Two sides to a public lynching of a small business owner: Sidebar

UPDATE

Sidebar 410 in Dayton is now closed, as of 30 July 2012. Former employees have weighed in with their comments below. It’s not pretty. This post has generated an unreal amount of traffic and comments very quickly.Of all the things I’ve posted since 2005, this has the most backstabbing, vitrol in comments to date. Some of these people worked for Mr. Higgins for almost 2 years- yet totally forget all the paychecks that did clear- and the tips they made, at one of the hippest places we’ve had. Please read the post carefully, because I still don’t believe it deserved the vitrol.

My very first clients for The Next Wave were restaurants. The Video Deli, The Third and Linden Market, Sodexo Marriott’s in house catering for Hobart in Troy, Pacchia. Since 1990, I’ve worked with many small businesses, but, of all of them, restaurants are by far the toughest. Employees act more like free-agents, you are judged by every single transaction based partly on personal taste, and with the advent of the Internet with sites like Yelp, Urban Spoon, Trip Advisor, FourSquare, Facebook and Google Places, every single customer can write a lousy review with impunity.

A Harvard professor did a study and differences in Yelp ratings can have significant effects on revenue. Big impacts.

Plus, depending on weather, and a whole bunch of other factors, restaurant owners almost have to gamble every night on stocking ingredients for making your meal. Predict wrong either way and it can be costly. It’s a very fickle business and I have the utmost respect for every single independent restaurant owner. I also love and appreciate the local character they infuse into a community- if the old adage about good cooking is the way to a man’s heart, a good local restaurant scene is what gives a community a heart and, a personality.

Photo of a protestor of the Sidebar in Dayton Ohio

The first report of trouble to my cell from one of my team

Yesterday, I got a message from one of my team with a picture of a protester outside Sidebar in the Oregon District. Sidebar employees were standing outside picketing with signs saying they hadn’t been paid. We’ve done business with Sidebar and owner Brian Higgins and have known for a long time that he was struggling. The Dayton Daily News did a huge expose on him and his other business- GSSP services, a mortuary service to the county that picked up bodies and delivered them to the morgue. It was pretty clear then that Higgins had monstrous obstacles to overcome, and this protest was going to be one more.  A friend (thanks Jay) found a piece of real investigative journalism from Chicago from 2009 about Higgins’s  operation there. I wouldn’t wish this kind of PR on anybody, and as a PR pro, it’s hard to straighten things out while people are still being handed knives to stick in you.

I put a simple post on Facebook:

Sidebar employees are out front picketing on E. Fifth Street because their paychecks bounced (again). There are two ways to deal with this- honor the protest and make sure they go out of business- or go, spend money and tip extra well and try to keep a great local restaurant in business.
Considering people are lining up at Chik-fila (sic) to show support for a homophobic corporation, we should be able to go help out a local businessman in trouble.
Will you join me there tonight?

I got a few likes and a load of hatred. The local TV stations had no problem putting this story on the news. The protesters were leaving just as I got there last night a little before 11- as was the last news truck. The place that would have normally been rocking and packed, looked like a quiet Tuesday night.

Sidebar employs about 45 people. It also brought a new level of drinks, dining and style to the Oregon District. I love the quinoa salad, the eggplant parmigiana and the beef saltado pizza. My partner loves their drinks- which were all unique and made totally from scratch- fresh squeezed juices, hand-ground spices and even different kinds of custom ice.

I’m also very connected to that space on E. Fifth Street- having helped launch Pacchia there long ago- after Glen Brailey figured out how to sneak a liquor license in to the Oregon District without paying the premium caused by limits imposed by the city. I want to see a restaurant there succeed- and even more  in other spaces like the old furniture store building a few doors east that has been vacant for 30 years. We need the Oregon to flourish.

What bothers me most is that millions upon millions of our tax dollars have been handed out to “create jobs” and “economic development” in this community- they’ve been handed out capriciously (randomly- or maybe not- some go to big campaign contributors). Sidebar hasn’t been on the receiving end of any of this. I was hoping all the people that Brian has given a free drink to, comped a meal (which he’d always do if he found out you were proposing in his restaurant- or he’d comp some champagne) or helped with fundraisers (I’d been to many there- and even held my last election night vigil there- where Brian comped some food) would come out and support him last night- and help put some more money in the bank. I was treated on Facebook like a pariah.

There weren’t any public protests about the money the government poured into MCSi and Mike Peppel, the CEO who stole millions and got 7 days in jail. Nor, have there been protests about the two-tiered tax system at Austin Landing.

Higgins isn’t the first small business to bounce a check, nor is he the only restaurant owner to owe suppliers, or miss tax bills. The list is long. But, he seems to have become our favorite pinata.

To me, there will be no winners in this. I wasn’t asking for a tax dollar supported bailout last night, I was asking for people to go out and eat and drink and to tip the remaining staff well, just in case there isn’t enough money left to pay them either.

I don’t want Sidebar to disappear. I still miss the copper clad wood-fired pizza oven from the original days of Pacchia. I miss Dominic’s garlic salad and their sizzling cheesy lasagna. I miss Kitty’s downtown with their pompous large menus and Seattle East with their really good chicken breast sandwiches and kettle chips and the movie discussions they used to hold in the back room. I miss Blue Moon’s black and white Tuna over a wasabi infused rice cake- and a certain waitress who gave me a birthday kiss- before she went on to become a reporter and then a PR person. I miss What you eat- the little vegetarian place that preceded the Blue Moon – and their white bechamel pesto lasagna and fresh baked bread with honey butter.

All of these restaurants made Dayton a great place to live, but didn’t get the support of our community, while TGI Friday’s and Applebee’s will long be with us.

We have to learn how to stop kicking people when they’re down and learn how to help them up. I am very glad that Blind Bob’s is going to hold a benefit to help the employees that haven’t been paid- they are another class act that deserves your support, but, I hope there is a lesson in all of this.

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