Small Business Culture

Earlier in the month Kojo Nnamdi spent an hour discussing the challenges that small businesses have in DC when trying to find affordable retail space. Small business have a tough time, even when they can afford to rent space, because landlords are often more interested in leasing to "credit" tenants who they believe are less likely to go delinquent on the lease.

One of the callers into the show brought up the small business culture in Portland, Oregon. This is something I intended to blog last winter, after I spent 4 days in the city.


(from dennis.tang on Flickr) 


 People in Portland absolutely love small businesses. It's like there's something in the air or the water there. They will go out of their way to patronize a small business in lieu of a chain business. I'm not sure there's another city where Powell's could not just survive but thrive, for example.

I went to one great little coffee shop in downtown Portland (it was not Stumptown, but it was a few blocks away). The owner told me that he is one of 32 coffee roasters in Portland. Not just a coffee shop, but a roaster. A bar owner I met was basically serving glorified homebrew from a hole in the wall pub, and he explained that Portland has dozens and dozens of microbreweries scattered across the city.

This was incredible to me. By my count, DC has 2 coffee roasters (plus another 2 or 3 in the suburbs); and 3 microbreweries (and a handful more in the suburbs), all three of which opened in the past two years.

There are a lot of reasons why DC isn't Portland, or why pretty much every city isn't Portland, for that matter. There's local laws and regulations, local economies, etc. But one key consideration is simply cultural. In DC, people get excited about the prospect of a new Dunkin Donuts at least as much as a new local donut shop. I got myself into a whole lot of trouble when I asked why everyone was getting so excited about WaWa last year.

Arguably this is the result of the "mixing pot" nature of DC. People come to DC from all over the place. So people from the Northeast feel safe at Dunkin Donuts. People from everywhere else feel safe at Starbucks. People like eating at Chipotle because they remember eating at Chipotle back home. I was the same way for a while. I bought foods and drinks that reminded me of back home. I've seen stopped buying them quite so frequently.

Small business culture isn't non-existent in DC. It's pretty good, actually. But the culture in Portland is just out-of-control good. If I could say there's a single thing about Portland that I wish I could have brought back with me - that's what it would be.

On Being a Food Snob

Recently somebody accused me of being a food snob. This was the first time in my life this ever happened and frankly, caught me by surprise. Being called a food snob isn't a title that most people want. Being a called a snob of any kind isn't a title that most people want. When it comes to food though, this is completely backwards - people should strive to be food snobs.

(from Alph on Flickr)

What does that mean exactly? It doesn't mean that you go to fancy restaurants owned by iron chefs. Hell, it doesn't mean that you ever even go out to restaurants. Being a food snob means caring about your food, its freshness, how it's prepared and cooked, and what impact it has on your health.

A person who eats at McDonalds, buys boxed Kraft macaroni and cheese and makes sandwiches with white bread and American cheese wouldn't be considered a food snob.

A person who shops at farmers markets, buys fresh fruits and vegetables, and makes garden salads at home with feta cheese and homemade vinaigrette, paired with pan seared yellow tail tuna might quality as a food snob.

This is a shame, because American society sees the first person as a regular, average Joe. Society sees the second person as some kind of out-of-touch elitist. The second person, nonetheless, is probably also lot healthier and gets to enjoy more interesting and flavorful food.

I think the number of cooking and food-related shows on TV these days is a great thing. I think the fact that there are now two cable channels dedicated to food and cooking is great. Some people believe these shows are the driving force behind the "foodie" movement, and that's a plausible belief. But it's not mainstream - not yet anyway. It won't be mainstream until people who care about food are no longer considered to be "snobs".
As part of NPR's new Cities project, they recently aired a story about the "war on cars" on All Things Considered. It's kind of a stale topic in my opinion; but alas, here I am re-hashing it, so I'll admit to being complicit.

(from karen.j.ybanez on Flickr)

Now, I don't own a car. Neither do many of my friends. But almost all of us drive. How's that possible? Well... there's rental cars and car-sharing, to start. Not owning a car is not the same as never driving, a point that's frequently misapplied in these debates.

The bigger problem with this discussion is that it's framed as all-or-nothing when it's actually quite nuanced. Let's dissect a not-very-good argument from Chuck Thies, who's made some not-very-good arguments on this topic in the past. Here's his quote from the NPR story:
Take a look around. Right here, I see four bikes, five or six pedestrians; and I see, what, 50 cars? This is the predominant form of transportation in America. In fact, it's something that we can't live without.
OK, fine - there are lots of cars. Then he makes this point: 
When you get a refrigerator delivered to your house, when someone goes to a construction site with a bunch of 2-by-4s, they don't bring it on a bicycle. They don't bring it on a Metro. They bring it in an automobile. It's easy to vilify the automobile, but it's not productive.
Here's the key question that doesn't get answered... of the 50 cars mentioned in the first part of the quote, how many of them are delivering a refrigerator or a bunch of 2-by-4s to a construction site? And how many of them have a single motorist transporting no cargo at all?

If the answer is that most of the 50 cars are transporting just 1 or 2 people and no cargo, then it's fair to criticize the automobile, or rather, the very non-productive way that people are using it. It's being used in a way that it's jamming up streets and causing congestion and making it harder for the refrigerator deliverymen and the construction workers and the fire fighters to get where they're going. 

There's competition for resources, in this case road-space. The debate is being framed as having four players: motorists, public transit vehicles, pedestrians and bicyclists; and they're all in competition with each other. But that's not quite right. There are really at least five players: motorists who need to use the road (like deliverymen, construction workers, emergency responders, etc.), motorists who want to use the road (like white collar office workers commuting to and from the suburbs), 
public transit vehicles, pedestrians and bicyclists. 

The motorists who
want to use the road are really the ones sucking up the most resources, relatively speaking. When someone's life is on the line and an ambulance has to spend 5 or 6 valuable minutes just trying to get around Dupont Circle because the street is jam-packed with single-occupant sedans and SUVs, that doesn't seem quite fair, does it? 

When I drive to Ikea to pick up some big bulky furniture, guess what I drive... a pickup truck. It's the most efficient way of getting myself and my stuff back home. And when I'm going to my white collar job in my downtown office building, I use a bicycle or Metro. The context is different, and the most efficient means of transportation for me is different because of it. I'm a motorist. I'm a bicyclist. I'm a pedestrian. I don't just fall into a single category.


It would be highly inefficient for me to buy a pickup truck because twice a year I need to go to Ikea, and then to drive in it alone to work everyday. Yet this is exactly the thought calculus that goes through some people's heads when they decide what kind of car to buy and how to get around.


DC has been moving in exactly the right direction when it comes to transportation planning. Some of the things the city is doing are new, different, and fly in the face of decades of bad policy. It's scary to some people, but that doesn't make it wrong. 
Tom Rotunno has a fascinating article about beer and President Obama. I didn't realize for example, that the President is the first to home brew inside the White House (as opposed to at his personal home). Even more interesting is how beer plays into campaigning. While in Ohio recently, Obama drank Bud Light. Rotunno writes...

Marketing consultant Laura Ries thinks Bud Light is a good fit for the President.

“Going with Bud Light is a safe choice and is probably the best choice,” says Ries. “Bud says 'leader.' I think it is still believed by Joe SixPack across the nation to be an 'all-American' beer. Even though it is owned by a foreign conglomerate now, most people don’t think about it. The average person thinks of Budweiser as an American choice.”
This is an interested tidbit about American business and politics. Even though both Bud Light and Miller Light are owned by foreign companies (InBev of Belgium and SABMiller of the UK) the typical Joe SixPack either doesn't know or doesn't care. He still considers it a true American product. 

In a way, this is very weird, it would be akin to the President shopping at Ikea (a giant foreign conglomerate) to show his status as a regular American guy. OK, it's not really the same, because most people know Ikea is a Scandinavian corporation that was at no point an American company. In that sense, it's more a question of history and perception.

But still, there are tons of actual honest-to-god American beer companies. It's just that they're called "craft breweries" and the Joe SixPacks of America don't buy craft beer because it's more expensive and viewed as culturally elitist. Bud Light is the workin' man's beer and Joe SixPack probably wouldn't be caught dead drinking a Dogfish Head Festina Peche.

(from john holzer on Flickr)

Whatever you think of their beverages, you can't deny that Dogfish Head is the kind of small business that politicians love to talk about. If Dogfish Head sold hardware instead of beer, it's easy to imagine the President shopping there rather than Home Depot. 
I don't know how I missed this one. Cleveland's casino opened just under a few months ago and already there are reports that the new employees are quitting in droves. Well, OK, that's not all that surprising on the surface. The service industry is a sucky place to work. The pay probably isn't very good. The hours probably aren't very good. The customers probably feel entitled and treat the employees like dirt. I get it - I worked enough summers earning minimum wage at an amusement park to know the reality of these jobs.

(from Erik Daniel Drost on Flickr)

But the thing is... Cleveland's casino was supposed  to be a godsend to the city because of the 1,600 new jobs it was going  to "create" in a city where people are desperate for jobs. More than a few times I heard a phrase that went something like "the people who really hit the jackpot at the new casino are the people who found jobs after being unemployed."

These clearly aren't the kinds of "good" jobs that politicians love to talk about on the stump. They are a lot of crappy jobs, the kind of crappy jobs that people aren't willing to do even in a high unemployment environment.

When it comes to casinos, supporters have made one point abundantly clear: no matter how you feel about gambling, surely you support jobs, right? Nobody is going to say they don't; but this makes it pretty clear that not all jobs are created equal.

Local policy makers can either focus on "jobs" or they can focus on "good jobs". You can get "jobs" by doing something as simple as plopping a gambling hall in the middle of town; but getting "good jobs" requires different and more complex investments in people and places.