You worked five days as an apprentice and went to school one day a week." After that, he did his military service (mandatory in Switzerland) and then worked for several years in restaurants in Germany and Austria. In 1982, at the age of 27, he migrated to the United States.

In addition to being a professional musician, Ann was running the kitchen of a popular restaurant in Berkeley, CA, when she met Nick, who applied to be a cook in early 1985. She gave him the job and four months later they were married. Nick (long an "illegal immigrant") then applied for and received U.S. citizenship. The two have lived and worked in a number of places since -- including Mexico and St. Johns in the Virgin Islands. They have owed the restaurant in Montana for 13 years.

For all of his adult life, Nick has nursed "a love-hate relationship with Switzerland," saying: "I was adventurous. I wanted to see the world. And I'm a non-conformist. You have to conform in Switzerland, and if you don't, you're in trouble."

But one of the things that he likes and admires about Switzerland is the seriousness of its people when it comes to work -- and business. There is a reason why the Swiss franc has more than quadrupled in value against the U.S. dollars since the early 1970s. The Swiss work hard and they don't tolerate high inflation or heavy borrowing.

Even more importantly, Nick told me, young people in Switzerland set out to master a Beruf -- the German word for a trade, craft or "calling." In his case, he "learned not just to cook soup but how to run a business -- and make a profit." His mentor in Bern was stern taskmaster but, in Nick's opinion, a great teacher, who raved about the utility of the rubber spatula. He called this simple instrument the "money-maker." In the never-ending battle within the restaurant trade against razor-thin margins, it was, he said, the key to survival.

As a cook, you learned to use the rubber spatula to scrape every little bit of sauce or food out of the pan in which it was cooked. In another one of his well-turned aphorisms, Nick told me: "If you serve something bad, you lose the customer, and if you throw something good away, you lose the profit."

Now there's an idea that will never darken the brow of a Paul Krugman or any other of the leading lights in "progressive" thought -- the idea that waste is actually something to be deplored rather than something to be celebrated. After all, Keynes famously said it would be a good idea for government to pay people to dig holes and fill them back in order to stimulate economic activity. By the same token, government might instruct restaurateurs to fill up their pots with wonderful sauces, and then pour them right down the drain.

If the government does get around to offering such a plan in the new jobs administration promised by Obama, it will no doubt restrict the ladling out of food-wasting grants to failing restaurants, which would, once again, leave Nick and Ann out in the cold.

But no matter. The Garden Café is doing well anyway. It serves excellent food at a reasonable price -- and outsiders are always welcome. Nick might even find room for you in his "think tank" -- a large table at the front of the restaurant that is a popular gathering place for cowboy-hatted ranchers.

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About the Author
Andrew B. Wilson, a frequent contributor to The American Spectator and a former foreign correspondent, writes from St. Louis.