After consuming a delectable meal in my childhood home, we often urged my dad to start his own restaurant. His response was always the same: "I love to cook, but running a successful business is endless hard work. I don't want to take that on." He understood the many obstacles to success and knew just how much blood and sweat he would need to keep the tears at bay. Only after I worked several restaurant jobs in my 20s did I truly begin to understand what he meant. While doing kitchen prep and baking, as well as waiting tables and busing, I learned about the tight profit margin. I also realized the many ways in which the public often misunderstood our work and our compensation.
Each Saturday night the same couple would order a lobster dinner and then run the waitstaff ragged with special requests. Their whopping tip at the end of the night? Always the same: two bucks. While we hustled and got stiffed on the gratuity, the owners huddled in the office sorting out how to keep the business solvent. We'd all track the number of dinners we'd sent out for the night, the week, and the month. Occasionally we'd break out the expensive wine and beer at the end of a particularly successful night. More often, we'd recall past glory when the tables turned over quickly, the front of the house buzzed, and the kitchen got pleasantly slammed by a flood of diners.
When you own a small business, your financial fate keeps you up at night. You hope to skate on the right side of the profit margin. And regardless of the week you've had, you must cover your overhead and make payroll. From 2007-2011, more small businesses closed in Vermont than opened, and there was a net loss of employees in the small business sector. And yet, we are still a state of small businesses.
A February 2013 report by the U.S. Small Business Administration describes how over 96 percent of Vermont's employers are small businesses; most of our small businesses are very small. Over 76 percent have no employees other than the owners, and most others have fewer than 20 employees. According to the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development's 2013 Report on Advanced Manufacturing, around 60 percent of advanced manufacturers have fewer than 10 employees; about 87 percent have 50 or fewer employees. Over a thousand Vermont advanced manufacturers have five or fewer employees. Like the individual patchwork that so many Vermont families cobble together to make ends meet, Vermont itself is a hodgepodge of small businesses. These businesses, along with Vermont's diversified agricultural endeavors, are the infrastructure of our economy.
We often hear that we're mired in a New Gilded Age. Our nation has outrageous income disparity we've not seen since Vermont's own Calvin Coolidge took office. Boston Globe political cartoonist Dan Wasserman drew a scathing indictment of this inequality: In the time it takes to stand at a urinal, a CEO of a large company can now make flour times as much as a minimum-wage worker makes in a year. But when we rightfully rail against income inequality, we need to remember that, for the most part, Vermont is not full of "big business."
A small business owner in the area recently summed up the sentiment of many local employers: "Nobody seems to get how hard it is to keep a business going in this terrible economic environment." Another asked, bewildered, "When did "profit" become such a vulgar word? I work really long hours and provide a service. For the first few years in my business, I did not draw a salary to speak of. I took the risk. I always have to cover my overhead and pay my employees first." Like other small business owners, he shakes his head at what feels is, at best, a misunderstanding and, at worst, an underlying distrust.
If a business survives, it can potentially employ others. If it does well, it can possibly expand and boost our grand list. (Something we very desperately need in this town.) If a business owner has a surplus of capital, she has critical disposable income to invest in our vibrant (but often financially pressed) arts and music community.
The tenor and scope of discourse clearly needs to shift. These businesses do so much for our economy. We need each other.
There are some tangible ways in which we can help. We can publicly support successful local businesses, like Against the Grain, when and if the owners want to expand. We can be more engaged and vocal with our Windham County legislators so that we ensure that any new state legislation passed will "first do no harm" to small businesses. We can be more rigorous in funding programs that encourage entrepreneurship, business incubators, and the creation of more local businesses.
Locally, we can organize targeted "buy out" days like the ones started by Leroy Jones of the Neighbors and Neighbors project in Miami, Fla. Jones spearheaded days in which small, struggling local businesses were the recipients of publicized, directed buying sprees. Hundreds of area residents pledged to spend a small amount of money at a particular business on a specific day. This sudden influx of cash enabled businesses to make necessary improvements that they wouldn't have been able to afford otherwise. And residents learned of local businesses to patronize for the items they needed.
In order to sustain and grow Vermont's strong entrepreneurial record, we must feed the fires of creativity while acknowledging and championing the tenacity it takes to make payroll each week.
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