Three or four weeks ago, I was getting coffee in my favorite new place, Cintli, a coffee shop that's always made me feel like I'm on vacation. It could be dumping rain outside but as soon as I got inside Cintli, with its orange and pink and yellow walls, I felt like I'd been transported to Mexico. Given the weather, I've been going there a lot.
On this particular day a couple weeks ago I asked the nice guy behind the counter if the owner was around. This shop is right near my apartment and I'd fallen in love with the place. He was one of the owners, the guy behind the counter said. His name was Rafael Sanchez and he handled operations; his business partner, who sold Latin American folk art at Cintli as well as at Pike Place Market, handled the creative side. I told him how much I loved the place. "We make sure we have unique drinks that you can't get anywhere else," he said. "And we put effort into making sure it's quality: We use beans from Stumptown, we get creative with drinks. And the ambience. The colors. I don't think there's a more colorful place to have coffee in Seattle."
- CINTLI ON THE RIGHT Subway on the left. Just past Subway is an OfficeMax.
Cintli's location: right between an American Apparel and a Subway. The other most recent addition to the block? An OfficeMax. I don't like to support chain stores; the whole reason I moved to a city was to get away from that shit. Sanchez told me he got his bachelor's degree in economics from the University of Washington, followed by a master's degree in business from Seattle University, and then went to work for Microsoft, but it wasn't satisfying because he "always loved the idea of small businesses. We've somehow taken a turn in this country from a small-business economy to cookie-cutter corporate type stuff, and I don't enjoy it."
I asked him how he was able to compete on a block that's rapidly becoming chain-store central, and he admitted they weren't doing well on that front. We talked about the OfficeMax. "You have these new developments, they're really pretty, but the rents are outrageous. The only ones that can afford that rent are essentially corporate money—you have chain stores or big investment banks behind them that can fund things for three, four, five years." When Cintli opened a little less than a year ago, he said, Sanchez and his business partner took out a "small loan from the bank and prayed to God that it worked." But after a year they were still in debt, and the changes they were making to the place—"we want this to be a coffee shop, not a retail store, and people have gotten mixed messages, so we're trying to refine that a bit more"—weren't bringing in new business fast enough.
When we talked, Sanchez he had yet to draw a paycheck from Cintli that he could live on, even though he was working there full time. So he had a second job at Washington Community Alliance for Self-Help, a nonprofit that just so happens to help "low-income individuals, women, and minority populations" start small businesses. So it's not like Sanchez doesn't know what he's doing. Education? Check. Business contacts? Check. Experience? Check. A prime location for a coffee shop? Check. And yet he was struggling just to pay the few employees he did have, much less pay himself.
When I asked what would happen if the minimum wage went up, his face fell. "I would love to be able to pay even more, but the numbers just don't add up," he said. "I support a fair wage, a living wage, a decent wage people can live off of, but the numbers just don't add up. We're barely making it here as a small business. To have that kind of floor on wages, it would just kill us. Without question."
Why? "We're using a lot of bandaids at the moment. We have had a reserve fund from the loan, but as you lose money, that reserve fund gets smaller and smaller and smaller. At the point you don't have too much of that money left, you start prioritizing your bills. So it's plug one hole, try to plug another, and try to get around the bend to where we're breaking even."
At the time of our conversation, Cintli had been open almost a year, and they'd yet to break even. They weren't even close to breaking even.
What about the 15 Now argument that raising wages will mean more people have money to spend? Wouldn't that mean better sales in his coffee shop? "Ideally, yes. But is it real? That's kind of a chicken-and-egg thing. Yeah, if you pay people more, they are going to spend more, but what happens to the business in the meantime? If a business is basically losing money, and you increase their cost, they're going to lose money at a faster rate. Our goal is to get enough people in the door to cover our costs. Four out of five businesses close in the first two years. And the bottom line is, if you run out of money in the bank to pay the bills, we just have to close the door. We can't pay employees, we can't pay our suppliers—we don't have a business anymore."
And he was skeptical—given the very real troubles people are having paying rent, paying for health insurance, paying for student loans—that low-wage workers, if given more money, would spend it on coffee. "Why do people need more money? It's not so they can spend more money on booze and partying. It's to pay their student loans back. It's to pay their $200 health insurance payment because their job doesn't pay it. It's because they don't make enough to pay their rent. Most people are living in a deficit personally—that's just a statistic. In reality, these are things people need and in a more equitable society we would have arranged things to provide what people need. In this 'everyone for himself' society, that doesn't work anymore."
"All these budgetary strains that we're having are falling on the backs of the people work hardest and earn the least," he said. "Because we're not making money off this"—meaning he and his business partner—"and we have to pay our bills, we have to get second jobs and work and that takes time away from this business. And it hurts this business ultimately because it neglects the business. If you factor in all the time we've put in this business..." he said, and then went quiet, struggling to put it into words. "Let's just say we broke even and my business partner and I each made 1,000 a month, as an example. We work 40 hours a week on the business, each. So divide 1,000 by 160 hours, that's less than minimum wage."
What was he thinking he'd do if they kept on not breaking even? "Me personally? I have nothing else. I'm walking on this tight rope. If the wind goes this way, I'm bankrupt."
The conversation went back to 15 Now and he said, "The root problem isn't that workers aren't making $15. It's that people aren't able to afford basic things like health care, rent, groceries. Historically it has been proven, any time the government tries to intrude with price ceilings, price floors, they end up just fucking it all up. I know the intention is well-meaning with this effort, but it doesn't help employees, it doesn't help small businesses. The only ones it helps are corporate businesses, corporate chains—they're the only ones who can afford it. You have fewer businesses and those fewer businesses get bigger and bigger. A lot more Starbucks, a lot more Subway, a lot more chain things—and a lot less variety... I question the motives of the $15-an-hour group. What will that accomplish, really? Is it a political move to get popular support? Everyone goes: Oh, my pay will go up 60 percent. Will it really? Because you're going to have a harder time finding a job. Sure you can get a job at Subway, but they're not going to give you health care, it's going to suck, your pee breaks are going to be counted, you're going to get crappy, long shifts, if you go a minute over your 10-minute break you might get fired, but yeah, you'll get your $15 an hour."
In other words, 15 Now is "an over-simplication of a complex problem," said the man with the economics degree and the master's in business. "We want the magic bullet. That's the kind of society we are. They're complex situations. You can't just say: 'Oh, this one thing is going to fix it.' You have to analyze the situation and figure out what's the right combination of things. Not one thing is responsible for the problem, and not one thing is going to fix it."
And he said, "For a business community to stay organic, if you don't want the monoculture of corporate business, you have to create an environment. If you want an organic garden, you have to have a rich, supportive soil that can sustain itself. But if you just sort of plow through the field and use one type of seed and use fertilizers, yeah, you can do that, but you'll have a monoculture."
In the weeks after our conversation, I tried checking in with the monoculture—that Subway next door—to get that franchise owner's take on all of this. I have been meaning to write this post for weeks and the only thing that was stalling me was that I wanted to contrast Sanchez's story with the story of whomever owns that Subway. But guess what? The owner of Subway is not present in his business like Sanchez was. Every single time I've visited Subway in the last month, the owner hasn't been around. I've asked the employees when the owner will be around, and then I've shown up at the time they said to come, and he's never been there. So I've yet to get Subway's take on this, try as I might.
Then last week I was walking by Cintli and saw this sign:
Another small business bites the dust. The only coffee shop in the city that felt like an instant vacation is gone. A few days ago I emailed Sanchez to tell him how sad I was that his coffee shop was gone, and to follow up on that conversation we had (we only had one in-depth conversation), and to ask him if he'd like to write an editorial as part of The Stranger's series of editorials about minimum wage, but I haven't heard anything. A lot of people are deeply suspicious of business owners who say they can't raise wages, assuming that business owners, as a block of people, are somehow inherently greedy. That has not been my experience. My grandpa was a small-business owner. My brother is a small-business owner. My mom is a small-business owner. I see it more the way Sanchez sees it: The deck is stacked against small business owners. As Anna has written, the enemy here is the corporate monoculture, not small coffee shops like Cintli. Maybe you don't care that Cintli is gone. Well, I do. Maybe you think all small businesses should go away if they can't hack it. If so, maybe you should move to the suburbs? Lots of Subways and Starbuckses out there that can absorb gigantic cost increases overnight. The big banks, the big chains, they are going to have the run of this city—even more so than they do now, and they already do now—if we don't listen to voices like Sanchez's.
I was telling Sanchez about my mom's house getting foreclosed on in 2009 (she ran a daycare in California, the parents of the kids in her daycare lost their jobs and didn't need daycare anymore, and her two other side jobs didn't cover expenses). I told him how much it pissed me off that when my mom fucks up, they take her house away, but when the big banks who gave her that loan in the first place fuck up, they get bailed out. (And not just bailed out—they all get bonuses!) Sanchez said it was "the fiasco back in 2008" that inspired him to get out of corporate culture. He was working for a Microsoft contractor at the time. "That's when I decided, you know what, I'm out of this thing. I was in shock that we didn't have a civil war when that happened. The big banks pull some strings, they crash the economy, they pay executives bonuses for crashing the economy, and now the big banks are even bigger. I'm baffled how we just let that fly. The very powerful people at the top—they have the government in their pocket."
But the little guys? Not so much.