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New minimum wage hurts my South Side business

Sam Toia, center, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association, leads Aldermen, merchants, and business leaders in a news conference voicing opposition to a proposed increase of Chicago's minimum wage to $13 an hour earlier this month.

As the co-founder and co-owner of BJ’s Market & Bakery on the South Side, I know that times are tough, especially during the holiday season. But just when I thought my business was seeing the light of day after a terrible recession, the Chicago City Council decided to block out the sunlight for me and every other small business owner in Chicago with a rushed and reckless minimum wage increase.


What is even more troubling about this new ordinance is the effect it will have on our neighbors and our local communities.

Like other restaurateurs, I support a reasonable increase in the minimum wage, incremental over several years and consistent throughout Illinois. Instead, Chicago politicians played politics and their hasty actions may force small businesses to lay off employees or even close their doors.I am a proud employer of almost 50 Chicagoans and have worked to strengthen our neighborhood and grow new jobs in an area that desperately needs them. For many of my employees, my business is their first job experience. It’s a job where I give everyone a fair chance, even those who have had prior trouble with the law. I support them and train them and then, help them move on to other careers or college. We have created a safe and supportive working environment for our valued employees where they learn important new job and life skills.

I strive to make our restaurants the safest place in the community – that’s why we invest in extra private security and offer our neighborhood police officers and sheriff’s deputies a discount for dining with us. I like to think that all of our BJ’s Market & Bakery locations serve as neighborhood civic centers, a meeting place where neighbors and families can gather over a meal and stay the day if they want.It’s different on my side of town. In case the City Council didn’t notice, Chicago’s South Side economy is already very fragile; we have more than double the unemployment rate of the rest of Illinois, with even greater costs for doing business in the City.

Even in the depths of the recession, we didn’t raise prices on our customers, reduce the quality of our food or lay off any staff. Now that Chicago’s minimum wage will suddenly be one of the highest in the country, it directly increases my labor costs by more than 50 percent and will force me to raise my menu prices at least an additional 20 percent across the board. On the South Side, that is a lot of money – my customers can’t afford it. If I don’t raise my prices, I may be forced to close my doors.

A more responsible minimum wage would have been implemented state wide, to reflect the state’s overwhelming support of the issue in November. Here’s hoping the Illinois General Assembly will take up the cause of restaurateurs and small business owners and rectify Chicago’s foolish minimum wage law. Otherwise, all Chicago businesses will get this year is a lump of coal in their holiday stocking.Henry Meyer is co-founder and co-owner of BJ’s Market & Bakery.