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Wednesday, July 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 63.0° F  Fair
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Treating employees right at Ian's Pizza
Co-owner Nick Martin makes national news by sticking up for Obamacare

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The day after the presidential election, Papa John's pizza chain CEO John Schnatter, a Romney supporter, declared that he would have to raise prices to cover the cost of providing health insurance to his employees under Obamacare. Nick Martin, co-owner and managing partner of Madison-based Ian's Pizza, was unimpressed. Ian's has offered its 50 full-time employees comprehensive health care coverage for the last nine years, Martin pointed out.

In interviews with the Fox Business Network and on Huffington Post, Martin explained his philosophy: that taking care of your employees makes good business sense.

If a little four-restaurant operation like Ian's can do it, a giant chain like Papa John's can surely afford the health care benefits specified by the law.

The costs Schnatter complained about are nearly negligible, Martin notes - between 4 and 14 cents per pizza. "That's literally 1% of their costs," Martin told me the other day, sitting in his State Street restaurant during the Monday lunch rush. "Our block cheese prices fluctuated 14% this year.

"There are so many things that go into pricing," he added. "It seems totally political, because it's such a small impact."

Martin's attitude is a breath of fresh air after post-election temper tantrums by Schnatter and John Metz, a Denny's franchise owner in West Palm Beach. Metz, who owns 40 restaurants in Florida, actually suggested that customers stiff his employees on their tips to make up for the 5% "Obamacare surcharge" he plans to add to all his menu items:

"They can either pay it and tip 15% or 20%," Metz said, "or if they really feel so inclined, they can reduce the amount of tip they give to the server, who is the primary beneficiary of Obamacare."

Take that, you lowly restaurant workers!

Having lost the election, Romney donors are now competing to see who can be the world's worst boss.

Fortunately, Denny's and Papa John's began backpedaling furiously after customers walked away in disgust. Call it a new labor consciousness - or just plain good values.

Republicans seem totally taken by surprise to find that the rest of the world doesn't share their greed-is-good attitude.

Ian's Pizza is the perfect example of a better way.

A more humane approach to business has made Ian's a good place to work from the beginning, when Martin and bandmate Lexy Frautschy, who formed the band the Mutt Show as UW students, bought the State Street store.

"We were not going to get the real job. We didn't want to sit at a desk," says Martin.

"When we had the opportunity to purchase the State Street store from Ian [Gurfield, the chain's founder], we got it as a way to finance making music. Then it turned into a way to make a lot of pizza."

While the Mutt Show is in "the rekindling process," Martin says, Ian's is still a creative workplace. Employees have launched graphic design and ice cream businesses that started in-house.

"You can spin off your own business," says Martin. "If you come here to work, we'll invest in you and help you get started."

There is profit-sharing, as well as open books that all employees see and discuss at meetings. "It gives everyone a sense of ownership," says Martin.

And, of course, when the Capitol was jammed with protesters against Gov. Scott Walker's attack on public employees' collective bargaining rights, Ian's became world famous for taking orders from around the globe to feed pizza to the masses.

"We were setting records," Martin recalls. "We go through about half a ton of cheese a week on average. We were easily at five times that amount. The dough mixer broke."

For six weeks, volume was insane.

But, Martin hastens to add, despite his personal political views, he saw the restaurant as more of a conduit for democracy than taking a particular political stand.

"We have employees on both sides of the political fence," Martin says. "We do exactly the opposite of some companies - we're not going to tell people who work here to vote a certain way."

The same goes for health care. "Officially, as a company, it's not a political decision for us," says Martin. "It's a human decision and a good business practice in general.

"That's one of my main messages to people who are fearful of Obamacare. When you make your people your first priority, instead of last, as an investment, it can be a huge win. All of these metrics you care about - retention of employees and cost of turnover - you can recoup all your costs just on those two issues alone."

That's exactly the kind of message Americans endorsed on Election Day.

On the same day he appeared on Fox, Nick Martin received an invitation to the White House. He will be going next week as part of a group of business people asked to discuss the president's economic policies and the fiscal cliff.

"I'm trying to read up and doing a lot of research," he says. "I'm just a pizza guy."

I can't think of a better business representative to send to the table in Washington, D.C.

Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.

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