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How do you feel about ‘Obamacare?’

I love it. I’m a big fan of [President] Obama. I can’t understand one thing that’s wrong with trying to get 40 million more Americans health insurance. And for restaurants to come out and say they plan to cut their full-time staff to 29.5 hours so they don’t have to pay for health care, I would like their employees to think for a good long minute about who they want to be working for in this world.

Are you already offering health care to those who work less than 30 hours a week?

For the first 22 years of our business, we offered health care to those who worked at least 20 hours per week. But a year or two ago, we had to go to 25 hours because [the insurance company] kept threatening to take away the great plan that we had. That’s how much pressure these companies are putting on you to get down to the brass tacks.

[Offering health care] is the right thing to do. Restaurant owners say they want our business to be considered a profession, which you hear all the time as lip service, but then we turn around and don’t give benefits and pay them crap. That’s BS. And frankly, NRN, I’d like to call you to task because you guys run headline after headline saying the very same thing. You’d have never known there was an alternative opinion out there, and I honestly believe there is.

That’s why I’m here now. So, it sounds like you see this as an opportunity. Do you think you’ll attract better employees?

We’re likely to get some different applicants, but I don’t think that would last very long and nor is it the intention. I would like to see our industry jump in and take better care of the people who work for us. Again, I don’t want to see it mandated.

I have to say, if I were a brand-new restaurateur, I probably could not afford to do this. But I’m not. I’m 25 years in. I’m well known. I can make the statement that I’m making.

What companies do you feel are taking leadership on these issues?

In general, Starbucks has been a great example, especially the lower hours to make full time so you have access to health care.

I think Costco is doing a great job in the big picture of running a successful business and having employees stay long term. They treat it as a profession with upward mobility, access to health care and benefits to everybody.

There are a lot of good examples of very profitable American companies, huge pillars of our community, and, frankly I want to be one of them. I don’t want to be looked at like a Walmart, where they’re just trying to get every last cent out of every person, including their own staff. … I’m not a communist. I’m a capitalist. I love a good profit. I get angry if we don’t make money.

So restaurant operators who say they can’t afford to pay more, or they’d have to raise menu prices to do it, you’re saying that’s a myth?

Oh, raise menu prices! How long can this country afford a dollar menu at McDonald’s? We’ve had it for 20 years. It costs more to treat people right. If I have to have 10 restaurants instead of 15, so be it. If people have to stay home and eat because restaurant prices are higher, so be it.

At some point our people, our teammates, deserve an honest shot. They’re coming out of culinary school paying, what, $100,000, $150,000, and getting a $10-an-hour job? They’re never going to be able to pay that back.

In the food bank line in Seattle, 92 percent of people in line have at least one job in the household. These are the working poor. So we’re subsidizing them one way or the other. I’d rather pay them a respectful wage they can be proud of.

Contact Lisa Jennings at lisa.jennings@penton.com.
Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout