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Golden Road or Low Road?




Unlike restaurant menus, community and democracy don’t work “à la carte.” We do not get to pick the laws we want to follow. The owners of Los Angeles’ trendy Golden Road Brewing seem not to understand this. As they champion one notion of “community,” they turn their backs on the actual people who compose the community.

In a recent L.A. Times piece on how a minimum wage increase will affect city businesses, Golden Road’s Tony Yanow (who also owns the Mohawk Bend and Tony’s Darts Away gastropubs) balked: “I love L.A., but that doesn’t mean it’s my best bet,” he told the Times. “Do you want to go somewhere where you can make money, or do you want to go somewhere where they’re stacking the cards against you?” He went on to engage in some not-very-subtle threat-making, noting that if L.A. increases its minimum wage, he may shift operations to neighboring, low-wage cities.

What distinguishes this from a typical dog-bites-man story of corporate greed is the nature of Golden Road’s operations and its ethos. From day one, Golden Road has been all about the community and has made grand claims about a vision beyond simply making money. Golden Road’s co-owner, Meg Gill, explained that in the company’s philosophy “there are numbers and goals . . . but that is not how life is measured.” She appealed to a larger vision, noting that the most important lesson she’s learned is to “be fair to people.”

Yanow goes further, claiming his restaurants express values of fairness to both animals and nature. As an outspoken vegan and environmentalist, he has insisted on “all natural materials” in the construction of his restaurants. Golden Road has supported several environmental organizations. He understands that doing things right – living one’s values of fairness and compassion – can cost more. This has undoubtedly hurt his bottom line. But as Gill noted, there is more to running a business than that bottom line. Golden Road takes pride less in profits than in its place in the L.A. community.

In fact, Golden Road thinks of itself not as a brewery, but as “L.A.’s brewery.” Indeed, “L.A.” is right there in itswebsite address. The brewery capitalizes on an association with the city (all of the art on its beer cans was reportedly photographed within five miles of the brewery’s San Fernando Road location). More importantly, Gill and Yanow attribute their very success to Angelenos.

“I don’t think Tony and I have done one percent of the work; it’s been the community,” Gill told the Times in 2012. “This is the beer that L.A. built.”

Yanow and Gill could have set up shop anywhere but, like many transplants, were attracted to L.A. in particular. Yanow – who is Canadian – moved here and then “convinced [Gill] to move to L.A.” As Yanow said, “I’m so in love with this city and everything about it . . . I honestly feel like this is the best place to live. I could live anywhere in the world and I choose to live here. Everything you could want is here.”

Perhaps it is the weather. Maybe it is the rich cultural life. Maybe it is the built-in market. Or the proximity to distribution centers. Or the progressive values. Or the safety. Whatever the reason, residents and businesses are attracted to our region for what it offers. A region’s offerings come from many interacting factors, and its residents’ democratic decisions play no small role.

These decisions invariably have costs. If we want safety, we tax ourselves to pay for cops. If we want streets, we tax ourselves to pay for paving. If we want clean air and water, we impose regulations. And if we want people to live sustainable lives and earn minimum levels of income (including perhaps the means to buy craft beer), we pass laws providing for a minimum wage. These are expressions of values; this is what makes a community. And as a community, L.A. will soon be asking employers to step up and commit to valuing workers.

Putting its money where its mouth is has hardly hampered Golden Road’s success — the Times rates the company “among the fastest-growing start-ups in craft beer history.” In 2013, revenues exceeded $10 million. In 2014, it was projected to double its annual output to 30,000 barrels. Its products sell at major grocery stores. So why is Yanow – who made his money in finance by taking advantage of the dot-com crash – now threatening city leaders? He says “it’s not because I’m being greedy” – but doth he protest too much? His is hardly a business on the edge of solvency. Arguments about market competition also fall flat in the face of Seattle’s recent minimum wage hike: many craft breweries based there will be paying workers $15 an hour, and there has been no exodus to Tacoma.

Golden Road has been a great L.A. booster, and a great contributor to our economic recovery. It is disappointing to see it engage in common corporate greed. Nothing about the company’s threats is illegal; they’re just the mark of a hypocrite. Yanow claims to be “beyond sympathetic” to low-wage workers, yet he opposes the best plan to address their status. That’s his right. But it belies his commitment to community, and suggests he only loves L.A. the way a swindler loves a mark.

(Jon Zerolnick is the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy’s research director.)

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