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Po-Boy Views

09:00 June 14, 2022
By: Phil LaMancusa

ESOP or Restaurant Re-think

Did you know that according to Investopedia.com, some of the most successful companies in America are owned by the workers themselves? Some of these companies have multiple locations, with many employees, raking in beaucoup dollars and not hurting for staff that are willing and able to work for themselves. Some are food service and restaurant companies. What would it take for New Orleans' local restaurants and businesses to think outside the box and apply this strategy for success and survival? Perhaps no one has thought of it? Not necessarily. Multiple examples were set here over a half century ago, and nowadays, it could be chalked up to intransigence that keeps our economy and industries near comatose. Or maybe it's the 'I-Me-Me-Mine' mentality that dissuades a company-owned business from realizing that without workers who are dedicated selfishly to success, they have to ride the herd on less-than-enthusiastic workers every day that they are operational.

There are companies (including restaurants) that have given workers a say cooperatively in the running of their business—giving them a pony in the race, you might say. There are a couple of places in New Orleans trying this philosophy out by using different methods from the twentieth century that seemed radical, rather than simply realizing that it is the twenty-first century and worth giving it a shot. Let's face it, at times, survival depends on innovation—the willingness to take an existing strategy and bump it up. Why not try?

Let's put some lipstick on this pig. Say you have a small business, your staff adores you, and you have a democratic and empathetic attitude toward them and their welfare. Then, you don't have staff, you have disciples. How many companies can say that? They see your vision and have made it a priority in their life for you to succeed; they have strived with you in hard times and now the light at the end of the tunnel is stability and not an oncoming train. You really want them to share in what you (with their help) have achieved. Do you give them a raise? Health benefits? A gym membership? A picture of Ben Franklin on a three by six piece of green paper? A big old sloppy kiss?

Nah, you gather them together, maybe over dinner and drinks, and you say, "You know what, kids? I could not have done this without you-without your dedication and loyalty. Would any of you mind if we formed an LLC in all of our names and went into business together? Yay, team!"

Seem far-fetched? Hard to imagine? It is, and no one in their right mind would dare think of doing something as crazy stupid as that-right? But have you heard of Bob's Red Mill? King Arthur flour products? It's called ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan). There's also Publix Super Markets, Brookshire Brothers Grocery Stores, and Acadian Ambulance. Also, some poultry processing, manufacturing and engineering firms, healthcare, supermarkets, and construction companies that are all employee owned. Didn't register on your radar? There are hundreds and hundreds, from who you buy your beer (craftbeer.com) to where you dine (jamesbeard.org), and the numbers are rising. Obviously their workers believe that it's better than just punching a heartless clock.

Okay, look, you don't just give your company away. In some cases, a worker has to show up a certain number of shifts a month to qualify. Also a period of employment (say six months to a year) might be a requirement. It's not like some yahoo can walk in off the street and become a stockholder. Plus peer pressure would ensure that only the right person would fit your/their owner's attitude or image. The Democracy at Work Institute defines a worker owned co-op as a "value driven business that puts worker and community at the core of its purpose."

I once had a restaurant with a partner who wasn't compatible and sold my half to him. He ran the place into the ground before he could manage to pay me, so I stepped back in to retrieve my money and found that his mismanagement of staff was at the core of the up-and-coming failure. The staff and I worked our asses off to right the sinking venture, and we did. To make a long story short, after six months, we bought my partner's share (for me), and I was so moved that I gave the restaurant to them. In fact, we had grown, through our collective efforts, to value and appreciate each other so much that we rented a big enough space so that we could all move in together. Had it not been for the landlord burning down the building, we might still be together. And all of that was here in New Orleans (albeit 50 years ago).

Should you do it? It takes a lot of work to be altruistic and self-effacing to that degree; it's much easier to be a "do as I say, not as I do" owner. You get to boss people around, hire and fire, give workers weird schedules that may conflict with their life, and do it with aplomb. You can drink up the profits if you want to, have someone else clean up after you, suspect everyone of stealing, and give favors to whoever is best at kissing your ass and living up to your standards and decisions, no matter how inane they may be. It's rough to be called to task by someone who is washing dishes, waiting on tables, or writing checks to purveyors just because you reserved the right to "change plans at any time you deem appropriate" (Elon Musk). It's difficult to be told by the janitor that your attitude and actions are counterproductive.

Better to be a boss, I say. Why share? You're no messiah; besides, who likes you that much anyway?

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