WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney’s campaign put together a conference call Monday to attack President Barack Obama, once again, for being woefully out of touch with the needs of small business and the private sector in general.
The call was pegged to Obama’s comments, from a news conference Friday, that the “private sector is doing fine.” And to demonstrate just how off that assessment was, Romney had Tim Wulf — an owner of two Jimmy John’s sandwich shops in the Reno area — explain his frustrations with the current economy.
“We became defensive,” Wulf said of his business in the last few years. “Entrepreneurs are planners. We need to know what the environment is going to be. We need to know what the rules are.
“I never thought of the government as my opponent, but that’s what [the president] created,” Wulf added. “The best thing we can hope for right now is to hope for change. … He has no clue how this thing works. This is capitalism, not something else.”
Wulf’s story is an interesting case study in the obstacles facing the private sector under Obama. While he personally may be feeling economic uncertainty, the company for which he works isn’t.
Jimmy John’s has been wildly successful during the Obama years. According to entrepreneur.com, it has gone from 871 franchise units in the U.S. in 2009 to 1,321 in 2012. The market research firm Technomic Inc. placed Jimmy John’s as the second-fastest growing food chain in 2010, with sales of $735 million -– a 22 percent increase from 2009. Nation’s Restaurant News magazine placed it slightly lower on the list of fastest-growing chains in 2010 — number three.
“The total number of U.S. restaurants increased 16.6 percent to 1,130 locations,” Nation’s Restaurant News wrote. “The chain’s corporate restaurant count rose by just three restaurants, while franchised units increased by 158 locations.”
The Huffington Post attempted to ask Wulf a question during the conference call, but couldn’t get through. To his credit, he returned a call placed to one of his Reno shops. Asked to explain how the Obama administration was so toxic for private businesses while his own company was rapidly growing, Wulf said Jimmy John’s success doesn’t mean that the president’s policies were working.
“I don’t work for Jimmy John’s,” Wulf said. “I am a franchisee. I own risk. And remember, Nevada was probably the hardest hit state in the union by the recession. You aren’t seeing growth in Nevada. Jimmy John’s is a niche market business and sales in those niche markets have continued. There are only two Jimmy John’s in California because they are afraid to death to go in there. There is almost zero in New York. … They are going gangbusters in Arizona, and Texas and Florida, and Indiana is doing very well.”
The national economy is, in many respects, a patchwork of different states. And Wulf is right in noting that his home state of Nevada has been hit particularly hard.
Jimmy John’s founder nearly moved the company’s headquarters out of Illinois in 2011 because of the state’s tax policy. The company’s franchisees, like most fast-food restaurants, are union-free. Six Minneapolis workers who tried to organize during a public fight over a Jimmy John’s franchisee’s refusal to pay workers for sick days won a lawsuit to get their jobs back. The franchisee is appealing.
“Some of the uneasiness is not shared by everybody,” Wulf conceded. But he insisted that general uneasiness was choking broader business growth.
“Jimmy John’s itself is one of the fastest growing franchises in America,” Wulf said. “But a lot of cash is sitting on the sideline.”
That statement suggests that business isn’t entirely bad right now. Just that it could be a lot better. Wulf noted that he had to downsize the number of stores that he owned from three to two in order to “deleverage debt.” But the remaining two, he said, “are doing great.” And if he were less risk averse, he would be expanding.
“We probably could easily do seven to eight stores, but if you are going to put yourself out there and are going to risk it all, why not wait and see what happens?” Wulf said of the possibility that Obamacare, tax policy, and government regulations could all change in the next year. “We need an environment where we know what the rules are.”