WisBusiness: Culver’s owner joins governor for minimum wage push

By Brian E. Clark

PRAIRIE DU SAC – At first blush, it might seem odd that restaurateur Craig Culver is a supporter of Gov. Jim Doyle’s plan to boost the minimum wage to $6.50 an hour. After all, some colleagues of his in the food industry are ardent opponents of the proposal, which they say will raise their costs and could force them to lay off workers.

"Unfortunately, every time a minimum wage increase is brought up, people in the restaurant business try to knock it back down.

"That doesn’t make us look very good," said Culver, who heads the 250-plus-store chain that bears his name. "It doesn’t do much to interest people looking at our industry for careers. But I think this plan would be good for both business and labor.

Culver, a wholehearted backer of the governor’s plan, was a member of the committee used by the state to set minimum wages. The panel voted overwhelmingly in 2004 to support the wage hike. The committee has been used by both Republican and Democratic governors since 1919. The proposal would have left the wages of workers who receive tips at $2.33 an hour and raised the pay of teens under 18 at a slower rate.

Last week, during Doyle’s State of the State address, Culver was the self-described "poster boy" for the minimum wage hike. Doyle thanked him during his talk and said Culver’s frozen custard is "so good we eat it in January."

On Tuesday, Doyle renewed his call for the Republicans who control Legislature to act. He praised fellow Democrats in the House and the Senate for endorsing the plan and holding hearings around the state this week. Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce – the state’s main business lobby group – has endorsed the committee’s proposal.

"In my early years, I was a minimum wage payer," acknowledged Culver, who now has restaurants in 14 states. His company celebrated its 20th anniversary last year and had earnings of about $425 million.

"Over time, I realized that I wanted to be the employer of choice," said Culver. "I wanted to pay more than the rest of the guys to attract and retain the best."

Culver, who has pictures of both presidents Bush in his office, said Republicans who control the Legislature blew it when they blocked the minimum wage from taking effect in October. Doyle correctly noted in his speech that while the state’s lowest wage earners have not received a raise in seven years, the restaurateur said, legislators have gotten multiple pay increases.

Culver said Republicans compounded their folly earlier this month when they delayed the wage hike from becoming a reality until as late as December of 2006.

In response to the stalling, Madison has enacted its own minimum wage, which raised base pay to $5.70 an hour on Jan. 1. It would jump to $6.50 an hour a year later and $7.25 a year after that. A business group called the Main Street Coalition for Economic Growth asked a Dane County judge to block the increase, but the request for a temporary injunction was denied earlier this month.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and other civic leaders in Wisconsin’s largest city have proposed a minimum wage that would top out at $6.50. Other cities such as La Crosse, Kaukauna and Stevens Point are considering their own hourly pay floors.

Culver, who also has photos of himself with Democrats Sen. Herb Kohl and Rep. Tammy Baldwin, declined to describe himself as a Republican or Democrat.

"This increase will go into effect regardless of how you feel about it," Culver said. "It could be sooner or it could be later. Clearly, the governor would like it to be move up quicker. The Republican leadership could have gotten ahead of this and claimed victory, but they didn’t."

For the most part, Culver said he does not support creating government regulations or setting pay rates.

"I generally believe the market will set the rate," he said. "But in reality, that isn’t always true."

Culver said he has received several negative e-mails for his stand. They came from people he does not know.

Culver said the average hourly rate for an employee at one of his restaurants is more than $9 an hour. He said many employees at his stores are high school students.

"One result of our pay is that we keep people," he said. "We have been around for 20 years and we have employees who have been here 20 years.

"It’s all about taking care of them and showing the love," he said. "It’s a good thing for everyone involved."

Culver said he hopes state leaders can soon move on to more pressing issues.

"I wish we could get this behind us," he said.

"We have a budget deficit of $1.8 billion and we need to improve education," he said. "We need to deal with why we are putting so many people in prison.

"We’re also cutting the State Historical Society’s budget 10 percent and may have to close the museum on the square," he said.

"We should be doing things to help this state and figuring out how to grow our education system rather than cut it," he said. "Those are the big issues, not a fight over the minimum wage."