Short Stack Eatery flips for change
Restaurant supports community, employees
Behind the lines stretching out the door, the “blind special,” the cheery interior with sea foam-painted walls and chalkboards with cute sayings (“brunch without booze is nothing but a sad, late breakfast”), there’s another side to Short Stack Eatery, the all-day breakfast spot opened by Alex Lindenmeyer and Sinead McHugh.
“We knew we wanted to be community-involved but we didn’t know what it would look like at the beginning,” says Lindenmeyer. “It’s now so integrated into our processes.”
Upon opening Short Stack, Lindenmeyer and McHugh knew they wanted the eatery to have a positive impact on the community; an emphasis would be placed on sustainable energy use and local purchasing.
Although the restaurant still works with local producers and participates in environmentally friendly practices like composting, Short Stack’s employees and social justice causes have also been a priority.
“Madison is a tricky city,” Lindenmeyer says. “Residents want you to care about local community and support nonprofits, but they also want low-cost food and for you to pay your employees a fair wage. You can’t have everything.”
Lindenmeyer and McHugh met at Edgewood High School in Madison and graduated in 2007. In 2010 when both women were 21, they started working on a business plan for a downtown restaurant that would serve breakfast all day. “I think the main question people ask us is, ‘Did you dream of opening a pancake shop your whole life?’ Absolutely not,” Lindenmeyer says. “This is definitely more of a startup mindset. You saw something that you wanted, it didn’t exist, so you create it yourself.” Lindenmeyer also thinks breakfast is “personal.”
“Everyone knows how they like their coffee, how they like their eggs done,” Lindenmeyer says. “And there is something really nostalgic about breakfast, especially breakfast for dinner.”
After four years of planning, finding a location, raising capital and gaining real-world experience, Lindenmeyer and McHugh opened Short Stack in March 2014 at the corner of West Johnson and North Henry streets. “We were meticulous about everything,” Lindenmeyer says. “Being young and being women, we had to know our [stuff], otherwise people were not going to take us seriously.”
The original plan was to stay open for 88 straight hours from Thursday morning until Sunday evening. In January 2017 Short Stack cut back on the all-nighters and is now open Wednesday through Sunday, with one late night intact (the restaurant opens on Saturday morning at 6 a.m. and closes Sunday night at 9 p.m.). “Even if you have the staff, you are working them to the bone,” Lindenmeyer says. “The biggest decision factor came internally. Our employees are happier and we are happier.”
While Lindenmeyer and McHugh strive to pay fair wages – their full-time employees receive full health insurance coverage – they do believe in lending financial support to nonprofits “who are doing the work that we can’t,” Lindenmeyer says.
In an effort to focus on the causes that matter most to them, in 2016 Lindenmeyer and McHugh started the Organization of the Month program, which donates 1% of Short Stack’s monthly profits to 12 nonprofits a year.
“It’s easy in Madison when there are [thousands of] nonprofits in Dane County, to spread your wealth around and touch all the bases,” Lindenmeyer says. Short Stack’s Organization of the Month program focuses on four pillars of its sustainability team: alternative transportation, waste reduction, local purchasing and racial equity.
“The biggest disease that Madison is sick with is racism,” Lindenmeyer says. “If it were measles, we would be marching in the street for vaccinations. Racism is rampant in this county.”
In addition to providing financial support, Short Stack supports its nonprofit partners in other ways. One of these organizations is Just Bakery, a 16-week commercial baking program for individuals who are experiencing significant barriers to employment due to homelessness, criminal conviction history, lack of education or work history.
“Over the past few years I have learned about the injustices that are stacked against those in reentry programs,” McHugh says. “With Just Bakery we’ve been able to work with students in their employment training program on interview skills as well as having question-and-answer sessions in regard to owning and operating your own restaurant.”
Since opening, Short Stack has won 17 awards from local publications. It was also chosen as a Sustain Dane MPower Business Champion and is the only restaurant in Wisconsin to achieve the Silver Award for Bike Friendly Business by the League of American Bicyclists.
Through events and restaurant decor – serving close to 4,000 people a week, Short Stack has a lot of visibility – the restaurant has also gained a reputation for being a “safe space.” The Wisconsin LGBT Chamber of Commerce named Short Stack as the Allied Business of the Year in 2018.
“I don’t know if we provide a safe space or not,” Lindenmeyer says. “Ask people that fall into intersectionally marginalized communities. They are the grading scale. I can put up pride flags and ‘Black Lives Matter’ signs, but I’m not the one who needs to decide if I feel safe there or not.”
Lindenmeyer says “it’s easy to be visually supportive, but you have to put your money where your mouth is.” Short Stack tries to accomplish this through education, resources and advocacy. “We have to educate ourselves and then from the top down we make sure our employees are educated about what is going on in Madison and the broader community,” Lindenmeyer says. “It also starts with our hiring avenues, diversifying our hiring avenues and the partners we work with.”
At Short Stack, all managers are required (and any employees who want to will be sponsored) to go through Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development’s nine-week Justified Anger course. Short Stack also has all-staff trainings on bias twice a year. “It’s going to take all of us, no doubt, if we ever want systemic change in this place that we live,” Lindenmeyer says.
Looking forward, Lindenmeyer says she and McHugh want to continue to focus internally. “There are always places that we can work harder,” Lindenmeyer says. “We want to work toward a more progressive model of payment structure for employees and an equitable living wage.” No doubt Lindenmeyer and McHugh will try to find a way. Long story short, Short Stack’s story is constantly evolving.
Erica Krug is a Madison-based writer.
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