In a few years, if all goes according to plans, attentive patrons of Austin businesses will look for an additional stamp of approval among the framed certifications notifying that an establishment has passed a health inspection or that its elevators are working properly or that its fire alarms and exit routes are up to code.
“The housing, the streetscape, the infrastructure of Austin is superior to most communities in the city. We now recognize that in order for us to maintain and extend that, we have to declare to everyone who lives here that we will not accept the standard that is substandard,” said Vince Williams, president of the Austin Chamber of Commerce.
Williams spoke during a Wednesday morning press conference announcing the launch of the Chamber’s Certified Austin Good Business Initiative. The project is, in part, the brainchild of Amara Enyia, the Chamber’s executive director.
“We’re declaring a minimum standard of quality for businesses and will hold them to that,” Enyia said, adding that the certification is designed to function as an incentive for local businesses to offer high quality services and as a disincentive to substandard services and operating conditions.
Enyia said that businesses who earn the certification must maintain clean interiors and exteriors, offer high quality products and customer service, and maintain a minimum level of community engagement, among other criteria. She said businesses will be scrutinized and judged worthy of the certification by a seven-person standing committee, which will conduct on-site inspections of local establishments to help gauge whether or not they’re qualified for the certification.
The Chamber will also maintain an online survey — similar to Yelp — that will allow residents to submit complaints or commendations about local businesses. Enyia said the Chamber will work closely with the 15th District police department to ensure that those businesses that demonstrate substandard qualities, or that generate a high volume of complaints, are appropriately penalized.
“Many years back the police … were giving out tickets to many business for not being good neighbors. They still have that leverage. Businesses may not empty their garbage, they may not pay their fees — all those things come with being a sound business,” said state Rep. Camille Lilley (D-78th), a founding member of the Austin Chamber.
Alderman Emma Mitts (37th), chairman of the Committee on License and Consumer Protection, reinforced Lilly’s point.
“Businesses are not accountable unless someone makes them accountable,” she said, adding that she often advises local business owners to establish working relationships with the local police department and the Chamber of Commerce.
One Austin business that everyone in attendance agreed has held itself accountability, largely without exterior reinforcements, is the popular soul food establishment at 5412 W Madison St., where the morning press conference was held — MacArthur’s Restaurant.
The seven-person committee that will do much of the legwork of evaluating businesses hasn’t formed yet — there were applications for anyone interested in sitting on the committee outside of the area where attendees ate breakfast — but the consensus among Chamber members and the many Chicagoans who frequent the place is that if any business deserves the Chamber’s stamp of approval it’s the one owned by MacArthur Alexander.
When the legendary businessman was presented with the inaugural certification, he walked to the center of his establishment’s outdoor patio area with a fly swatter in hand.
As various elected officials and Chamber leaders converged in the center of the space, the taciturn Alexander had quietly planted his steady bulk on a concrete ledge on the perimeter of the hoopla, next to a garbage can, to which a small colony of bees had been attracted. For the duration of the ceremony, as speeches were given, Mac (as he’s often called) swatted away. By the time the crowd of a few dozen people had dispersed, a battalion of roughly ten dead bees had formed at Alexander’s feet — casualties of the man’s hands-on, matter-of-fact, results-oriented style of doing business.
Williams called Alexander “the vanguard of everything that is business on Madison Street” before describing the businessman’s rise from “a storefront to a vacant lot to an edifice that we now know as MacArthur’s.”
“He goes to our meetings, attends our functions [and] looks at us with a jaundice eye when we’re just talking and not doing,” Williams said of Alexander. “And today is our opportunity for us to show that we’re doing something to uphold the standard that we know has to be the Austin standard.”
“This is the only place we argue over when we remap the wards,” said Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), in another nod to the restaurant’s endearing legacy on the West Side.
“My hero used to be Michael Jordan, but when I got older and realized what heroes really are — MacArthur is really my hero. [He has] two Purple Hearts. And he’s standing in the community always giving back and making a difference in people’s lives,” said state Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-8th).
Enyia said those businesses, like MacArthur’s Restaurant, that earn the Chamber’s certification will receive numerous perks, such as exposure among the organization’s numerous professional networks, media attention and a concentrated effort by the Chamber to steer customers to the certified establishments.
“This is the kind of program we need to do in all neighborhoods,” said Roxanne Nava, the city’s chief small business officer. “This is about not just certifying businesses that already exist, but attracting new ones.”
Nava said that 87 percent of businesses are micro-businesses, or establishments that employ less than five workers. She said certifications like the one launched by the Austin Chamber should be considered part of a more comprehensive effort to make it easier for small businesses to operate in the city.
“We used to have 60 percent more licenses granted to businesses. It was just too complicated for owners [to obtain licenses],” she said, before lauding Ald. Mitts’s efforts to reduce those complications.
Enyia said that, once a committee is established, the Chamber will hand out more certifications as businesses meet the criteria. In the initiative’s second year, she said, the Chamber will institute a nominating process and implement a regular schedule by which businesses can earn the certification. She said she hopes to replicate the initiative in other neighborhoods, such as East and West Garfield Park, Humboldt Park and North Lawndale.
“I think this shows that when like-minded people come together on one agenda, this is what we can do,” she said.