Wednesday, September 20, 2017

How I Successfully Scaled a Shrimp Boil

Some people say that I tend to over-engineer the fun out of things. In typical lawyerly fashion, I would argue that over-engineering something is the fun part.  So it was that this past weekend, I found myself standing in the parking lot of my rental townhome, holding an aluminum paddle the size of a canoe oar, and stirring a massive steel pot full of boiling water while shouting over the deafening sound of a 12 inch propane flame. 

This post comes about from the deep satisfaction I take in having successfully scaled my most recent shrimp boil over the last month, from its humble, stovetop beginnings. Just like any good idea (business or otherwise), step one was the proof of concept stage. Extensive online research went into finding the best-reviewed spice mix combination, of which we hastily ordered an entire 4.5 pounds. According to the bag, this amount of spice is sufficient for a full 65 pounds of shrimp. This fact was, of course, absolutely no help at all given that “Test Batch No.1” was a single pound of shrimp, two corn cobs, and (according to my start-up-entrepreneur-style notes), “like half a bag of potatoes, or so.” Even though I’m a lawyer, the math problem didn’t scare me away from completing some back-of-the-napkin math to figure out how to convert 1/65th of 4.5 pounds into tablespoons—which I promptly dumped it into a standard stovetop stock pot. 

The result of Test Batch No. 1 was essentially just potato mush and a rubbery, shrimp-like protein soaking in corn juice. However, enjoying the meal was wholly irrelevant. Just like an entrepreneur searching for his first real customer experience, we had gotten exactly what I wanted: hard data. I took extensive notes during the process, recording the amount of water used, the spice ratio, cook times, soak times, and the exact ordering of ingredients. Our meal was then mostly an extended autopsy of texture and flavor, with a spirited debate over how much potato is too much potato.  

Little did my girlfriend know, that “it’s fine babe, let’s try again next weekend” translates to Pete-speak as “please spend a lot of money on fancy equipment and scale this beyond any rational need.” Enter an 82 quart stock pot with a matching strainer basket, all atop a propane-powered burner stand capable of putting satellites in orbit. Like a startup executive tinkering with an initial business plan, within a couple of days I was already lugging it into the parking lot for another test run. I increased the amount of food, ball-parked the water, and really cranked up spice input. Science time! 

The result was much improved, but inconsistent. The stirring methodology was inadequate, so some items took on more spice than others.  The shrimp needed less cook time; the corn needed more. But we were getting there! I sharpened my pencil and refined my shrimp boil protocols. 

Sort of like setting a launch date for version 1 of your software, nothing forces you to scale quickly like throwing a party, so we sent out invites for the “First Annual Cajun Cookout.” Once again, I increased all of the ingredients, this time adding Andouille sausage to the mix, a risky last minute change. I doubled everything else, tweaked the spice mix ratios, and gathered a crowd to light up the burner. The burner successfully lit like a jet engine (you actually have to shout to be heard over it), and the water soon bubbled like a witch’s cauldron. With great care, I followed the methodology to the second, with only a couple small on-the-fly adjustments.  When it was all done, it took three grown men and a 2x4 as a lifting aid to pull the strainer from the boiling water and dump out the contents onto serving trays. But it was absolutely worth it! After two mediocre attempts and many pages of detailed notes, we nailed the execution on the big day.  That’s right, I scaled this perfectly. 

Our guests had an amazing time, and not just because of the food. We also had high marks for the fact that the whole thing was just downright entertaining: the massive pot, the ridiculous stir paddle, the jet engine sound of the propane burner… it made for a wonderful time. Which just goes to prove I was right: over-engineering things is half the fun.

So what have I learned about scaling a product?  Sometimes starting smaller is harder, mistakes are bound to happen, and you have to find delight in the process of continuous improvement.

No comments :

Post a Comment