Public spaces that serve as a venue for interpersonal relationships and social gatherings are sometimes referred to as “third spaces.” These exist between our usual environments of home and work. They knit our communities, and for those who lack local family ties, they are a lifeline. They could be entertainment or sporting venues, beauty parlors and barbershops, churches, hobby-related organizations, or any establishment that gives us a meeting place and encourages bonding and human connection.
Small independent eating and drinking establishments have always played an important role as anchors of their communities. Today more than ever before. And they are losing ground in many localities.
Because financial struggles are deeply personal, we really have no idea how many are at a breaking point after several years of COVID, worker shortages, and complying with unpredictable government policies. What is more troubling is that already fragile Colorado business owners may not be prepared for the significant burdens from recently passed taxes and regulations.
“The last couple of months have been particularly hard with two people out at a time consistently due to COVID and the sales just aren’t there to back it up, so we’re tired,” Riggs said.Brightmarten in Bonnie Brae serving last meal Sunday, Lily O’Neill for the Denver Post
So, rather than close its doors for another winter, Brightmarten has decided to shut down altogether.
New policy risks for businesses and their workers loom.
Colorado’s more recent leadership cohort and progressive majority, in power since 2019, have succeeded in passing controversial laws intended to address growing worker demands. These laws restructure private sector relationships and give government agencies a more assertive role to intervene to deliver uniform benefits from wages and working conditions to health and leave benefits – all administered by the State.
How these policies will impact diverse businesses and workers holistically is unknown.
Default standards dictate how businesses manage staffing and operations regardless of their size or unique circumstances. Colorado has joined several states like California, New York, and New Jersey that have locked businesses into strict new regimes that they must comply with.
We stand to lose a lot more than we realize.
“And while they’re ready to walk away from the business, Riggs said they’ll miss the relationships they’ve built over the past four years with their landlord, staff and neighborhood.”Brightmarten in Bonnie Brae serving last meal Sunday, Lily O’Neill for the Denver Post
The retreat of “third places” or public spaces to gather and build relationships outside of our homes and work has been going on for a while. Their owners make their presence special due to their artistic touches and personal passion and attention. Yet that requires time, which is finite – for all of us. Time is the one input that you cannot scale. You, me, we all have the same number of hours in a day.*
Their willingness to spend time growing relationships and customizing products or experiences distinguishes them from their larger peers who rely on repeatability or scale that necessarily dilutes or strips out that human connection and commitment.
But due to the combined challenges from today’s changing market environments, and growing government risks from rising taxation and labor compliance, small businesses are losing their edge more than ever before.
Is this only the beginning?
The story of Brightmarten in Bonnie Brae closing after four years came to my attention just after another deeper dive into why we are losing the typical low-brow but warm and inviting American diner that focuses on the closure of Denver’s Breakfast King.
We’re losing a piece of Americana that united us in a way that only food can.
“Diners are a rarity in the American culture in that once you walk inside the door, class just melts away — and I think that is the root of their magic…”
“…back-to-back closures of Swift’s and the Breakfast King last week … those diners are all gone (and Annie’s Café is up for sale). Some to development. Most to the pandemic.Closing of Denver’s Breakfast King is a loss of Americana, by John Moore to the Denver Gazette
A terse note posted on the Breakfast King door says rather snarkily, “No one wants to work anymore.” Chalk it up to supply-chain issues or changing consumer tastes, but the writing is in the hollandaise sauce: The American diner is dying. And what we are losing is far more than nostalgia. And kitschy decor, four-hour people-watching and old-fashioned country meatloaf.
Many countries in Western Europe are way ahead of us on this front.
While the US has resisted centralized, overreaching legal protections, many countries in Western Europe have been establishing and growing labor-centric laws and mandates for decades. Conversations and personal experiences tell me that the high costs of labor, taxes, and compliance make eating out in many of these cities inaccessible to all but the higher income levels. While some casual dining options similar to food courts or multi-vendor dining halls try to close the gap, many people have turned to cooking meals and entertaining friends in their homes.
This article, France says Au Revoir to the Cafe, paints a dismal picture of rural communities as market changes combined with rising taxes have left them behind.
“There’s nowhere to go out around here,” says Alisson Humbert, 28, an out-of-work waitress. “We no longer know our neighbors. We all live in a bubble.”France says Au Revoir to the Cafe, Wall Street Journal
There is no substitute for genuine one on one human connection
Despite dense networks of online communications, people yearn for human connection. Where will people gather to find that? Where and how will we support the social fabric of our communities and combat alienation?
As the burdens of government policies crowd out small independent businesses, will we turn to taxpayer-funded public works like rec centers and transportation hubs? Can those replace independent businesses in physical presence and spirit?
* H/T Seth Godin
For further reading on third places and community, there are a great number of books. Many have disparaged the loss of civil institutions and the encroachment of government in their place. Economic and cultural changes leave us searching for alternatives.
But the closest available solution is to be vigilant that we do not threaten the vibrant third spaces that we do have, made possible by the creative entrepreneurial spirits that are struggling to emerge and survive.
The Quest for Community by Robert Nisbet
The Great Good Place, by Ray Oldenburg
Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam