Published on May 22, 2014

OTHER VOICES: Small-biz owner supports raising minimum wage

(Crain News Service photo)
David Borris

CHICAGO (May 22, 2014) — As a caterer, I do a lot of weddings. With another summer season approaching, I can almost hear the wedding bells chime.

But when I hear big trade associations usurping the identity of small businesses like mine in order to argue against a minimum wage increase, a different kind of bell goes off in my head: alarm bells.

I own a 29-year-old catering business. I have 25 full-time and 80 part-time and seasonal employees. I pay a starting wage of $10 an hour. And you know what? My business is thriving.

Paying good wages is part of my recipe for success. Contrary to the hype from big-business lobbyists in Springfield, Ill., and in Washington, D.C., I believe raising the minimum wage is pro-business: It’s good policy for local, independent small businesses like mine.

The opposition to raising the minimum wage from big trade groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Restaurant Association doesn’t represent me. But it doesn’t surprise me, either.

These trade groups’ members include Fortune 500 companies like Wal-Mart Stores Inc., McDonald’s Corp. and Yum Brands Inc. (parent of Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut). These are the companies that drive their agenda—not small, independent businesses like mine.

But isn’t what’s good for one business good for another? Not always — not by a long shot. Here’s the reality the big-business lobbies would rather keep hidden: The interests of local, independent small businesses and big national and multinational chains are worlds apart.

Small businesses have different needs, different business models and different values from bigger corporate operations. These differences are many, but I’ll highlight three that explain why I support raising the minimum wage: local ownership, local customers and long-haul commitments.

Local ownership

My business is local in every sense of the word. My employees live locally, and so do I. I work in the business every day, and I know my staff by name. My office is right next to our catering kitchen — not in a corner office in some Wall Street high-rise. I see the immediate impact that paying good wages has on my employees and their families. CEOs of corporate chains don’t.

My customer base is local, too. For my business to succeed, I need a local customer base with enough disposable income to support my business. That means I need a lot of other businesses in my local economy to be paying good wages, too. This isn’t rocket science. It’s just taking Henry Ford’s realization about good wages — that his assembly line workers needed to earn enough to afford the cars they were making in order for his business to thrive — and extending that lesson across the economy.

Big chains don’t share this lifelong reliance on a local customer base. In fact, many of them seem more interested in tapping emerging markets overseas than in growing their local customer base. My “emerging market” is the class of 2014 that’s about to graduate into a tough job market with too few jobs that pay enough to buy a car, make a down payment on a house or pop the question and call a wedding planner...and a caterer.

And finally, local small businesses like mine are in it for the long haul. We’re committed to building long-term value and winning the enduring loyalty of customers who will hire us for the next important life event and the next after that, not chasing the quick buck. Executives of multinational corporations driven to beat the next quarterly earnings target and cash out their stock options — not so much.

Our long-haul view shows in our employee retention. I have people who have been with me for the better part of two decades. McDonald’s and Taco Bell could take a lesson from Henry Ford in the retentive power of good, solid wages.

Don’t take the low road

By spending a little more on payroll, we cut down on turnover and save on the associated costs of hiring and training new employees. We also save ourselves a lot of stress and headaches by building and keeping a reliable team we can count on every day to consistently satisfy demanding customers.

At the end of the day, I believe we need to be wedded to rules of the road for our economy that promote a sustainable path to the top, not the downward spiral driven by low-wage employers like McDonald’s and Wal-Mart.

Taking the low road doesn’t just lead to low wages — it leads to a low-value, low-innovation, low-growth future. And that only serves to demoralize a larger and larger segment of the potential workforce. I’d rather be part of building a high-value, high-innovation, high-growth economy — one we can be proud to pass on to our kids.

That’s why I support raising the minimum wage.

And when I hear big-business lobbies profess to represent small businesses like mine as they push their low-road, low-wage, low-growth agenda, I feel compelled to set the record straight. Those lobby groups don’t speak for many local, independent small business owners I know—and they certainly don’t speak for me.

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David Borris owns Hel’s Kitchen Catering in Northbrook, Ill.. He is on the national executive committee of the Main Street Alliance small-business network.

He wrote this opinion piece for Crain’s Chicago Business magazine, a sister publication of Tire Business.

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