The Story

Mike is on a mission to bring his customers something they desperately want. Every week, he embarks on a long and unpredictable journey across international borders and smuggles back some highly sought-after goods. And though what he’s doing is technically legal, Mike goes to unusual lengths to evade authorities who want to shut his whole operation down.

What Mike does is a hassle. He’s tired, he’s ready to move on. Still, he can’t seem to shake it, and finds himself stuck running a business he never imagined would make it this far.

 

Correction: The episode originally contained a factual error. The original audio stated that Mike bought chicken enchiladas on his shopping run. In fact, he bought chile tamales. The audio has been updated to reflect this change.

 

The Facts

Matthew Boll mixed the episode.

Editing help by Starlee Kine

Our theme song was written and performed by Mark Phillips.

The special ad music, Microliters, was written and performed by Build Buildings.

Additional music by Tyler Strickland, Kevin Sparks, and the band Hot Moms Dot Gov.

Our logo was designed by Elias Stein.

 

Our Sponsors

Hiscox Business Insurance
Hiscox offers customized liability insurance to small business owners starting as low as $22.50/month. Get a fast, free online quote now and buy.

Featured Hiscox Client, Jamila Paksima. You can check out Jamila’s recent film “Until 20” here. “Until 20” was the winner of the Hiscox Courage Award at the 2015 Austin Film Festival.

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Show transcript

LISA: From Gimlet, you’re listening to StartUp. I’m Lisa Chow.

Stories about startups tend to focus on big companies, venture backed companies, but most of the businesses that start every day aren’t aiming to become the next Google or Amazon. These businesses are smaller scale, but their stories can be just as dramatic.  

Today we bring you one of those stories. It starts in Canada, with a guy who opened a store as an experiment—an  experiment that quickly took over his life, forcing him to deal with some really odd problems.

Just as a quick warning, this episode features a swearing pirate.  

One of our producers, Kaitlin Roberts, tells the story.

 

KAITLIN: A few weeks ago, I went on a secret mission. It started at a grocery store in Vancouver. It’s a little shop with hardwood floors and high ceilings—the kind of place with regulars who stop in to buy the same things every week.

 

MAN: We come here because these are amazing. They’re the best gummies ever. I really love the orange ones. If they made an all orange bag, that would just make it even better. But they are, they are definitely the…

 

KAITLIN: There’s a woman who buys bags of half-dried apricots, a guy who stocks up on soap. People come by for the thai chili sauce and almond cocoa spread and parsnip chips. And greeting all of them is the shop’s owner, a guy named Mike. Who will spontaneously open bags of snacks for shoppers waiting in line.

 

MIKE: So I was thinking, should I open this? Should we try these?

WOMEN: Yeah! Let’s try it.

MAN: Oh yeah, I’m in. Yeah, let’s sample some one of those bad boys.

 

KAITLIN: The shoppers crowd around Mike, smiling and stretching out their hands as he doles out sea salt chocolate covered almonds.

 

MAN: Oh! With the salt

MIKE: Palms up. Yeah, you’ve got the pattern down. Here we go. Full stash.  

 

KAITLIN: The scene is so pleasant, charming, quaint, normal.

But when you ask Mike where he gets all this stuff—the gummies and the almonds—that’s where the trouble begins. Mike buys all these groceries from this one supplier, a supplier that’s been trying to shut Mike down for years, a supplier that isn’t actually willing to supply Mike at all.

Which makes stocking the store a precarious, risky adventure that involves Mike crossing international borders and using elaborate undercover tactics. Mike agrees to take me on one of his secret supply runs.

We’re driving south toward the US-Canada border, in an unmarked white van.

Mike bought the van off some stoners in a Walmart parking lot last summer. It’s got this big dent on one side and above the dent are the words “this is how we keep our costs down,” in tiny black handwriting

So, where are we going? Who is this mysterious supplier?

Mike’s gets all these groceries from an organization that’s so well known, I’m betting most of you have probably heard of it. Maybe you’re even a regular visitor.

Mike’s supplier is Trader Joe’s—the multi-billion dollar grocery chain.

Trader Joe’s doesn’t operate in Canada. So if you live in Vancouver and you have a hankering for parmesan pita chips or speculoos cookie butter, you’re out of luck. Or at least you were. Until Mike’s business came along.

About four years ago, Mike started hearing about people in Vancouver who really liked Trader Joe’s. Some of them would actually drive down over the border to satisfy their rosemary pita chip cravings. But most people said, the drive, customs, I like this stuff, but it’s just too much effort . And that gave Mike an idea. Maybe he could drive over the border, load his car full of Trader Joe’s stuff, and then upsell it to Canadians.

It was grocery shopping. What could go wrong?

 

-music-

 

KAITLIN: We merge onto the highway. The passenger side window is busted and the wind is coming through sharp and cutting.

Mike is 56 years old, tall and nimble with sandy brown hair, grey eyes, and a scab on his cheek he tells me is just a little bit of skin cancer.

Mike’s been a carpenter, a baker, a furniture maker, a software developer at Ask Jeeves. He’s built houses in the Bay Area and Mexico. His hero is Frank Lloyd Wright. Mike tells me it’s important to build quality things because people don’t want to tear down beautiful shit.

But when Mike started his grocery business, for once, he wasn’t trying to build anything. It was just a way to make some quick money while he looked for a real job. Mike talks over noise and tells me about the first time he brought a load of groceries over the border.

 

 

MIKE: I really didn’t think I was gonna be able to pull it off. I just thought I’m gonna show up at the border with a bunch of stuff and I’ll see what I can do.

And then I’ll never forget, the guy at the border, he had his bulletproof vest on and he had my papers—and I was sweating, I was really nervous—and he says, “Okay,” and he goes, “Okay, so it’s Trader Joe’s stuff, huh?” and he kinda looks at me and he goes, “You got those peanut butter cups, those little ones?”  And then he smiles and the I just—the most relieved laugh I’ve ever had, and I was like, “Yeah I got those,” he goes, “All right, that’s good. As long as you got those,” you know? “All right, you look good,”  and he stamped me and that was my first stamp.

 

KAITLIN: The first of many stamps, though Mike didn’t know this at the time. Back then, it was all an experiment. Mike set up shop in an abandoned Romanian bakery. He didn’t even bother advertising. But word got around and within weeks, business was going pretty well.

Then one snowy night, Mike was in a Trader Joe’s store outside Seattle. He loaded up a few carts like he always did and headed to checkout.

 

MIKE: The guy who was guy helping me goes, “Brian wants to see you.” I say, “Who’s Brian?” He goes, “Brian’s the manager.” Brian comes up to me and he goes,

“Hey, Mike, listen, I hear you got this store.”

“Yeah, you know, it’s going really well. It’s been a couple weeks,” and he goes,

“You know, I can kinda see where this is gonna go,” and I said,

“What do you mean?” And he’s,

“Well, you know, you’re gonna need more stuff,” and I go,

“Yeah,” so then I’m like, “I’ve gotta get a bigger trailer. Maybe I’ll get one of those sprinter vans,” and he’s going,

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, no, for sure,” and he’s like “You know, I think we should call corporate and make sure this is okay.”

And I already know that’s death. And I go,

“I don’t think we need to call corporate, Brian. I don’t think we need to. I think we’re good,” and he goes,

“No, Mike, no I—I think at this point we should call corporate.”

And it was this awkward, awkward death conversation.

 

KAITLIN: While Brian went back inside to call corporate, Mike started loading the groceries as quickly as he could.

 

MIKE: Then Brian comes up—“Yeah, Mike, yeah, I talked to corporate,” “Oh, yeah?” Like why are we even having the conversation, and he says, “Yeah, yeah, they say that, uh, we can’t sell to you anymore.”

 

KAITLIN: And right there in the parking lot, Mike was banned from shopping at Trader Joe’s. But he quickly found a workaround.

 

MIKE: You know, if the power goes out on your house, you know, my first thought is, oh, we can just hotwire it from the next house over. You know, we can, I can just—where’s the next Trader—you know, it’s just Brian won’t let me buy this stuff, but the next Trader Joe’s doesn’t know me.

 

KAITLIN: Mike went to another Trader Joe’s that very night.

But before long, one Brian told another Brian, and within weeks, corporate sent Mike a cease and desist letter. Some people told Mike, you should just give up, this business is not going to last. But that just motivated Mike even more. He was hooked. Customers were cheering him on. He got some shout outs in the local press. One reporter gave Mike a nickname—Pirate Joe, a perfect name for the store. Like any pirate, Mike ignored the rules and pushed ahead.

 

-music-

 

But when you’re banned from Trader Joe’s, getting in and out of the store is tough. The average shopper doesn’t have carts filled with a few dozen bags of dried mangoes, or 3 cases of himalayan sea salt. Mike just stands out too much. Over the last 4 years, he’s been thrown out of TJ’s more than 20 times. He’s infamous at almost every store in Washington State. Trader Joe’s Corporate wouldn’t talk to me about Mike, but when I mentioned the name Pirate Joe, every manager and store person knew exactly who I was talking about.

So Mike’s had to learn all kinds of tricks for avoiding guys like Brian. Like, every time he goes shopping, Mike wears a disguise so he won’t be recognized. He’s tried a few things over the years: a fake mustache, a wig. He once dressed in drag. This week he’s trying something a bit more subtle—a grey pinstripe suit and wire rim glasses.

Mike also has agents who help him shop. So if he gets thrown out midway through a shopping run, he’ll have backup. And that’s our first stop today, picking up a guy named Zach, who’s been working with Mike for the last few years.

Mike found Zach by posting an ad on Craigslist that went something like this:

 

MIKE: “Pirate needs pirate for international grocery smuggling operation,” is what I put in the thing. And you get some really, like, uh, and then the odd email’s like, “I know what this is! I’m in.”

 

KAITLIN: We park in front of Zach’s place, a small white house. There’s long grass growing in the yard, prayer flags hang over the doorway.

Inside, it’s cool, the floors are worn. There’s the feeling of coming into an old house on a hot summer day. Dream catchers hang in the window. There’s a guy sitting barefoot on the couch, playing guitar. A young woman with bright red dreadlocks. And then there’s Zach. He’s 25-years-old, finishing up a Norwegian lesson on his computer. And he just needs a few more minutes, if it’s cool.

While we wait for Zach, Mike offers me a tour of the house. He sometimes stays over after a late night shopping run. Mike points out the place he slept last time—a little bedroom built into the staircase with a curtain for a door.

 

MIKE: This is my crash zone. And it’s right under the stairs. Check this out,

check this out. No I’m serious. Oh hi!

 

KAITLIN: One of Zach’s many housemates approaches us. The guy is trim, elbowy.

 

MIKE: I’m Mike by the way

GUY: Mike. Are you the pirate?

MIKE: I’m the Pirate

GUY: Hey, it’s great to finally meet you, I’ve heard about you forever, so this is, this is great.

KAITLIN: Before we leave, the guy hands Mike a bottle of brown liquid.

GUY: Thanks for employing my friend. It’s some hard cider I brewed in Celan. It’s got limehop, organic ambrosia apples. Enjoy! Yeah, no problem.

MIKE: I can’t wait to try this out

GUY: Yeah, enjoy!

ZACH: Everyone have a good day.

 

KAITLIN: Back in the van, Mike is driving, I’m riding shotgun. Zach is squeezed between us on a pile of blankets, holding a bag of clothes on his lap.

 

ZACH: I got some glasses in here. I have a Mariner’s cap, another shirt. So you know, potentially like, 12 to 16 different clothes combinations. You know, get them looking at the glasses, get them looking at the hat.

 

KAITLIN: As we drive down the highway, Mike and Zach talk strategy.

Today the plan is to hit 3 or 4 Trader Joe’s stores. Mike and Zach will each get a cart, and fill it to the brim. They’ll go through checkout, deposit the groceries in the van, switch up their disguises and head back in for another cart.

And they’ve developed this jargon. Shirts is code for managers. If Mike and Zach like feel they are in danger of “getting made,” by a “shirt” one of them might send the other a text that says the  “heat is creeping up,” it’s time to clear out.

Most stores, they’ll each fill 3 or so carts, and then it’s on to the next TJ’s. At the end of the day, they’ve got a van with $8,000 worth of groceries.

We’re here, in the Trader Joe’s parking garage.

 

MIKE: Well we’re about to go in. And, suit’s going on. I’m going to put the invisible cloaking device on which is a dark blue pinstripe suit that I use for cleaning up.

 

KAITLIN: Zach heads into the store first. Mike has been thrown out of this particular Trader Joe’s three times, so following him around with a microphone was out of the question. Instead, I have Mike wear a hidden mic.

 

MIKE: Levels check. Ten, nine, eight…

 

KAITLIN: While Mike suits up, I tell him my plan. I’m going to follow closely behind, taking notes and observing from afar. He’s nodding, says sounds good, sounds good. But when we get to the store entrance, Mike turns around and tells me to keep up.

 

MIKE: What’s your problem? You’re with me. ‘Cause you’re part of my disguise.

 

KAITLIN: Mike grabs a cart, and walks through the automatic doors. The first thing he does is pick up a potted yellow daffodil and put it in the cart.

 

MIKE: Great way as a disguise. And then the thing is, remember to put it back. Otherwise, you own it.

 

KAITLIN: He never actually buys the flower, just keeps it in there until right before check-out. It’s one of his go to tricks.

Mike slowly starts adding things to his cart. And as we’re making our way to the end of one aisle, we run into a woman in a red Trader Joe’s sweatshirt. She squints at the cart. Her eyes dart up toward Mike, and she gives him this really funny look. I would’ve thought I was just being paranoid if it weren’t for what Mike did next.

 

MIKE: Do you think Mom wants hummus, or what’s her deal?

 

KAITLIN: And just like that, Mike went from being a person of interest to a dad shopping with his daughter. And I’ve gone from being an innocent bystander to Mike’s accomplice.

 

MIKE: I think mom would love this stuff. We should get two.

 

KAITLIN: I want to laugh but Mike is playing it so straight. We’re at the end of the aisle and I can still see the woman out of the corner of my eye, walking by slowly, sizing us up. I find myself nodding, going along with the ruse, reaching for the hummus…

 

MIKE: She likes the Mediterranean. Let’s get a couple of those.

 

KAITLIN: My hands are sweating, a little shaky. Finally the woman walks off. The whole thing is such a rush, like hanging out with that friend who can make any mundane chore feel like the best part of your week. I glance around the store at all the people who aren’t part of this game. Look at them, poking around in the freezer section, straining to read the label on a box of granola. They are grocery shopping. But we arae on a secret mission.

 

MIKE: So, now we’re gonna get some frozen stuff. Okay, so we need a couple more of these, uh, silver dollar pancakes.

 

KAITLIN: Even though the cookies and the almonds and dried mangos are in the same row, Mike doesn’t go for them all at once. He does this dance of picking up a bag, coolly examining the sodium content, shifting back to check the shelf price. He’s trying to act normal, go at the same pace as a regular shopper.  And for the first time I realize how slowly people move when they’re grocery shopping. The subtle motions that go into choosing a box of cereal make everyone looks like they’re underwater.

Down the aisle, I see Zach chucking boxes of peanut butter dog treats into his cart. He’s changed out of his nerdy tech guy outfit and is now wearing a Yankees Sweatshirt. I almost don’t recognize him. And it occurs to me, Zach is perfect for this job. When he’s wearing a Mariners cap, you see a sporty frat guy. When he’s got the architect glasses on, he looks like he just rolled out of a Brooklyn coffee shop. As we push our cart past him, Zach gives us a brief, blank stare.

Our cart is getting pretty full. And full of things that no normal person would ever buy. Apparently, mom wanted six tubs of hummus, twenty frozen chili tamales, ten jars of Red Boat Fish Sauce and a dozen cans of coconut cream.  

 

MIKE: This cart is very very Pirate Joe. Nobody shops like this. So I’m gonna be testing the limits. The only thing saving me from being busted right now is this flower.

 

KAITLIN: The flower we picked up when we first came in.

We head to check-out. And this is the critical moment. Mike’s been thrown out at checkout dozens of times. He tells me that choosing the right line is key. Pick the wrong cashier and you’re done. We get in line at a register far enough away from the manager’s desk to prevent scrutiny and close enough to avoid suspicion.

 

MIKE: See the desk over there? See the guy over there? See the way he looks? A little bit of silver in the hair. Wire rim glasses. Standard issue. Standard issue manager. I don’t even want to look at him. You don’t want to make eye contact—oh hey hi!

 

KAITLIN: The cashier is a young guy in a black Trader Joe’s t-shirt who looks like he could use a few more hours of sleep.

 

MIKE: Can I help bag?

 

KAITLIN: Bagging is a way to keep things moving along at the register. Another hack is making conversation with the cashiers to distract them from the large quantity of silver dollar pancakes rolling across the conveyer belt.

 

MIKE: You guys been busy?

CASHIER: Not really.

MIKE: I was told to get this. Don’t come out here without this. What’s the deal with this?

CASHIER: Really?

MIKE: Yeah. Red Boat Fish Sauce. I don’t know.

CASHIER: Yeah.

 

KAITLIN: I can tell Mike is getting a little nervous. He concentrates on the cashier’s expression, realizing too late when the the cashier scans the yellow daffodil.

 

MIKE: No we’re not gonna—yeah, we’re gonna get that. We just bought that plant.

 

KAITLIN: We’re almost in the clear. The total on our cart rings up. $220.71.

 

CASHIER: Oh, it says there was a problem with the customer’s card.

KAITLIN: I feel a jolt of panic and hold my breath.

MIKE: Okay, let’s do this one. This’ll work.

CASHIER: It’ll work.

 

KAITLIN: The cashier swipes the second card. We wait. The word APPROVED flashes on the keypad and I’m able to breathe again.

But then, Mike decides to just completely break character. With a smug smile, he tells the cashier—

 

MIKE: We’re actually here on business.  

CASHIER: Oh yeah? What’re you doing?

MIKE: Did you want the truth?

CASHIER: Yeah!

 

KAITLIN: Everyone in line—the dopey jock guy behind us, and the couple behind him—has perked up. The cashier at the next register is looking over to see what the commotion is about. And Mike is just amping it up.

 

MIKE: You want the truth? We all want the truth? Can you keep a secret?

CASHIER: Yeah, of course!

MIKE: Have you heard of that guy in Canada that buys groceries?

SHOPPER: Yeah, it’s insane.

CASHIER: Yeah. You’re—no way!

MIKE: Shut the fuck up! Shut the fuck up!

 

KAITLIN: The cashier is looking around, unsure of what to do. I’m unsure of what to do. And Mike seems to realize announcing himself like this was not such a good idea. He’s freaking out. He needs a getaway plan. And so his next move is to turn things over to me.

 

MIKE: So, tell him what you’re doing.

KAITLIN: So, I’m doing a story about…about Pirate Joe.

CASHIER: Are you serious?

KAITLIN: Yes, I’m serious.

CASHIER: Where’s it gonna appear?

KAITLIN: It’s gonna appear on a podcast called StartUp.

 

KAITLIN: I stammer my way through an explanation, long, and weird enough that Mike finishes bagging the groceries. As he turns to leave, the cashier is still stunned.

 

CASHIER: All right.

MIKE: Thanks, man. Any way. I fucking told you, see? It’s this shit—

CASHIER: StartUp.

KAITLIN: Check it out! Yeah, yeah, yeah.

CASHIER: Good luck with it.

KAITLIN AND MIKE: Thank you.

 

KAITLIN: Back in the van, my adrenaline is still rushing. Mike and Zach act calm, but we don’t go in for a second cart.

It’s 6 o’clock at night, and the workday is just beginning. We have a couple more stores to hit, then we have to drop off Zach. Then there’s the long drive across the border, where we have to declare the groceries. All of them. Every container of Mom’s hummus. Every last peanut butter dog treat.

 

LISA: Coming up, what Mike does when all the forces of the universe conspire against him, and what it’s like being married to a pirate. That’s after these words from our sponsors.

 

-ads-

 

LISA: Welcome back to StartUp. I’m Lisa Chow. We’re gonna to pick up right where we left off. Mike is heading home with $8000 worth of pirated groceries. Kaitlin Roberts tells the rest of the story.  

 

KAITLIN: By the time we head north on the highway it’s dark. We pass the diner lights and neon signs. The sky is clear, starry. Cool air is coming through the busted window. And we get into one of those conversations you get into when you’re on a long night drive.

Mike tells me, looking back on that day he first got kicked out, he wishes things had gone differently.

 

MIKE: I should have folded my tent. I should have said, you know what? That’s idiot. Pride goeth before the fall. This was stupid, I’ll regroup. But I didn’t. I’m looking back on that motivation 4 years out going, what was I thinking?

 

KAITLIN: Mike never thought it would get to this point. He figured eventually he would be shut down and that would be that. In fact, Trader Joe’s did sue Mike when he was a year into the business. His business insurance covered the legal fees, and a prominent law firm in Seattle took his case. Mike’s attorneys argued he had every right to purchase groceries in one country, declare them and sell them in another.                    

And to everyone’s surprise, the courts agreed. In October 2013, the case was dismissed.

Trader Joe’s is appealing, and it could be years before the case is resolved. In the meantime, Mike’s become a local celebrity in Vancouver. His attorneys invite him to their fancy soirees. Hands were shaken, photos snapped. Mike handed out buttons that say, “I’m shopping for Pirate Joe.” The attorneys pin them to their suits, pledging loyalty to a guy who views suits as nothing more than a clever disguise.

Still, Mike only makes about 70,000 Canadian a year, which is about 50,000 US. He told me he recently moved out of his apartment to save money. Mike’s been living in the little office above the store.

Most of the money Mike earns goes to his kids. Mike has two daughters from two different relationships. His 11-year old daughter Josie lives with her mom in Vancouver, just a few miles from Mike’s shop. His 4-year old daughter Hazel lives with her mom in Kansas City, Missouri. Mike goes down to see her as often as he can.

The way Mike sees it, he needs to keep running Pirate Joe’s because it’s the best thing for this family. It allows him to to give his kids financial support and also be in their lives.

 

MIKE: If I had a day job, there is just no way. So the only way I can be dad to two kids in two different cities, in two different countries, is to have your own business.

LAUREN: His position is it gives him the flexibility to come out here and be Hazel’s dad a week a month. And my position is that I would rather him have a real job because the money would be constant and he would work 40 or 60 hours a week and then when he was done, he’d be done.

KAITLIN: That’s Lauren, Mike’s wife and the mom of Mike’s younger daughter Hazel. We talked on the phone a couple months ago. Lauren and Mike are in the process of separating but they’re on good terms. She and Hazel live in Kansas City, where Lauren’s going back to school. And in the time that she’s known Mike, Lauren has seen how dysfunctional this business can be.

LAUREN: It’s a complete waste, in my opinion, of his talents—running around in the car all the time, in this clandestine piece of shit van that’s constantly breaking down, you know, trying to buy, you know, like pirated groceries, I mean it’s just so haphazard constantly.  

KAITLIN: So does it affect you,? Does it not affect you? What—

LAUREN: Oh yeah. I mean, when he comes to see Hazel, I don’t tell her that he’s coming until he’s actually checked in on the plane like in the waiting area, you know, at the gate. Because, he doesn’t buy a ticket until he’s actually driving to the airport.

And doesn’t really get the stress that it causes me for all of this to be happening or like, why it would be important say, to know if he was coming or not, so like, maybe I could make a plan to do something, you know what I mean? It’s…yeah—

KAITLIN: Right, have you ever told him, like, this is not good for, for me, this is not good for Hazel?

LAUREN: So many times. I mean it’s, you know, that whole thing about the definition of insanity is just like, trying to do the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

KAITLIN: Right.

LAUREN: Yeah, he doesn’t get it and…you know, it is hard, I mean I know, I don’t like to work for other people, I don’t like other people to tell me what to do, I totally get that.

KAITLIN: Right.

LAUREN: But it’s running him into the ground. I mean, if you look at pictures of him from when we met versus now, I mean, he has aged significantly. And I’m not saying it just because of the Pirate Joe’s thing. Like, obviously our relationship and Hazel and whatever like, you know, it’s been a lot. Yeah, it’s been hard on all of us.

 

KAITLIN: A few weeks after this conversation, Mike sends me a message. His landlord is tearing down the block, forcing everyone to leave. Mike says he has to be out by the end of the week.

On Pirate Joe’s last day, everything is on sale. The store is packed with a line down the aisle. People jamming their baskets full of stuff. The same question comes up again and again.

 

MAN: This is seriously the last day?

MIKE: So we got a new location up the street. On tenth.

MAN: Oh, good, good.

MIKE: So it’s not too bad. We’re going to work our way out of this.

 

KAITLIN: We’re at a going out of business sale. Mike is being evicted tomorrow. But Mike’s telling customers he’ll be up and running again soon.

Yet, Mike hasn’t actually signed a contract for a new place or put forward any money. He doesn’t have a key, only a series of text messages with the owner of the property.

 

MIKE: It’s a great little block. Old school. Once you see it you’ll go, “Ah!”

SHOPPERS: Very cool, thank you.

MIKE: We’re gonna do a cafe and all kinds of stuff, like, take it up a notch.

WOMAN: Nice.

 

KAITLIN: So what’s going on here? Mike’s wife wants him to quit the business. Mike says he wants to quit. His landlord is forcing him out. Mike doesn’t have a place to live since he’s been sleeping in the office above the store. And he has a really bad earache. If Mike was looking for a sign that it’s time to quit this line of work and move onto the next opportunity, it seems to me he’s gotten a few of them.

So why does he keep going? It’s baffling. But Mike has never been good at knowing when to quit.

 

MIKE: So, when I was like 11 and I was playing hockey and—to get off at the end of the practice, the first person off the ice was the one who skated first around the rink. So, they would blow the whistle and everyone would go do the loop. And I was the biggest fastest skater by far so I should’ve won it, except Scott Kowalik cut the net early and beat me. So what I should’ve done is just coast for the next loop. But instead I tried to win the second round. Didn’t make it by a hair. And the third round. And fourth round and I kept going and going until I collapsed, hyperventilating on the ice. So I was not smart enough to figure that out. I was fueled by this refusal to quit.

So that’s the guy skating on the ice going around and around. So am I just going round and round till my ear gets so infected that I end up with a brain infection and then I’m dead? Well, the guy should have paid attention to that. But he was so focused on making the business work that he collapsed.

KAITLIN: Yeah, I mean, are you ok with that happening? With—

MIKE: Dying? ‘Cause of this business? No I’m not very good with that. Not good at all with that. That’s a very bad, bad plan.

 

KAITLIN: A few days after Pirate Joe’s closed, Mike got that new place he was talking about, just like he said he would. It’s a spot that used to be a dry cleaner’s shop, with black-and-white checkered floors. But it’s got four walls and a good location, and that’s a start.

Mike finally has the option to shut down and he’s plunging himself back into the chaos. There’s something about being in this situation that drives him, and I realize, maybe this is the reason he keeps this business going, more than wanting to be there for his kids, or not wanting to have the day job.

Mike would tell me craving the disaster is just one part of why he does what he does.

And maybe that’s true. But there’s no question, living in chaos is something Mike is very good at. And it’s hard to quit something you’re good at.  

 

-music-

 

LISA: Kaitlin Roberts is senior producer of our show.

Coming up, we’ll have scenes from the next episode of StartUp, after these words from our sponsors.

 

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LISA: We’ll be back in two weeks, on May 12th. We’ve got a bunch more stories for you this season. In our next episode, we’ll meet a group of outsiders trying to take on the music industry. In the process, they literally run into one of its biggest stars.  

JACK: Kanye West goes, “Y’all need to get the fuck out of here.”

JOHN: “Yo, get the fuck out of my way! Get the fuck out of here.” And we can just see that there’s, like, some backstage security guard, like, beelining towards us.

LISA: When a bouncer and an industry want to take you down. That’s coming up in two weeks.

 

Today’s episode was produced by Alex Blumberg, Peter Clowney, Kaitlin Roberts, Molly Messick, Bruce Wallace, Luke Malone and me. Editing help from Starlee Kine.

Production assistance from Simone Polanen.  

Mark Phillips wrote and performed our theme song. Build Buildings wrote and performed our special ad music. Additional music by Tyler Strickland, Kevin Sparks, and the band Hot Moms Dot Gov.

Matthew Boll mixed the episode.   

To subscribe to the podcast, go to itunes and subscribe to StartUp, or, check out the gimlet media website: gimletprod.staging.wpengine.com. You can follow us on twitter @podcaststartup. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you in two weeks.  

 

We do our best to make sure these transcripts are accurate. If you would like to quote from an episode of StartUp, please check the transcript with the corresponding audio.

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