Reaching Critical Mass

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

The five eateries launched by restaurateur Elizabeth Lessner--Betty's, Dirty Frank's Hot Dog Palace, Surly Girl Saloon, Tip Top Kitchen & Cocktails and The Jury Room--have varied menus, but they all serve comfort foods with a heapin' helpin' of sass.

It's proved to be a winning recipe for the Betty's Family of Restaurants. But one missing employee benefit has been glaringly out of sync with the group's progressive image: no health insurance for domestic partners. Most of its managers and many staffers are gay or lesbian, including chief operations officer Amy Brennick.

"Way back in the day, we would get people who were upset with us because we didn't offer domestic partner coverage, and it was like, ‘No, no, no, we wish, but it's just a part of the system,' " Brennick says. "So in a strange way, it really hurt our brand."

The solution? Combine five small employment rolls--fewer than 30 workers per eatery--into one with enough size to negotiate better benefits. Enter the Columbus Food League (CFL), a new entity formed in August to hire all 150 Lessner employees, then lease them back to the individual restaurants.

CFL is led by Brennick, Lessner, Harold LaRue (Lessner's husband and Jury Room co-owner), Carmen Owens (a Surly Girl co-owner) and Tim Lessner (Lessner's brother, a Tip Top co-owner). "This was a scary move," Brennick says, "but ... we have the opportunity to insure the majority of our employees. And not to be all hippy-dippy, but it just feels morally right."

Reprinted from the September 2011 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.