Danny Schwartzman grew up just outside of Washington, D.C., with an entrepreneurial mind-set and a socially conscious heart. He wound up in Minneapolis doing organizing and political work, but he always harbored a dream of opening a bagel shop.
“I kept on coming back to the idea in the back of my head: a restaurant that serves as a community meeting place, serves great food made from scratch with local and organic ingredients sourced at the highest levels possible,” Schwartzman said. “Not fine dining, and not gritty.”
At age 25, he bought a building on Lyndale Avenue, “happily ignorant” of the challenges ahead, and created Common Roots Cafe. Eight years later, he’s added on a catering business and now employs about 80 regular workers, with more occasional help for events.
In the past couple of weeks, Schwartzman has become the rare restaurateur — and an outlier among small business owners generally — supporting the controversial notion of mandating better conditions for Minneapolis workers, including paid sick leave and schedules set two weeks in advance. He pays $11.40 per hour, with health insurance and paid time off.
The so-called Working Families Agenda isn’t a finite document, and implementation is uncertain. Even then, it would likely be phased in gradually. It would affect a wide array of small businesses, but it is the hospitality industry that has led discussion against it. For restaurants, the WFA may as well be named the End of Days Proclamation.
Since the idea was sketched out in pencil by a few council members and supported by Mayor Betsy Hodges, it has been pulled apart more easily than a loaf of Monkey Bread. For critics, it was more evidence that a faction of the Minneapolis City Council had gone full-bore Portlandia, grand ideas with no hold in reality.
Last week, when the region’s most prominent restaurant, La Belle Vie, announced it would close, there was an audible gasp. Chef Tim McKee, who routinely ranks at the far positive end of the saint-to-tyrant continuum of local chefs to work for, ticked off a list of logical and credible reasons why the restaurant’s time was over.
But in some reports he added that fear of the WFA also may have played a part. Common sense would tell you that the heavy machinery and road construction that has blocked access to the restaurant for months was a far bigger burden than some vague proposal far off in the distance.
La Belle Vie is a great restaurant — so great that it probably survived a few years beyond any reasonable life expectancy. The restaurant’s target demographic now sees itself as a maverick Libertine, with a Spoon, in a Stable, being served by a Bachelor Farmer.
The concerns from restaurants about WFA are real, unwieldy and probably unenforceable, so proponents immediately began to retrench possible regulations. But that didn’t stop the largest stakeholders, unions and the restaurant associations, from creating good guys and bad guys.
Schwartzman, sipping coffee at Common Roots this week, has advice for them: Chill.
“There is a lot of negativity spreading,” said Schwartzman, 33. “Frankly, the rollout was handled horribly. A lot of people who have not been engaged in politics don’t understand there is a lot of room for involvement. People are responding very fearfully to it. It seems clear that a lot of things that people are up in arms about aren’t going to happen.”
“For me, there are real problems, real issues of equity in this city,” said Schwartzman, the son of a political consultant and a mother who works in international law. “I think there is a good reason for pushing this forward. The goal is to have more people as stable as possible. More people with good jobs spending more money and living well.”
“For me, sure we have a variety of practical questions,” said Schwartzman. “I know it’s going to be a burden, but one we think we can handle.”
Schwartzman sees the issue as something that can be worked on inside the small business community, starting with ideas most of them can agree upon. For example, “sick pay is not something controversial for most businesses, I would hope. I think a lot of it is going off message.”
Schwartzman said the restaurant industry seems to have captured the attention on the issue, perhaps because everybody eats out. In fact, “restaurants are not that unusual,” he said. “There are a lot of businesses that are weather-dependent. Some people in our business are saying this is unthinkable, this is unworkable,” Schwartzman said.
Schwartzman said his colleagues in the business “are good people who want to do the right thing, and they are being lumped in with the restaurant association, which is philosophically opposed to change. It’s just a lot easier to voice the worst-case scenario.”
“I want Minneapolis to be a great city, built around small businesses,” said Schwartzman. “This is a good time to have this conversation. I am arguing for a reasonable level of government involvement. ”
Schwartzman finished his coffee, then bussed his dishes.
“The life of a small-business owner is struggling to make ends meet,” Schwartzman said. “A lot of things have to go right every day.”
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin