Food Systems and the (personal) cost of doing business by David Bernabo

This Tuesday, Bar Marco will host the eighth screening of Food Systems, Chapter 1: A Night Out, the first in a series of three films about food culture in and around Pittsburgh. I am very grateful to the relatively large number of people that have hosted screenings, bought tickets or watched the film, participated in discussions, provided some critique, and/or participated in the film. For me, that - building of a personal community, furthering my understanding of people's experiences in food - is rewarding enough. But let's talk about money.

I'm a big fan of cost transparency in creative projects. It's interesting. Years ago, I read that David Berman of Silver Jews cleared $45,000 for a record made in 2001 while making roughly $16,000/year for royalities on four other records. A 2006 interview found Berman $40,000 in debt at the age 40. The candidness of these interviews is enlightening. On the one hand, $45,000 to make a record is incredible, but you can easily see how that is not a sustainable path.

When starting Food Systems, I took the same approach that I apply to all my personal creative endeavors - "Let's start the project and figure it out as I go." Funding was not much of an issue. I had an adequate camera from a previous "project." (I bought a Canon 5d in anticipation of making a documentary about the history of the Carnegie Museum. That project never came to light, but I had a really interesting treatment.) I had editing programs. I made music. I knew a few people in the restaurant industry. So, the tools were in place. Aside from my time, there were no major initial expenses.

The Expenses

In the beginning, the main expense was going out to dinner. In order to determine if I wanted to cover a restaurant, I ate a meal there and introduced myself to the staff. With 25 active restaurants in the film, I estimate this cost to be roughly $1,200. In my time as a Pittsburgher (read: the whole time), I had already conducted part of the "research" before this project started.

If a scene has music, I edit best to finished music. To accomplish this, I spent about six day sessions recording different types of music - droning accordions, overdubbed makeshift percussion sections, guitar duos, piano solos. Some of the film score overlapped with my scores for Mark C. Thompson's Kimono and Jil Stifel and Ben Sota's Waywardland. Synergy! But my musical style can be limited. I love jazz scores and thought of my friends in Le Rex. Le Rex is a fantastic Swiss jazz quintet. They have played two shows in Pittsburgh and have come through Pittsburgh in other ensembles. Le Rex allowed the use of their first two albums for $400. Very generous!

One of the first sections of the film that I finished was Kevin Sousa's section. Because I didn't have any music ready, I temporarily placed a piece by Nils Økland and Sigbjørn Apeland in the timeline. The more I heard it, the more I thought it had to stay. So, I licensed the track from ECM (at this point, my favorite record label) for 500 Euro. $624, after wire transfer fees.

There are a number of siloed food documentaries. Fed Up discusses sugar. El Bulli: Cooking in Progress looks at El Bulli. Three Stars provides glimpses of a number of Michelin-starred restaurants. Food Systems could cover a broad range of topics by staying geographically narrow. However, there were two trips. A trip to The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) arose after talking with Melissa McCart. I went there to film the interview segments with Dr. Tim Ryan, who opened La Normande as the executive chef. It was a wonderful and delicious trip. Price tag: $660. I was going to California anyway, but a driving trip down the coast from San Francisco to Big Sur and back provided some beautiful footage that plays over the credits of Chapter 1 and accompanies discussion on the importance of water in Chapter 3. Also, views of CA vineyards and organic farms were useful as so many Pittsburgh chefs felt a weird calling to settle in the cold winters of Pittsburgh after vibing (or still working hard, indoors, for long hours) in the California sun. Food-related price tag: $700.

One issue in my first film, Ongoing Box, is sound, specifically people talking. Luckily, that film is more action than discussion. But for Food Systems, I knew I needed to upgrade my film audio gear. I purchased a binaural microphone (this is a mic that replicates how a human head hears. Check out instructional records from the 50s and 60s for more info) for $1,000 and a mid-tier lavalier microphone for $500.   

The remaining expenses can be qualified as expenses essential to attempting to make money. DVDs and BluRays for three films (Ch. 1 and 2 are on one disc, Ch. 3 will be on another) total $2,200. T-shirts cost $400 for manufacture and $200 for design, which I assume is a generous "friend price."

The total comes to $6,784. Surely, there are some additional gas and travel costs, but let's say those are negligible. 


Sadly, for me, I did not receive any grants for this project. I applied for $1,000 grants, $10,000 grants, and various points inbetween. But as I do often criticize the grant-based nature of local arts making, I suppose this is a suitable result. So, to fund these three films, I created a Kickstarter campaign, which netted $1,486 after Kickstarter fees. The rest is personal investment, culled from eight years of work at Highmark in various roles from Business Analyst 2 to Manager and a now occasional healthcare consultant. Since screening the film, I have netted $472 from three screenings (other screenings were free), made $80 on t-shirts, $7.98 on Vimeo sales, and $10 on Blurays. Note: I just got the Blurays in and only mentioned them to a handful of people. Here's hoping for the holiday DVD push!

I'm not sure if there is a message here. But I do hope it is at least interesting.

TOTAL INCOME: $2,055.98

Meals: $1,200
Music: $1,024
Travel: $1,360
Equipment: $1,500
T-shirts: $600
DVDs and Blurays: $1,100

NET INCOME: (-) $4,728.02

Four Food Systems Screenings Announced + New Trailer by David Bernabo

Mon, 09/14/2015 Pittsburgh, PA - Root 174SOLD OUT

Wed, 09/23/2015 Pittsburgh, PA - Row House TheaterPremiere!, 7:00PM, $12, with reception PURCHASE TICKETS

Sun, 09/27/2015 Pittsburgh, PA - Row House Theater, Noon, $8 PURCHASE TICKETS

Thurs, 10/01/2015 Pittsburgh, PA - Wigle Whiskey Barrelhouse, 7:00PM, open to public


Food Systems has a Kickstarter! by David Bernabo

This Kickstarter campaign is meant to raise funds to finish production (sound mastering, editing, image licensing) and to promote the film series, FOOD SYSTEMS.

FOOD SYSTEMS is a three part film project that documents the food ecosystem that exists in a city, which in this case is Pittsburgh. In the past few years, Pittsburgh has emerged as a foodie town, scoring notable magazine articles and James Beard award nods. There is a well-deserved praise of restaurants and chefs. It is exciting, but there are also other stories to be told. FOOD SYSTEMS shares in the celebration and excitement that is tied to an emerging generation of creative cooks and a vibrant ethnic food scene, but also takes time to look at farm operations, food supply and distribution, access to healthy food, education, and a variety of solutions to growing food issues. 

Working in these industries can be extremely difficult and it is often an uphill battle to better people's lives, one's living, or one's city. FOOD SYSTEM attempts to showcase the passion and craft that is given to these efforts.

The film is in three parts. For rewards, delivery will be upon completion of each part. This provides more immediate gratification for patrons (thanks!) who will need to wait a little longer for the final film to be completed. 

FOOD SYSTEMS Chapter 1: A Night Out (~105 minutes)
This section starts with a brief history of Pittsburgh fine dining from the late 1970s, delving into La Normande and Baum Vivant, the tide-changing Big Burrito, Legume, and others. A brief "this is your life" segment on Kevin Sousa and the staff at Salt of the Earth showcase the steps one may take to owning a restaurant while also marking some fundamental changes in the local scene. From there, Lydiah's Coffeehouse and Nak Won Garden are showcased. Then, detours into how history is created, what it takes to make it in the service industry, and sexism. The film closes with surveys of a few neighborhoods that have experienced changes over the years: East Liberty, Homewood, and Downtown.

Estimated reward delivery: September 2015

FOOD SYSTEMS Chapter 2: Dinner on the Farm (~22 minutes)
This short film shadows four dinners: The Avenue B edition of Churchview Farm's Dinner Series and The Farmer's Table dinners at Jarosinski Farms, Bar Marco's Menuless Mondays, and Lewis Family Farms. Best advised to eat before or while watching.

Estimated reward delivery: as soon as the campaign finishes

FOOD SYSTEMS Chapters 3 and 4 (~ 95 minutes)
The last film in the series follows the food chain: Farms to distribution to supply to access and education. The plot is still being developed through interviews, but the film will cover the history of Penn's Corner, various farms (chicken, beef, trout, vegetable), local food availability, butcher shops, food co-ops, food quality, and food deserts. Solutions like community and urban gardens, new food salvaging initiatives, legislative changes, and education will also be covered.

Estimated reward delivery: January 2016

Food Systems and how to create a history by David Bernabo


(image: Still from Food Systems; Avenue B at Churchview Farm Dinner Series)

I’m sitting at my kitchen table listening to a new record by some of my friends. It will be out there in the world in a few months, and it is a wonderful record. It’s the kind of record that you can sink into. Admittedly, it is very easy to listen to and very easy to like. It makes me remember what good crafting can do for a project - the kind of crafting that allows projects to be viewed as seamless, whole. It is a refreshing feeling after spending the last seven months working on two new films, changing things, switching directions, meeting an endless parade of new people doing very interesting things. (Yes, this post is actually about me.)

Food Systems is the name of both films. The idea for the film arose from a conversation with Kevin Sousa during the filming of Ongoing Box: A Film About Process. A film that charts the history or histories of restaurants in Pittsburgh. It seemed like a great idea to go back to the 10s, the 30s, the 60s, the 80s, the 90s, and so on. I had a grand idea for a title sequence of early 20th century newspaper restaurant reviews - scrolling microfilm, close-ups, mid shots, intense detail of the deteriorated type. Then, as it turns out, restaurant reviews were not much of thing back then. In fact, restaurants were not much of a thing either. Many restaurants were attached to hotels and many of the food reviews dealt with weddings, galas, celebrations. I did find that Chinese restaurants have been around since the 20s/30s. Sushi was introduced in downtown Pittsburgh in 1982. Thai in '84. Or so the clippings from the Pittsburgh Press and Post-Gazette say. Also, with a 55 to 70 hour work week, it proved unfeasible to track down the older crew of restaurateurs who had long sold or retired their restaurants. I know where some of them hang-out, but . . . Also, use of Post-Gazette articles is much more expensive than my self-funded budget could afford (probably more on the funding aspect in the coming six months).

So, the scope changed. A history of Pittsburgh restaurants from the 90s to now. Good. Then a few more detours occurred. I had the good fortune to meet Ehrrin Keenan, Manager of Special Distributions at the Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, who told me that I should be looking at the food bank and other ideas of how people get food. At that point, it seemed irresponsible to only focus on high-end restaurants. There are certainly issues and areas of improvement in restaurant systems, but a scope creep seemed appropriate. This is how we arrived at two films in four chapters. This is also how I arrived at a series of iterative lists of sequences and shots that come with editing a film while shooting and researching a film. See below.

The next question is how does one build a history, especially a history that incorporates thousands of people, conflicting trends, outliers that blow apart narrative lines, and a history that misrepresents itself (thanks social media). Well, I started with a theory garnered from some initial interviews. Big Burrito had a big impact. Big Burrito brought an aura of hipness to restaurants. Brought exotic fruits. Brought new flavor pairings. Brought the concept of food meeting design meeting music meeting atmosphere. That places us in the mid-90s. From there, I can pair Dish as a contemporary, a chef-owned restaurant, a place that is still a foodie haven, a place that has delicious food and has had delicious food from the beginning. Out of Big Burrito, we have an explosion new chefs and, more importantly, chefs working creatively while remaining in the city. Around 2005, Legume opens. Shortly after, a series of chef-owned restaurants open, each with a unique style and unique ability to draw a certain clientele. That leads to the diversity of options that Pittsburgh experiences today. This is a pretty clean history.

Except that it is not a full history. What about the ethnic restaurants that have been running strong for 20+ years, i.e. Taste of India. Then, as Trevett Hooper at Legume mentioned, there was a previous wave of chef-owned restaurants that set the stage for the chefs that exist today, i.e. Tony Pais. A possible reason for their exclusion from local history is the lack of a current social media presence. And then what of the 80s and 90s boom of “personality”-based restaurateurs - owners that were not necessarily chefs, but that drew patrons just by being them. "You be you," as multiple friends often say. So, this history can get a bit messy. There needs to be a balance of acknowledgement and respect while still providing enough detail that the movie serves more of a purpose than just a Google search. That is the current challenge.

I recently read John D’Agata’s About a Mountain. The nonfiction work provides a mix of anecdotes and research about the federal government’s attempts at storing the nation’s nuclear waste inside the Yucca mountain. Even at a underestimated 10,000 de-nuclearizing period, there were mounds of issues with this plan. The subject matter, positioned around a storyline of moving his mother to Las Vegas, is fascinating on its own, but D’Agata’s writing structure is bold and fun. There is a lot of play with repeated sentence forms. He also plays with time in a way that opened up a few options for editing this film. From this book, I realized there are really no rules for editing a piece as long as it works and communicates the message.  

So, here we are. The first film is about 60% finished and incorporates two chapters (history of restaurants, farm dinners). The second film is closer to 10% finished and deals with food sourcing (farms, neighborhoods, food deserts) and solutions for growing food problems (community gardens, educating on diet, legislative changes, new models).

If you like, here is a clip from what I call "The Montage." Swiss friends, Le Rex, have graciously allowed the use of much of their music. I'll filling in the rest along with one other hopeful.