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National Restaurant Association - Restaurateur's political advocacy pays off during federal shutdown

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Restaurateur's political advocacy pays off during federal shutdown

To Minneapolis restaurateur David Burley, advocacy is something that, over time, became part of his job.

“When you’re just starting out in business, you tend to think ‘somebody else will take care of that,’” said Burley, CEO of the St. Paul, Minn.-based Blue Plate Restaurant Company, parent company of nine restaurants. “We’ve been in business over 20 years, and it’s just our responsibility now. I realize I’m doing some of the heavy lifting for some people who don’t have time to advocate or just don’t care, but at some point they’ll care and will have the time.”

Late last year, a relationship he had established with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) took on added importance. It may have helped save the opening of his newest restaurant. The story is a lesson in the value of building relationships with lawmakers, and proof that taking the time to reach out can have a significant impact on your business.

Burley was wrapping up construction on his newest restaurant, The Freehouse. Just weeks before the scheduled opening, operations hit an unexpected snag: The restaurant, a brewpub, needed a brewer’s certificate from the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, and the federal government had shut down. Burley’s application was in a pile somewhere in an empty federal office.

“We’d had our application in for quite some time and had just gotten correspondence that the bureau would be calling within the next few weeks,” said Burley. “That was the last bit we had to get done. Just after that, they shut down the federal government.”

Burley had hired an experienced brewer and built a unique brewing system, but without the permit, there would be no beer at the brewpub. Burley reached out to Klobuchar’s office through the Minnesota Restaurant Association with a simple request:  When the government re-opened, could The Freehouse’s application be moved to the top of the heap? 

Klobuchar’s office went to work, and the application was approved shortly after the federal government reopened for business in mid-October. Klobuchar’s involvement was essential, Burley said. “I’m 100 percent sure that … it wouldn’t have happened” if Klobuchar hadn’t gotten involved, he said. The Freehouse opened in mid-December, just in time to serve the holiday crowds.

Burley, who sits on the Minnesota Restaurant Association board, had met with the senator on three occasions, most recently at the 2013 National Restaurant Association Public Affairs Conference. He thinks the relationship may have been a factor in Klobuchar’s quick response.

“I imagine we would have gotten our license at some point, but it might have delayed the opening for another month,” Burley said. “We were coming up against the holidays, so it was do-or-die.”

Burley maintains ties to state and federal lawmakers, inviting them to his restaurants and educating them about restaurants. He recommends that fellow restaurateurs schedule similar visits.

“Our representatives are expected to have broad knowledge,” Burley said. “Generally speaking, most know how a restaurant works -- to a degree. But they may not know how expensive the equipment is. They may not know how many people it takes to operate a restaurant. They need to be educated.” Representatives often become more sensitive to the industry’ s challenges when they learn how narrow the profit margins are, Burley said.

“Most people think that if you open a restaurant, you make a million bucks,” Burley said. “When they learn how skinny our business is, that’s usually an ‘aha’ moment.”

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