Shakespeare’s suggestion that “if music be the food of love, play on,” seems like a direct order to me to pair the book I wrote about a restaurant business model based on compassion, with my passion for curating my 15,000-song library.
Time for a playlist.
Small Business, Big Heart—How One Family Redefined the Bottom Line tells the painful and inspiring story of Sal and Cindy Rubino who owned a restaurant, named plainly The Café, that finally succeeded when they decided to prioritize family over wealth. Their business really took off when, desperate for a loyal workforce that shared their vision, they started hiring refugees and people in addiction treatment programs.
Here’s the annotated version of my Spotify musical narrative.
Take A Chance On Me—ABBA
I open the book with a chapter about a woman who spent half her life as an addict until, she said, her life was saved when The Café took a chance on her. “They saw me for who I could be,” she says. Sal and Cindy believed in giving people second chances because they felt they were given so many second chances. This seems a good way to start the playlist even though the song’s about romance. But hey, art is what you make of it. Besides, no matter what anybody says, everybody loves ABBA.
The Frim Fram Sauce—Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald
The book’s narrative starts in chapter 2 with Cindy as a teenager discovering her chef’s palette and how it could be used for happiness. Her doctoring of Campbell’s soup may not seem like Frim Fram Sauce, but who’s to say? Nat King Cole made the song famous but this version one year later makes such a great pairing with Louis and Ella. It’s worth checking out Nat’s imaginative video, which even manages to nod at some of the bawdier interpretations of the lyrics—pretty hot stuff for 1945.
Come Together—The Beatles
When Sal was a teenager his unifying words during an assembly got him elected class president at a high school tense with racial division. It was a life lesson about his ability to bring people together. Fun fact: when John Lennon started work on this piece, he was trying to write a campaign song for LSD proponent Timothy Leary. But the closest Lennon could come to anything political was the line “one thing I can tell you is you’ve got to be free.”
In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening—Hoagy’s Children
Food and partying go together in this song, just like they did for Sal and Cindy at restaurant school in Miami, where they met and fell in love. I fell in love to this song as well. When Debbie and I were dating we took a day trip from our Washington, D.C., area homes to Annapolis, Maryland, where we wandered into a basement jazz club and discovered Hoagy’s Children, a combo that included Bob Dorough, who wrote Conjunction Junction for Schoolhouse Rock. Between sets I bought the vinyl LP on site and made sure it was playing when I proposed.
Louisville, K-Y—Ella Fitzgerald
This seems appropriate to mark Cindy bringing Sal to her hometown of Louisville where they married and settled down, even though it sounds like it was written by someone who’s never been to Louisville. The only unique reference to the city is about a whippoorwill, which as far as I can tell is only relevant because it rhymes. Still, any excuse to listen to Ella.
Beans and Cornbread—Louis Jordan
The stresses of owning a family business strained Sal and Cindy’s marriage. But like beans and cornbread fighting in this song, it was obvious they belonged together.
Let’s Stay Together—Al Green
If the lighthearted beans and cornbread analogy doesn’t make the case for saving a marriage, Al Green’s smooth, romantic pleading should do the trick.
It’s Money That Matters—Randy Newman
Sal and Cindy had dreams of living large off a restaurant empire. Randy Newman’s tuneful social critique could have warned them of the corruption of spirit behind the exclusive pursuit of wealth.
The Pretender—Jackson Browne
When I shared this playlist with Sal he suggested adding this song about someone struggling for a work-life balance, “caught between the longing for love and the struggle for the legal tender.” Sal told me he considered it one of his theme songs.
Strapped for Cash—Fountains of Wayne
In dodging creditors after their first restaurant collapsed Sal and Cindy even had to enlist their children to head off the phone calls from bill collectors. For some dark humor to mark this part of their lives, I’m choosing the group with the most consistently clever and hilarious lyrics in pop music.
With a Little Help From My Friends—The Beatles
At their lowest point Sal and Cindy joined a church and suddenly donations started showing up on their doorstep, one church member lent them a car, and Sunday School groups made it a point to head to their restaurant for brunch after church. Cindy said, “They’d all decided to spend their Sunday having lunch at our business? What’s that about? That’s crazy. We’d never before felt supported that way.”
Sal and Cindy were attracted to their church by a dramatic recreation of Good Friday and a gifted orator of a minister. Lyle Lovett combines drama and preaching in an oddball clash between a sermon that goes on too long for the hungry choir and congregation.
Gotta Serve Somebody—Bob Dylan
I had to include my favorite musician, this from one of the three albums he recorded with Christian themes. This recognizes Sal and Cindy’s faith that increasingly added an ethical dimension to their work life. It also carries a message that transcends religion, matching the restaurant owners’ realization that humility needed to be more a part of their world.
One of Us—Joan Osborne
I feel a little silly saying my personal theology was partly formed by the three seasons of the TV show Joan of Arcadia in the early 2000’s, but I’m still informed by the show’s concept described in this theme song with the line, “What if God Was One of Us?” It’s also the spirit of how Sal and Cindy ran The Café.
One Meatball—The Robert Bobby Trio
I prefer the Roy Book Binder version of this song but couldn’t find it on Spotify. But even this second-choice version captures the heartbreak and humiliation through a relatively inconsequential encounter between a man who could only afford one meatball for dinner and a waiter who loudly announces “ya gets no bread with one meatball.” It’s a smile producer, and at the same time a reminder to be kind, especially to the little man “who felt ill at ease.”
I’m Still Here—John Hartford
Like the character in this song, Sal and Cindy persevered in their restaurant despite plagues of floods, the tax collector, a power outage, and a location they were told not to buy. As for this song, I’m still sad that Hartford (Gentle On My Mind) is no longer with us, and I remember fondly seeing him perform at a bluegrass club in Virginia.
Take Another Look—Little Village
Sal and Cindy weren’t trying to do good deeds in hiring refugees and people in addiction recovery. “We were just trying to fill positions,” said Sal. “It was total business.” But by taking another look at potential employees they found people with special skills in getting the job done. This appropriate song is from by a group whose members include the legendary John Hiatt and Ry Cooder.
In hiring people in addiction treatment programs, Sal and Cindy found, as one colleague put it, that people in recovery “are resilient, strong, and tenacious. They’ve overcome something most of us can’t imagine having to fight. They can be some of the hardest-working employees there are, and the most creative problem solvers.” AJR is a fun and quirky, literal band of brothers (Adam, Jack, and Ryan, get it?) I saw them at the Forecastle music festival in Louisville a couple years ago. This song’s line “I want to feel something again” fits with the relationship between The Café and people in recovery.
Sunday Silence—Arthur Hancock
Sal and Cindy agonized for years about giving up the lucrative Sunday brunch income for the sake of having a day off with their family. It turned out to be a blessing to their long-term employees who also longed for a family weekend day. Setting aside that day of rest turned into an employment perk of sorts that helped retain the best staff. This song’s Arthur Hancock led two lives, he came from a horse-racing family, and he traveled Tennessee researching bluegrass music and recording influential albums. In 1989 his horse Sunday Silence won the Kentucky Derby which he credits as a gift from God that delivered him from debt. It’s a story that kind of parallels what closing the restaurant on Sundays meant to Sal and Cindy. In his Sunday Silence, Hancock sings, “Sunday Silence soothes my soul and sets me free.”
When the waiters at The Café complained that the hostess wasn’t distributing tables fairly, Sal gathered the staff, held up a bluetooth speaker and played the words, “You’ve got to get up every morning, with a smile on your face, and show the world all the love in your heart.” That’s not your typical opening to a business meeting, but Sal has some unusual traits he looks for in job interviews. He says successful employees “have to have joy in their heart.”
I Will Survive—Gloria Gaynor
Sal and Cindy forged their own path through the grueling restaurant industry, surviving failures, reinventing themselves, and creating their own family-friendly business model. That deserves a bit of celebratory disco dancing.
Learning to Fly—Tom Petty
Tom Petty’s lyrics seem to sing about Sal and Cindy, facing life that will beat you down, but the music has the sound of soaring with hope.
What I liked most about writing this book was that the the in-depth nature of a book allowed me to present a long and nuanced story about hope but tinged with reality: hiring refugees is great, but you have to figure out how to work with people who don’t speak English; hiring people in recovery may be noble but there will be relapses. Rainbow Connection has that kind of depth—“Rainbows are visions, but only illusions.” What? Those lines from The Muppets sure don’t sound like they belong in a kids movie. This song has depth, and certainly Sal and Cindy are, as the song says, “lovers and dreamers.” And sorry Kermit, it was a close call but the Weezer version does a bit better job tugging at my heart. Oh, and Debbie and I had the pianist play this at our wedding reception.
Remake the World—Jimmy Cliff
I couldn’t finish this list without one of my favorite genres, reggae, and this one by one of its masters. It’s got an especially feet-moving lilt, and without a doubt Sal and Cindy remade the world.
Scarborough Fair—Simon & Garfunkel
When Sal and Cindy talked in college about their dream restaurant it was to be called Scarborough Fair. The song is based on an old ballad about two lovers asking each other to do unachievable tasks like buy an acre of land between the sea and the sand. The song concludes that love doesn’t require accomplishing the tasks, but trying. As Sal and Cindy kept trying, they discarded things like the original name they’d envisioned for their restaurant, and kept the much bigger things that would build the foundations of a dream that would grow, prosper, and endure.
I like pairing this kind of playlist with food—play it while you’re fixing dinner. The dance moves you add should improve any recipe, and I hope deepen your appreciation for the book.