As Mayor Sly James dug into a pile of biscuits and gravy at The Sundry restaurant and market in Kansas City’s Crossroads, he was doing more than having lunch.
He was helping to celebrate Small Business Saturday, a nationwide effort to promote local businesses. The day, created six years ago by a group of private companies, falls between Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
Later he paid a visit to Christopher Elbow Chocolates.
Joining him was Doug Kramer, deputy administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, who graduated from Rockhurst High School in Kansas City.
“People should care (about buying local) because that’s where a lot of their jobs come from,” said James as he talked with The Sundry co-owners Aaron Prater and Ryan Wing. “People need to understand the connectivity of the economy. The food that’s served here feeds the worker who’s working on the streetcar line, who then goes out and purchases things from someplace else.”
Kramer said many people don’t realize how critical small businesses are to a healthy economy.
“Small businesses create two out of three net new jobs in the United States,” he said. “And they are the kind of good, innovative, cutting-edge jobs that we want. But not all small businesses can advertise, so Small Business Saturday just levels the playing field a little bit. And it has really taken off. It has grown exponentially every year, and we are hoping for that again this year.”
Prater appreciated the support. He and Wing have owned The Sundry for about a year.
He pointed to a map on a large chalkboard with many lines pointing to the various local places that the business gets its food.
“These are all of our local producers,” he said. “We even have Missouri-grown rice and Kansas-grown wheat that’s milled into flour.”
He gestured to some cookware for sale.
“If you buy one of these Vita Craft pans, the money that you pay me stays in Kansas City, because we’re a locally owned company,” Prater said. “But then these are made in Lenexa, and so that money stays (in the area) too. So when you’re buying local … it’s a chain reaction that just multiplies throughout the economy.”
Prater said small businesses go beyond creating jobs to creating long-term relationships.
“We don’t employ as many people as some of the big corporations, but everyone here is family,” he said. “That incentivizes us to give them better salaries to help them live the life that they need to live. You know the mayor’s initiative to raise the minimum wage of Kansas City? We are right on board with you, mayor, because that’s what we’ve been doing since day one. … We’re not some faceless entity from six states away. We live with these people, we work with these people and we care about these people. And so the jobs that we create — to me they just feel like they matter a little bit more.”
Kramer was quick to point out that he was not anti-big business.
“But we realize that for a healthy economy, you need to (lower the barriers) to entry so you can get new ideas and new approaches into the marketplace, because you want those small businesses eventually to be big businesses,” he said.
Some people don’t buy local because they say it’s too expensive.
“That’s a bit of a fallacy,” Kramer said. “With distribution networks the way they are, small businesses can do a very good job competing on price with even mass-produced products. The other question is price versus value. This is why we like focusing on Small Business Saturday, because the holiday season is when small businesses can really shine. That’s when you’re looking for meaningful consumer experiences, meaningful meals (and) meaningful gifts. And when you look back in your house on the things that you’ve held on to for 10 and 20 years, a lot of those things may have come from a small business.”
Kramer said small businesses in Kansas City and around the country were doing well recovering from the Great Recession.
“We did a record amount of lending with small businesses last year,” he said. “Nationwide, we did about $24 billion in fiscal year 2015. And in Kansas City, it was equally strong on a regional basis. … There’s still some markers on which the small-business economy needs to continue to recover, but we feel really good about the last couple of years.”
Kramer also praised the job Mayor James has done.
“He’s such a strong supporter for business,” he said. “All the business folks large and small feel he’s taken a common-sense approach to bringing the city together. And he was one of the first mayors to sign up for the president’s Startup in a Day initiative, which is a pledge that he has asked mayors to take where they would set up a system where a business could get all the licenses and permits that it needs in one day. I don’t know if any city is there yet, but Kansas City is one city that made the pledge.”
At Christopher Elbow Chocolates, Kramer talked to owner and chief chocolatier Christopher Elbow.
“I’m a longtime fan,” he said. “It’s my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, so I’ve got to get some for them.”
“Oh yeah,” said the mayor. “You’ve got to get some for them.”
As Kramer and James continued to talk to Elbow, Patricia Brown-Dixon — the regional administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration in Kansas City — smiled in the corner of the shop.
“Isn’t this just phenomenal?” she said about the event at the store, which was packed with shoppers. “It’s exciting.”
She said others thinking of starting a business could have similar success.
“I’d just tell them to be brave and go to sba.gov,” she said. “We’ve got everything they need to get started.”