Thursday, December 13, 2012

Old is New in Downtown: The Grand Rapids Brewing Company Returns

Michigan Expats - Commentary - See All Commentary
By Doctor

Grand Rapids has fully embraced the craft beer resurgence and proudly carries the title “Beer City U.S.A.” it earned through an impressive online campaign earlier this year. There is even an exhibit at the Grand Rapids Public Museum, Thank You, Beer! that celebrates the history of beer and specifically the beer tradition in Grand Rapids. Prominent in the exhibit is a painting on the original Grand Rapids Brewing Co. that was once the largest brewery in the city and encompassed an entire city block, but it didn’t survive prohibition.

The original GRBC
The namesake and brewing reemerged in 1993 as the Grand Rapids Brewing Company opened as a brewpub and restaurant on 28th Street. It helped launch the beer culture in “Beer City U.S.A.”, but poor management and an inability to keep up with the innovative local beer scene caused GRBC to close its doors in 2011.

Until last week when Grand Rapids Brewing Company opened its doors once again, under new ownership, having returned to downtown Grand Rapids under the ownership of the Sellers and StellaFly that also operate HopCat, Stella’s, and McFadden’s in the downtown Arena District.

I thought about going down for the opening last week Wednesday, but decided against battling the crowds who lined up outside an hour before it open. I made my first visit on Saturday with BBQ Bob and Jop of The Grillin’ Guys and Cory and Shasta, owners of Old World Olive Press after we broadcast the morning show at their downtown location. We managed to pull together a pair of bistro tables by the door and beat the rush of families leaving the Van Andel Arena next door following the Grand Valley State University graduation.

The hype and crowds are neither surprising nor unwarranted. GRBC had five house made brews on tap on Saturday: I enjoyed pints of the John Ball Brown, 09 Campau’s $90Pale, and Senator Lyon Stout – most brews are named after influential individuals from West Michigan. Other house made brews included a Mango Hefeweizen and the Silver Foam (“a new take on an old classic”). I must not have been the only one that enjoyed the Brown as brewer Nick Roelofs visited our table and shared that they were down to their last two kegs.

Our group ordered a round of small plates to snack on and I must admit that we weren’t as impressed with the food as much as we were the beer. We ordered the kale chips (disappointing), Michigan Cheddar Cheese Curds (OK), poutine (a mess), Brewer’s Chips N’ Dip (I enjoyed it the most of the group), and the in-house Hand-Cranked Duck Sausage (good), and Sweet & Spicy Italian Sausage (excellent, best thing we ordered). It seemed that they are being a little over ambitious with the menu with creative small plates instead of focusing on offering excellent simple bar food which would seem to be a better fit for the location and vibe. I give them credit for aiming high, but that means that you're likely to have some swings and misses, especially early on.

It must be noted that GRBC is the first certified all-organic brewery in the Mid-West. It is a great marketing item and I know that there are a lot of pro-organic people out there, but I’m just indifferent about it. Just make good food and beer.

I was really impressed with the layout and décor. High ceilings, large windows along Fulton and Ionia Streets and two separate bars make for an open and vibrant atmosphere. They also did an excellent job in repurposing materials that add a lot to the décor. Most of the tables were made with the original wood floors from the building that were pulled up to open the basement for the brewing equipment; likewise bricks from the original structure were used to build the back bar; an old barn wall was refurbished and re-purposed as an inside wall with the GRBC logo painted across it; and an old metal door repainting the logo above the back bar really stands out.

We also had great service on our visit. We had a great server; the general manager stopped by our table as did brewer Nick Roelofs while the owner, Mark Sellars bought our group a round. Yes, it’s nice to visit breweries with radio hosts and others involved in the local food scene, but we definitely weren't the only one's there having a good time.

Overall we had a great visit and I look forward to going back to GRBC to continue to see what’s on tap. It’s another great addition to “Beer City U.S.A.” 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Are Unions Relevant in the 21st Century?

Michigan Expats - Commentary - See All Commentary
By Doctor

Right-to-Work legislation is up for a final vote in the Michigan legislature today. It is a historic and newsworthy vote by any and all accounts. Instead of focusing on the argument over the economic benefits or the politics and means to how it arrived to a vote today, I want to address the relevancy of labor union in the 21st century.

What is happening in Lansing is a big political defeat for organized labor - of course others have a more optimistic appraisal of the situation. But the broader concern of union leadership must be to stop living in the past and move into the present to find a way for organized labor to be a productive economic partner in the 21st century global economy.

There's been statements among union supporters along the lines of Michael Moore's tweet to the right that all non-union workers need to go back to 19th century working conditions. Yes, labor unions were very important in 20th century America improving working conditions and workers rights, but all those have been passed into law for decades. To make the argument that all workers need to continue to pay dues for the successes of the past is akin to making the argument that all African-Americans should still vote Republican because Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party freed the slaves almost 150 years ago. It’s ridiculous.

Organized labor response to declining private sector membership has not been to innovate and become partners with employers by any sort of value addition. Rather, labor has pursued purely political avenues to increase power, revenue, and influence with the intention to stay powerful, well funded, and influential.

But if the true intention and value of organized labor is to be a powerful, well funded, and influential political lobby then why should workers be compelled by law to join and financially support it?

If labor unions want to continue to be relevant into the 21st century, they need to identify what value they can bring as a partner in a competitive global economy. More specifically, the goals of organized labor need to focus less on political influence and more on being a positive economic influence.

Instead of enacting legal challenges to prevent losingexisting jobs and forced new memberships, union leadership should be looking at how they can work with employers to improve work culture and productivity.

Maintaining a completely antagonistic view against employers and business is not a very productive way to engage in a voluntary partnership. And, "Hello, McFly," employment is a voluntary agreement between parties to exchange labor, time, and productivity for compensation. Individuals are not entitled to a job and employers are not entitled to happy productive workers; both parties have to work together to be successful.

There’s a reason companies are focusing more and more on workplace culture and employee appreciation and recognition. Google makesheadlines about their creative workplace culture. OneUpWeb in Traverse City places a huge emphasis on having a fun but relentlessly engaged workforce. Employee recognition is what Baudville, Inc. in Grand Rapids does. Those businesses all place an emphasis on employee recognition beyond wages and monetized benefits. Another example, Gordon Food Service, #4 on Forbes Best Family Businesses, just opened an incredible new headquartersbuilding south of Grand Rapids. GFS employees may not have gotten a raise from moving into the new space, but from speaking with them, they sure feel more appreciated.

That is the new frontier in employee-employer relationships in the modern economy. Union shops and collective bargaining contracts make the employee appreciation and recognition programs of those companies much more difficult. Union contracts are designed to equalize the workplace: everyone works the same hours for the same pay and benefits which consequently leaves little room for bonuses or addition recognition.

A large part why companies don’t want unionized employees and avoid forced unionized shop states is because unionized workers offer very few benefits compared to all the costs and hassles.

That’s why Governor Snyder’s comments that right-to-work might actually help unions is not merely a slap in the face (although there certainly is a bit of that). Ending compulsory union membership puts the burden on the unions to evolve and innovate to become relevant in the 21st century. Unions now have to make the argument to the workers what the value is being a union member and what benefits they receive from paying dues.

Unions fear right-to-work because they fear that they can’t convince employees and employers on the merits of union membership and partnership. That’s why they are focused on using political influence to legally coerce individuals into joining and paying dues. Just this year unions spent tens millions of millions on two proposals on the Michigan ballot last month (#2 & #4) to secure legally compulsory membership. Proposal 4 was a pure money grab to use the ballot system to force thousands of home care workers to pay union dues without their consent through putting it into the state constitution after a similar law was ruled unconstitutional.

Unfortunately, I fear that unions that will continue to focus their efforts on being antagonistic and continue to spend millions legally challenging any legislation that challenges their present legal privileges. They will continue to do everything possible to continue to cling to the status quo of the previous century and resist change.

The lack of vision and stubbornness to innovate and move forward will continue to weaken organize labor. Not just evil big business and Republicans

What's your take on the debate? Are unions still relevant? What is the role of organized labor in the global economy? Is this a step forward or backward for Michigan and Michigan workers? Let us know, but please keep it civil.