Advice to New Readers

Welcome to The Last Train!  If you’re a new reader, my advice would be to begin by reading the “Introduction” and then work your way up the topics from oldest to newest (see the recent posts on the right).  That way you will start from the beginning of this journey rather than joining on a later stop.  Welcome aboard…and I hope you become a regular “rider” on The Last Train!

Jeff Schmahl

Introduction

A week ago at the end of a 30-minute phone conversation, a good friend of mine said, “you should start writing, it would be good for you, and you’re a good writer.”  Terry Pettit has written several books and has a mind that looks at life from just a slightly different perspective.  But in turning that crystal ever so slightly like Terry does, an array of light exposes an entirely different vantage point and I have always loved to discuss, argue, laugh, and be enriched in my time with him. Continue reading

The Story of Schmackary’s…a Shameless Plug!

I get asked a lot “so how did Schmackary’s get started?” I’ve told the story dozens of times and on each occasion the response is always “that is such a cool story.” So today, I’m going to write the story for the first time…I hope you like it.

Growing up as an only child, Zach always loved hanging around mom and dad. He and I did the rough-housing stuff, along with always exploring, going on adventures, watching movies, and him coming in to work with me quite a bit.

Spending time with Maria meant hanging out in the kitchen…and Zach loved pulling up a chair and helping mom with prepping, cooking, and even cleaning up after meals. I stayed clear of their time together but certainly enjoyed listening to the constant chatter, laughing, and loving between the two of them.

Little Zach in the kitchen

Maria is a good cook and baker of delicious desserts. At an early age, baking cookies together became one of their favorite things to do. They’d usually make cookies from scratch and that meant flour, sugar, and dough all over the kitchen and usually each other…but that only added to their fun. Zach would watch the cookies bake in the oven and then had to exercise extreme patience as he waited for the cookies to cool before diving in to the delectable delights.

This started when Zach was just two years old and continued through his high school years. When Zach would visit us in Texas, the tradition continued with the two of them always baking something together while he was back home.

After college, Zach took an interest in cooking and baking more on his own. I was glad, because we are a family of foodies and also perfectionists when it comes to preparing home cooked meals. Maria’s comfort foods are out of this world, Abuela (Maria’s mom) makes the best Cuban food on earth, and I’ve always loved “cooking with fire” and do so quite often on my Big Green Egg barbeque grill. There’s nothing like a good home cooked meal…it’s good for the soul.

As for a career, Zach had his eye set on just one thing. He wanted to be an actor. Even at the age of five, he loved to perform. He spent hours practicing, improving, and mostly dreaming of being on stage. And he got really good. In high school acting competitions, Zach was named the “outstanding performer” in every single competition that he entered. In his junior year, he was named the best high school actor in Nebraska. His success and accomplishments continued at the University of Nebraska where he majored in theatre and performing arts at the Johnny Carson School of Theatre & Film.

After college, Zach moved to Los Angeles to act full-time. He got regular roles in television shows, movies, and in live theater. But he never “made it big” so he also worked in Public Relations to help pay the bills. Zach has excellent communication skills, is a good writer, and his creativity made him a natural in the PR world. I always thought he would have a career in PR or sales if the acting didn’t work out.

In 2008, Zach moved to New York City to pursue his ultimate dream of making it on Broadway. But two months later, the recession hit and Broadway shows were closing in droves. It was not a good time to be a stage actor. So Zach turned to public relations, sales, and marketing jobs to make ends meet and continued auditioning as much as possible.

Zach did get work in the acting world…but he also began to see that acting as a profession isn’t as much fun as acting as a hobby. There are also many, many more starving actors out there than successful ones.

In NYC, Zach started baking cookies as a way to relieve stress after a long day of work or standing in audition lines. But he didn’t want to just bake chocolate chip cookies. He loved using his creativity to come up with new and unique cookies that people had never experienced before. He experimented with flavors, ingredients, and spices in what he calls “the science of baking.”

Zach tested his cookie creations on others by taking them to work, friend’s apartments, and to parties. He was constantly told “these are the best cookies I’ve ever had” and “dude, you’ve got to start selling these cookies.”

So being the confident, creative, and entrepreneurial person that he is, Zach started selling his cookies. Schmackary’s (his high school nickname) was born in February of 2011. Zach began baking cookies one dozen at a time out of his 400 square foot apartment and selling them on-line and hand-delivering them throughout New York City. My only advice to him was not to quit his day job.

Zach's workstation Zach's Party Platters

But business started booming and it wasn’t long before Zach was baking dozens of cookies…sometimes with orders of 50 dozen or more in a single day. It was obvious…Schmackary’s was ready to become a store front business.

He found the perfect location at 45th and 9th in the Broadway district of Manhattan…and it was only four blocks from his apartment. Simon Oren, who owns more than 20 restaurants in New York City, was the landlord. After meeting with Zach and tasting his cookies, Simon said “not only do I want you to be my tenant but I want to invest in your business.” Having a partner with so much experience was a huge advantage and gave Schmackary’s a stable base from which to grow.

Throughout this process, Zach and I talked a lot about what it takes for a business to succeed. But four weeks before opening day, Zach called one night scared…wondering what he had gotten himself into…and if he would fail before he ever even started. He was overwhelmed with all the details. I tried to reassure him and then we did the really smart thing of “calling in the cavalry.” Mom to the rescue!

Maria booked a one-way ticket and stayed for six weeks working at Schmackary’s. The two of them…baking cookies together side-by-side…just like the old days.

Schmackary’s opened on May 16, 2012 and was an instant success. Maria and Zach worked 12, 15, even 18 hour days…seven days a week…but they loved it!

Schmackary's Storefront

Zach did over $70,000 in sales in the first month and the business has grown by 40 percent a year to the point where we are approaching $2 million a year in sales in our little 775 square foot shop. On the day of our second anniversary, we celebrated by taking $7,000 out of reserve, and paid off the last of our bills to become completely debt free…something that any businessman will tell you is a very rare occurrence.

What I think is even more amazing is that Zach has done all of this despite having no background in business, managing employees, culinary training, or experience working in the food/restaurant industry. He also hasn’t spent a dime in advertising…it’s all been done by social media and word-of-mouth.

So what has been Zach’s secret to success? Well…I’m not going to give away our trade secrets…but let’s just say a great product, strong work ethic, and outstanding customer service are the tenants of Schmackary’s. Zach has created more than 60 different varieties of cookies…probably more than anyone else in the world…and with his perfectionist personality Zach won’t put a cookie on the menu until he is 100 percent satisfied with the flavor.

Maria and I are now part owners in the business and we moved to New York City in May, 2013 to help grow and expand Schmackary’s. Call it fate, God’s hand, or just dumb luck…but what a fantastic decision this has turned out to be. First, we are creating wealth for retirement that I never could have imagined. Secondly, we are so fortunate and thankful to be together during my health crisis. And finally, we love building a family business and being around each other every day.

schmack fam

The next step is to open new locations in New York City and I think you’ll see two or more Schmackary’s stores open in the near future. If those are successful, we will start looking outside of NYC to expand. We believe this is a business that can be successful in all parts of the country.

Zach is not afraid to say that he wants to turn Schmackary’s into the next Mrs. Fields. And with his passion and drive don’t be surprised if someday there are 50, 100, or even more Schmackary’s across the United States and even in other countries.

Zach’s dream of making it big on Broadway has come true…just not in the way any of us expected!

If you’d like to learn more about Schmackary’s, Zach was recently the cover feature “Cookie Mogul of Broadway” in the University of Nebraska alumni magazine. And to hear the Schmackary’s story from his point of view, you can view the speech Zach gave in the spring of 2013 at the Broadway TEDx Talks…where the audience included the Who’s Who of Broadway.

And don’t be surprised if his time spent in the acting world doesn’t pay off either…as there’s already been an interest in a Schmackary’s television show on one of the food channels.


Medical/Personal Update:

As you probably have read, the cumulative effects of chemotherapy are starting to take a wear and tear on my body. Two weeks ago, I couldn’t eat or drink anything for four days despite the fact that I was taking the best medicines available to combat the nausea. I was very sick to my stomach, weak, tired, and lost 10 pounds. I wondered how much more of this I could take and marveled at the courage of those who have experienced all of these symptoms for much longer than me.

Zach went with me to my chemotherapy treatment on Monday and it was there Zach suggested we try an herbal remedy which has a history of helping big c patients with nausea and appetite stimulation. When we got back to our condo, Zach supervised the herbal dose…and within 30 minutes I was feeling much better. I did get dizzy but the warm, calming effect eliminated all the nausea and I began taking on liquids. In another 30 minutes, I got a case of the “munchies” and had some crackers and cheese. Nachos and then strawberries & ice cream followed later. It was one of the first times that I have been able to eat solid foods on the day of a chemotherapy treatment.

On Tuesday, I told Zach that I felt 500 percent better than two weeks ago and now I have a renewed hope that I can continue on chemo for as long as needed. Most of you have probably guessed it by now…that Zach’s herbal remedy was marijuana…and on Monday I smoked my first joint in almost 40 years (I never liked it before). Well, you can now officially add me to the medical marijuana advocate list.

I wonder if Zach could invent a new cookie recipe…and bake me up a special batch?


Next Stop: A Lesson from Starman

Nebraska Alumni Magazine

When life gives you a 2nd chance

“DO OVER!” It is a common phrase on the playground and a universal truth among kids that everyone once in a while…we deserve a “do over.” (Golfers call them mulligans…although if they had to shout “DO OVER”, they probably wouldn’t be used as much.)

Well, what if you got the chance for a “do over” in life? What would you do differently? That’s a question I’ve been asking myself quite a bit the last couple of months.

My dad spent his entire professional career in the newspaper business. Around the time he was retiring, I asked if he had any regrets or wished he had done something different.

He replied, “No regrets, but if I had to do it all over again I’d like to be a U.S. Park Ranger.”

I wasn’t really surprised by the response because dad always enjoyed the outdoors and going camping in National and State Parks was a regular feature of our summer vacations.

When I was diagnosed with the big c last April, I was hoping for at least six good months and I made a mental list of the things I wanted to do one last time. Thankfully, I’ve been able to check off almost all of the things from that list…and the last six months have been memorable and special.

But now I sit at a crossroads. My prognosis is no longer “one year to live.” I’m still at Stage Four and not out of the woods yet…but with my tumors shrinking rapidly…there is optimism that I’m going to be sticking around for a while. Hopefully, that one year will stretch into many years.

So if life is giving me a second chance…what should I do with it?

I posed this question to Terry Pettit a month ago and he quickly responded, “you should become a motivational speaker and be an advocate on behalf of pancreatic research and fund raising.

An attribute of great coaches, like Terry, is seeing potential in people that they can’t see themselves. It’s why as parents, bosses, and friends I believe we should encourage…see the positive in others…rather than focus mainly on faults, weaknesses, and mistakes. And yes…it should apply in marriages too!

In pondering the “do over” question, there are three main things I would like to accomplish. First, I really want to assist Zach in growing his Schmackary’s cookie business. He has a vision to become the next Mrs. Fields…and I’d like to help him accomplish that goal.

Next, I would like to take Terry’s advice and get more involved on behalf of the pancreatic and big c cause. I recently met Anne Glauber, one of the top public relations experts in New York City. Anne was diagnosed with pancreatic big c in May and as a result she wants to use her experience and expertise to increase awareness as well as increase funding for screening and curing this disease. Anne is putting together a “brain trust” of communications experts to brainstorm on new tactics and strategies and she has asked me to be involved. Our first meeting is on November 11th and I’m really excited to see where this might lead.

Pancreatic research and fund raising has lagged far behind for many years. One of the problems is there are so few survivors to carry the torch. Hopefully, I can play a role in letting people know that amazing things are happening right now in the battle against this disease and that there is now hope in a once hopeless situation.

Finally, I’d like to make it to retirement…to enjoy the fruits of my labor. But even there, my perspective has changed. I don’t want my retirement to be just about me. I realize now more than ever that giving back and helping others is where true joy, fulfillment, and purpose takes place.

My mom is a great example of a person who has made the most of retirement. Mom spent her career as a nurse and being a caregiver has always been her strongest trait. She’s been retired for over 20 years…and even though she has spent the last 18 years without her soul mate…mom has continued to live life with joy and purpose.

Grandma Vicki has kept busy by gardening, traveling, being a mother & grandmother, having a multitude of friends…and especially by volunteering her time to help others. A lot of that time has been spent in hospitals and with hospice…she is also very involved at church and I’m sure is at the top of the call list when help is needed.

After suffering a severe stroke in August, mom is now confined to a wheel chair but she is battling hard every day to get better and stronger. My sisters and I are so thankful that now mom has a steady stream of faithful friends to visit and help in her time of need. The phrase “what goes around comes around” works in a positive sense too.

Mom and her kidsJudi, Jeff, Jill & mom…four cancer survivors

In closing, you’ve probably noticed that I haven’t been as faithful in writing new installments of The Last Train. There are a couple of reasons for that…I’ve been traveling a lot the last couple of months…and at the same time I’m having more bad days on chemo when I don’t feel good enough to write or do much of anything.

But the main thing that’s happened is I have lost the sense of urgency I once had. When I started writing The Last Train, there was so much I wanted to say and so little time to say it…or at least I thought. Now, I’ve got a feeling I’m going to beat the big c. I’d like to keep writing…the challenge will be to make it worth reading.

I hope you’ll stay on board for what might become “The Last Train…a really long ride!”


Medical/Personal update

Maria and Zach have been extremely supportive and patient with me for the past seven months…and I’m so lucky to have them at my side. They’ve encouraged me to travel and in the past 45 days I’ve taken an extended trip back to Nebraska as well as golf buddy trips to Hilton Head and Pinehurst.

But now it’s time to focus more on work…yes, Zach I got the hint…so I’m curtailing my travels. Well, at least until the start of ski season!


Next stop: A Shameless Plug

 

PiggybackIn the garden with my buddy Jethro

Pinehurst 2014 group shotMy Texas golf buddies at Pinehurst…9 rounds in 5 days

Schmackary's golf ballMy golf ball of choice!

Jeff tees of on Pinehurst #2My first shot enroute to a 75 on Pinehurst #2…not kidding!