Thursday, October 22, 2015
ON THE AVENUES: My career as a double naught capitalist.
A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.
"(Roger’s) never done anything in a positive manner to help the city of New Albany”
--Jeff Gahan, during the mayoral debate at Silver Street Park
During the opening phases of Rich O’s Public House during the early- to mid-1990s, with Oasis and Nirvana playing in the background, we often pointed to Kentucky license plates in the parking lot as proof of things working out just as we had hoped.
Back then, apart from South Side Inn and a downtown liquor store or two, New Albany wasn’t much of a draw for residents of the Commonwealth. Fortunately, we were ahead of the curve in terms of better beer, and it was encouraging to know that “location, location, location” was bunk.
Niches and knowledge mattered, too. Aversions were overcome. How often did I read or hear comments like this one?
"It’s a really great place … and believe it or not, it’s in New Albany!"
25 years after drifting into the food and drink business, primarily on the strength of knowing more about beer than most other hospitality biz people did at the time, it’s a bit easier for me to be philosophical about the hardscrabble beginnings. There were far fewer epiphanies than daily, upward slogging.
In 1990, I’d worked at a package liquor store, and occasionally bartended, but didn’t have any food service experience. My objective was for us to be a world class beer bar in a locale where very little was aligned to accommodate such dreams. Like so many other aspects of life, we got by, learned by doing, and built gradually for a better future.
From the outset, it already was clear that pubs were my favored habitat, and usually the only truly comfortable places for me outside home and hearth. What I learned was that working in one is edifying, too – especially the sort of establishment evolving according to a particular, highly personalized plan.
Moreover, there is a fundamental honesty to preparing and serving meals and drinks for public consumption. Most of the time, the gratification is immediate. You know the customer liked it, or didn’t. When they return, it’s a wonderful feeling.
The television series Cheers had it right. We humans look for third spaces, these places where everyone knows your name. Social media is a way of connecting, but breaking bread and drinking beer with other people, all seated at a table in a room filled with others who are pursuing precisely the same goal, bring forth the possibility of genuine bonding.
They’re the days we’ll always remember, and do.
In a space this brief, it would be impossible to recount the many life lessons I learned during the past quarter-century, though one springs to mind: When business life is good, the employees get the credit, and when there are problems, it’s all on the owners.
The rank and file, and the workers on the shop floor – cooks, servers, dishwashers and staff members – do the heavy lifting and define the atmosphere. They’re the face of the business, and its esprit de corps. The job of the owner is to organize and manage them so they can thrive, and in turn, so the entity can succeed.
Yes, naturally there are exceptions. Firing someone isn’t fun, though occasionally it must be done. Employees make mistakes, and so on. The point to me is that so many of them, the vast majority, have been top-flight individuals, both before and after working for NABC.
We’ve had our share of teachers, media professionals, artists and musicians working as part-timers, supplementing their income with shifts. With IU Southeast just down the street from the original Pizzeria & Public House locations, there have been hundreds of students receiving W2s as they worked their way through school.
Just think of the local multiplier effect, for more than 25 years.
What’s more, so many of them have gone on to solid careers. If we had an NABC Alumni Association, it would include doctors, writers, sailors, lawyers, real estate moguls, gardeners, bar and restaurant owners, chefs, entrepreneurs, brewers, entertainers and distillers.
I see many of them on social media, raising their families and living their dreams. I’m pleased as punch to have played a part, however brief, in their formative lives.
In fact, seeing as I’m transitioning from company ownership into the “former” category of fogey datedness, I believe we should have such an NABC alumni organization.
Depending on the outcome of the election, I’ll get right on it come early November.
Being a democratic socialist does not imply being a non-capitalist, and while I may have chafed at the term in the past (hi, Mark), it isn’t something I bother disputing.
For the past 25 years, I’ve been engaged in capitalism of the local variety, this being the business of making waves: Starting with tiny ripples by serving a beer here and a pizza there, then accepting payment from generally satisfied customers (otherwise, we wouldn’t still be in business), and finally repeating these actions until they added up to a greater whole than the sum of their parts.
Independent local businesses of numerous stripes, engaging in every conceivable form of commerce, follow the same pattern as NABC. It is reckoned that one-third of the business activity in America is generated from enterprises like these with fewer than 50 employees.
In New Albany's historic downtown business district and the neighborhoods immediately surrounding it, this percentage is likely far higher. These are the businesses widely understood to have done the most in sustaining the city’s core during the lean years, and then boosting the revitalization of a formerly moribund area with a fresh wave of food, drink, retail and service businesses to complement the survivors of a previous era.
Not chains, not Flaherty and Collins, and not the Disney Corporation. Rather, local independent businesses, which keep a higher percentage of money in the local economy, do the capitalism thing, and grind it out all year long ... not merely during special occasions.
The pizzeria was founded in 1987, so I can honestly say that since the Reagan administration, NABC’s owners and employees have been privileged to serve hundreds of thousands of regular folks. We’ve paid taxes, dispensed wages, brought visitors to town, filled bellies and created memories.
Granted, while much of the volume has come from functioning as an on premise restaurant and bar, our two breweries, while small-scale and artisanal, also constitute manufacturing. We take raw materials, assemble them, pay taxes, and sell the finished product outside our immediate vicinity.
It’s nice having friends in other places, too.
Soon I'll be leaving NABC. For 25 years, I’ve wondered what I might do when I grow up, and at 55, it may at long last be time to find out.
There are a few hands I might have played differently, and decisions that were questionable in retrospect, but in the main, I'm proud of what we've achieved.
Speaking for myself, I put every bit of skin I possessed into this game, and I busted my ass in the process. What I get back from the business monetarily will be only a fraction of what was put into it, primarily because we’ve always reinvested proceeds, and refrained from extracting value.
I’m serene about NABC’s future. New blood and fresh ideas will step to the fore, as they usually do. The business itself will continue doing what it's always done, in as positive manner as humanly possible, fully contrary to the mayor’s somewhat uncomprehending utterance at the debate.
These folks involved with economic development at the municipal level ... have any of them actually ever owned a business?
Didn't think so.
Postscript: According to community economics advocate Michael Shuman, mainstream economic development today is a scam.
October 19: ON THE AVENUES REWOUND: Courtesy bicycle to the Hotel Silly (2010, 2013).
October 15: ON THE AVENUES: To the New Albanians, each and every one.
October 8: ON THE AVENUES: There’s an indie twist to this curmudgeon’s annual Harvest Homecoming column.
October 1: ON THE AVENUES: No more fear, Jeff.
September 24: ON THE AVENUES: Almost two years later, Mr. Gahan has yet to plug in this clock, and so it's time for him to clock out.
September 17: ON THE AVENUES: Dear Neighbor: If you’re tired of the same old story, turn some pages.
September 10: ON THE AVENUES: Lanesville Heritage Weekend comes around again.
September 3: ON THE AVENUES: When even Mitt Romney can run to the left of New Albany’s Democrats, it's a very big problem.