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Food Carts and the UNIX Philosophy

By Luc Perkins | Posted on May 10, 2013

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For as long as I can remember growing up here, Portland has been known for a small handful of things: beer, coffee, mopey indie rock, bikes, soul-crushing weather. Added to that list in the past few years have been Portlandia, the Timbers Army, Voodoo Doughnut, and, most importantly (IMHO), food carts.

Food carts have become a key component of our culinary culture here in PDX. We love that we can get phenomenal food all over town without paying for the overhead associated with brick-and-mortar establishments. It also doesn’t hurt that we can then eat wherever we please—on a park bench, at the office, or, here at Janrain, on the rooftop of the Dekum building, which is a magisterial thing on the 12 or so nice days we have in a calendar year.

There are lots of phenomenal food carts, but Nong’s Khao Man Gai is considered by many to be one of a very small handful of the best PDX food carts if not the absolute, undisputed best.

So what does Nong’s serve that makes it so special? Many would assume that Nong’s serves a broad, continuously shifting array of dishes. I mean, if this place is one of the best of Portland’s over 500 carts, then surely they must have earned this reputation through a diversity of offerings, right? That’s what I would have thought. And this is indeed the approach that the vast majority of food carts take, sometimes offering dozens of menu options.

But Nong’s seems to succeed because it offers you shockingly little choice. In the picture below you’ll see the only thing that you can get at Nong’s (excluding beverages, of course):

Have a look at its online menu to see what I mean (see the “Downtown/Alder” column on the left). Yes, that’s right: two menu items. Menu item #1 is chicken and rice. Menu item #2 is chicken and rice “Big Size.” That barely counts as a separate item! That’s like 1.27 menu items! Vegetarian or vegan? Too bad. Go somewhere else. Looking for other common Thai items like Pad Thai or fried rice? Too bad. Deal with it. There are plenty of other Thai carts out there.

But far from alienating their potential clientele, Nong’s thrives in a major way. They continuously win culinary awards of all sorts. They’re frequently featured in publications about Portland’s food culture. And, most tellingly, the lunchtime line is almost always exasperatingly long. And when you do make it through the line and bring your chicken and rice back to the office, your response is almost invariably the following: “That was barely a wait at all. I would have waited an hour or more for the fermented bean curd sauce alone.”

The UNIX Philosophy

So what on Earth does this have to do with UNIX? Well, it’s simple: Nong’s and UNIX have the same core philosophy. There are a variety of formulations of the UNIX philosophy, but I’ll do something super hacky and deprecated and consult the UNIX philosophy Wikipedia page and try to distill the philosophy into a few core tenets:

  • Small is beautiful
  • Make each program do one thing * and one thing well
  • Favor simplicity and portability over feature completeness
  • Write programs to work together

The antithesis of the UNIX philosophy in computing consists, then, of the following:

  • Big is beautiful
  • Make programs do a whole variety of things
  • Favor comprehensiveness of function over simplicity
  • Write programs to work autonomously

Yes, this is an extremely rough expression of the UNIX philosophy, but I do think that it elucidates some crucial points. According to this worldview, complex processes should almost always be broken up into smaller processes in the name of transparency (e.g. teasing out problems and speeding the application of solutions); it’s always better to have a toolbelt with a lot of small tools with clear purposes than to have a toolbelt with one big tool that does everything; and larger systems should be carefully woven out of these smaller pieces.

The UNIX Philosophy in Action at Nong’s

The UNIX philosophy is typically associated with computing—unsurprisingly—but I see no reason why it can’t be applied to organizational theory. Nong’s makes one thing—chicken and rice—and does it extremely well. In this, it is a spiritual devotee of the UNIX philosophy, even if an inadvertent one. Nong’s menu has no aspirations whatsoever to be comprehensive, and they seem to have no plans to change their menu. It might be fair to say that limited ambition is another core component of the UNIX philosophy.

Going down this path has benefited the organization in a variety of ways:

  • Efficiency: when the line gets long—as it very often does—doing one thing and doing it well helps Nong’s with queue efficiency in a drastic and immediately apparent way. No one dilly-dallies figuring out what to order, and the cashier doesn’t have to navigate a sophisticated user interface in taking orders.
  • Friendlier learning curve: new personnel are quickly brought up to speed. Instead of learning how to cook 50 dishes, they learn how to make one. Now, Nong’s chicken and rice is deceptively complex, and there’s a lot of careful work that goes into it. Nonetheless, less conceptual overhead means quicker turnaround times for new employees.
  • Competitive advantage: whereas other carts always face the possibility that another Thai or Indonesian or Lebanese or Ethiopian or whatever cart is going to cut into their profits, Nong’s absolutely owns chicken and rice. If anyone came along and tried to do exactly what they do, they would be seen as a cheap knock-off.

With all of this going for it, is it any surprise that Nong’s succeeds?

Toward a UNIX-Flavored Federation of Processes?

If the UNIX philosophy can work for Nong’s, it can probably benefit all kinds of organizations and processes. Modularity and learning curves and feature completeness are not just concepts for IT departments. They also have a place in any and all discussion of organizational competency and success more broadly.

I long for the day when all of Portland’s food carts adopt the UNIX philosophy and drastically limit their scope. The result would be fewer total menu options but a far higher quotient of out-of-this-world menu options. The food cart ecosystem would be transformed from an assemblage of redundant menu offerings and reinvented wheels into a thriving federation of lean operations. So next you’re at a food cart, talk with the owner and share this vision. Urge them to consider seeking the Nong’s path.

What do you think, Dear Reader? Should modularity trump completeness? Are limited feature sets usually a good thing? Am I crazy for thinking that the UNIX philosophy has real-world relevance?

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