MilkBoy Coffee Learns the Cost of Doing Business in Philadelphia

By Tara Murtha
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 35 | Posted Mar. 23, 2011

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Dealing with union aggression has become an occupational hazard of opening up a restaurant in Center City. Off the top, Brauhaus Schmitz, Marc Vetri’s Amis, Devil’s Alley, Smokin’ Betty’s and Barbuzzo are just a few recent examples of restaurants that drew protests for not hiring all union. Down in South Philly, the electrician’s union trotted out their 14-foot buck-toothed blow-up rat for Bistro la Minette.

Most of these are small-business enterprises. Stories get crazier as the jobs get bigger. Perhaps the most notorious one, the only-in-Philly parable told with the same tone as the old “Philly pelted Santa Claus with snowballs” trope (except this one’s true) went down in 2006 during construction of the Comcast Center.

In an effort to “green” the building and obtain LEED certification, architects incorporated waterless urinals. But the plumber’s union, Local 690, protested the plan—waterless urinals use less pipes, which means less work for plumbers.

The compromise? The Comcast Center installed the waterless toilets. But they also got a complete network of pipes that aren’t connected to anything “in case” the building wants to convert back to old-style toilets: a 975-foot tall monument to the power of union muscle in Philadelphia.

‘If we don’t laugh’

Joyner and Lokoff estimate that since the picketing began back in November, sales are down by about 5 percent—a big deal when profit margins are based on cups of coffee and sandwiches.

“We went through a slump with the recession, so the last two years were pretty dicey,” says Joyner. “We finally turned the corner and were trending upwards and we were like, thank god … Then the picketing started and business slowed back down when it should have been increasing.”

“There have been people that bought a cup of coffee and then gave it back and asked for their money back,” says Lokoff. “It’s crazy.”

Lokoff says an acquaintance wrote him an email to let him know that he had reservations about attending a MilkBoy event. Lokoff was asked for his “stance on unions.”

“I said I didn’t know I had a stance,” says Lokoff. “I was raised like everyone else that unions are good and certainly played an important role in our country’s history and how could you not be pro-union? And that was it.”

Locally, opposing perspectives have played out publicly on the Save Ardmore Coalition blog, where discussion about the protests at MilkBoy frequently evolve into pro- and anti-union political debate.

In real life face to face, people are uneasy talking about unions.

“Without knowing the details, I’m sure they both have a point,” says Harry of Harry’s Treasure and Collectibles, up the street from MilkBoy. “[MilkBoy] is a local business. I’m not going to say anything bad about a local business. And I’m not going to say anything bad about the union because I don’t want them in front of my store.”

Christine Vilardo, executive director of the Ardmore Initiative—the suburb’s equivalent of Center City District—says she doesn’t know the details either but she’s sure of one thing: The message that Lokoff, Joyner or MilkBoy is somehow bad for Ardmore is not only strangely irrelevant to the carpenter’s union supposed point, it’s absurdly incorrect.

“[The current banner that says] ‘MilkBoy hurts the community’ is really insulting,” says Vilardo. “They are so involved in the community in so many ways. They [participate in] First Friday, host activities for kids and families. They hire local people. They help brand and give our town an identity.”

Vilardo describes MilkBoy Coffee as an “anchor” in the revitalization of the downtown commercial strip of Lancaster Avenue.

“When people think about Ardmore, they think of MilkBoy, and MilkBoy worked to make that connection,” she says. “They’re one of the original cheerleaders for the town, and they remain that.”

Joyner’s email tagline is “sent from Ardmore, center of the universe.” Joyner is ex-president of the Ardmore Business Association and remains on the board. Lokoff is on the board of the Ardmore Initiative.

MilkBoy sells Ardmore hoodies.

But these days, Joyner is wearing a brand new shirt, hot off the presses. It reads: “Menace to Ardmore”—the message of the second-to-last protest banner in front of his shop.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 35 of 35
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1. Ray said... on Mar 23, 2011 at 08:50AM

“When a "business manager" for a trades union approaches you to consider hiring some of their own for your project it is in your best interest if you say "no thanks" to hire a security force and surveillance equipment to protect your work site, otherwise sabotage will occur in the middle of the night. Ask any non-union contractor anywhere in Philadelphia and the suburbs about this. And the unions wonder they are on the downslope of public opinion?”

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2. brendancalling said... on Mar 23, 2011 at 10:06AM

“"throwing garbage on the street". typical.”

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3. Anonymous said... on Mar 23, 2011 at 10:17AM

“It's unfortunate. I believe very much in unions and the role they play in helping the middle class, but when I see this or here abt piping in comcast, I get mad. Union pwr rose simultaneously w/ fossil fuels and post ww2 growth of american pwr. But as the world has changed and resources become tapped, the union, esp the trade/industrial unions have failed to create a new strategy for a variety of reasons. So this example of what is happening w/ milkboy is the result. Milkboy and the construction laborers are on the same side, neither of them is getting rich or have the pwr or control to change the system. Its sad, because these two sides if organized together could provide a countervailing force to the rich and powerful who actually control things. So while milkboy and the laborers fight each other the rich sit back and grin-happy that working class is fighting with each other rather than trying to fight them.”

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4. BabaBooey said... on Mar 23, 2011 at 10:18AM

“Typical union BS....Really makes people want to start businesses in the city...”

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5. Flaflafloey said... on Mar 23, 2011 at 10:40AM

“At least it is getting more civil. In the 80's and before you were likely to be flashed a gun and strongly persuaded to pay off the union thugs.”

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6. Anonymous said... on Mar 23, 2011 at 10:56AM

“Unions were created to prevent employers from taking advantage of workers by under-paying them. If the workers who did the construction were paid a fair wage, then what's the problem? Oh wait... but then union workers don't get to sit around a job site and get paid.”

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7. Mike said... on Mar 23, 2011 at 11:42AM

“Ok, but what is the salary difference? Without knowing what the non-union shops are paying, and what benefits they receive, we can't evaluate the Union's position. Too many times "saving money" really just shortchanges workers at some point in the spending chain, while the big businesses/executives reap higher profits. For example look at the struggles of the ROTEM workers building SEPTA's new railcars. They are making under 20k a year, with expensive, minimal healthcare, no 401k, no sick or vacation days. The company blames production issues on the workers, but what skilled welder or electrician will work for so little? So even if the Union's tactics are misguided, they may have a point. If those non-union carpenters are making poverty wages, it is hurting the community. To oversimplify it, if milkboy doesn't pay contractors enough, they can't turn around and pay for milkboy's coffed. Expand that to a macro level, and it cripples the economy.”

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8. Ray said... on Mar 23, 2011 at 11:57AM

“@Mike: You said "So even if the Union's tactics are misguided, they may have a point." It is well known to law enforcement agencies that union tactics of extortion to hire a few union brethren and then retaliation if they are not hired rises to a level that is not just misguided - it is illegal.”

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9. Kyle said... on Mar 23, 2011 at 12:36PM

“Milkboy is a great coffee shop. It stands for so many things that are right. I just really hope someone steps for them. This is sad turn of events.”

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10. Anonymous said... on Mar 23, 2011 at 01:10PM

“Thank you for this article. These men block our sidewalks and Lower Merion Police and Lower Merion Township does nothing about it because of the union factor. Which given the sad state of affairs in Ardmore and Lower Merion is not particularly surprising.

I think unions have a place in society, but why aren't they picketing the property owners in Philly who ran and bid the job, or the City of Philadelphia because the city tells these businesses the rules?”

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11. HATE UNIONS said... on Mar 23, 2011 at 07:07PM

“Unions are legalized Bullying”

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12. Anonymous said... on Mar 24, 2011 at 01:29PM

“this makes me want to go out of my way to patronize this shop. looks like im heading to ardmore this saturday for some mornin' joe!”

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13. Andrew said... on Mar 24, 2011 at 01:36PM

“Unions are bad for America, and bad for Ardmore”

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14. Anonymous said... on Mar 24, 2011 at 03:54PM

“all u haters , just remember when u get paid like the blacks &latinos you gonna want to be paid like your grandfather, he made $$$, you ahol&^%%%, are gonna be paid like the minoriies stop letting the powers that be guide you to stupidty, you work longer for less $$$, they are brian washing the people, you cant live like you parents, you can never marry, or own anything, you kids will never have a job ,learn chinese,spanish, were done in usa, we need unions, but the way to do it now, requires people to die for the cause,”

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15. Anonymous said... on Mar 25, 2011 at 08:25AM

“you are strangely misguided if you think these unions hire minorities beyond what they need to comply with equalt opportunity regs. These very unions are some of the most racist organizations on earth..


http://www.nationalbcc.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=621:economic-apartheid-construction-unions-and-the-city-of-philadelphia&catid=63:beyond-the-rhetoric&Itemid=8”

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16. Samuel said... on Mar 25, 2011 at 09:27AM

“What happens when there's nothing to fight over any more? What are the unions going to picket when there is no new business to bully? They don't realize that despite the robust conversation going on on this blog....there's no conversation to be had, and no work for their members, if businesses don't want to move here. Philadelphia can't be carried by nonprofit construction funded by the city and Penn. If people (union members and non) are going to have work to do, the city needs businesses. Have we learned anything from riding the R7 through Bucks County and seeing the industrial skeletons? Modern business doesn't care about provincial bullying...because it votes with its feet, moves away, and the union guys are left to bully themselves. U3 ventures and Milkboy are bright exceptions and should be commended for their fortitude, heart, and perseverance.”

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17. Anonymous said... on Mar 26, 2011 at 06:21PM

“Hey listen!!
Union members just want to be treated fairly, send there children to college, have good health care, and make a decent buck! We are not that much higher in price than a non union worker and are far more qualified than the norm. Plus when you build union yo will do much more business in this city because its a union city and all union members know who uses our labor and who does not. So just think about that!!!!!”

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18. Anonymous said... on Mar 28, 2011 at 10:39PM

“I was lucky enough to purchase one of the units in the Center City condo. The developer was smart enough to use nonunion contractors to keep the cost down; hence selling very affordable homes to many people wanting to move to the city. These thugs were protesting in front of our building for many months, but the majority of owners ignored them. Do they think that by protesting in front of someone's home will make the owner sell and move because the developer didn't hire any union contractors? What a waste of time.”

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19. Kimmel Center said... on Mar 29, 2011 at 05:28AM

“If you ever try doing business in the City, you'll quickly realize that the Unions have a stranglehold on everything. Want to use your own DJ at the Kimmel, then you have to pay an Electrical Union member to sit there along side your DJ. No, I'm not making that up.

Volleyball nets need to go up at the Convention Center....only the Pipefitters Union can do that and it takes two days. The USA Volleyball team could do it themselves (and for free) in 15min, but hey, Union Quality takes time and lots of $$$.

Here is a nice article to remind people of how Unions are practically "domestic terrorists": http://www.philadelphiaweekly.com/news-and-opinion/sorry_its_not_my_job-38365189.html”

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20. Think said... on Apr 8, 2011 at 09:19PM

“Unions are bad, of course they are. We are a country that is only about money. Labor workers do not deserve fair wages, benefits, or security. Upton Sinclair was a fool, the Triangle shirt factory fire was the fault of the employees. The labor force should be happy to accept low wages in exchange for hard work. Unions have never done a thing to improve the quality of life for workers. The right to protest is as unamerican as union are this is a capitalist country. The uneducated workers should to shut up and be happy for the crumbs we toss them.”

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21. Sean said... on Jun 23, 2011 at 07:45AM

“Hang in there Milkboy. You are an excellent and unique coffee shop. The union thuggery is only going to backfire and give your free publicity. The union activity only makes me more likely to support you!”

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22. Anonymous said... on Jul 12, 2011 at 10:37AM

“I agree with Sean, I'm anxiously awaiting Milkboy's arrival on Chestnut St. I think a lot of people are aware of their tactics and just as get as frustrated as the business owner, well I'm sure not "as" but you get what I mean.

I never fully understood their purpose until I was eating in a restaurant they were outside of and the owner was explaining to the couple next to me, couldn't believe it and something absolutely needs to be done about them.”

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23. Michael David Kittell said... on Jul 22, 2011 at 12:25PM

“PW is free because of gambling, alcoholism, and sex slavery. It lacks credibility in all its coverage. Never cross a picket line.”

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24. Anonymous said... on Jul 25, 2011 at 06:25PM

“Just an observation...all the pro-union commenters can't seem to get the whole there/their/they're thing down. Just sayin'.

Also, unsure why this is the fault of Milkboy - they didn't pick the contracters, U3 did. Unions.”

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25. Anonymous said... on Jul 29, 2011 at 05:36PM

“Hey Union Guys. Enjoy it while it lasts. The end is near.

I am a strong liberal, but I have never believed in welfare to the undeserving, be it corporate or union.

I have opened several businesses, never used union labor once and I never will.

When I was younger I was working a union job and was physically assaulted when I would not join the union. I will never forget the lesson they taught me.

What I will teach you is what I learned in Economics, in the end money talks and BS walks. Keep walking union guys.”

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26. center city born said... on Aug 10, 2011 at 06:15PM

“unions should only be there for pilots and personal that really can effect lives why should milkboy pay unions starbuckss worker arnt union and thier happy,i cook at a hotel not union and we are the highest paid in the city unions take money out of pay check so you "HAVE A VOICE" im 27 and i can speak for my self

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27. Anonymous said... on Aug 26, 2011 at 10:12PM

“in what country we all live. Ask a question to your self. Is it Free country like we always been told??? Big question? My answer to this question: no this is not a free country, becasue you have no right for your voice. We must do what we told not what we want, not who we want to hire, not how we want to do our business, etc ( I can continue unlimited ).
The unions making us to hire them not someone we want to hire. Why???
Example: if you know carpenters who been working with you for years and you happy with them, their work i bet we would want to hire them for next project simply because we know them and we like how they do.
Now please answer this: why should i hire union workers if i have no idea who they are, how they work, etc. Why should I hire these AS@HO$ES.
Look at this people who standing and protesting. They not looking for job they are using our tax payers money to get benefits while they heating their asses.

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28. Carpenters Phila said... on Apr 17, 2012 at 11:44PM

“I recently came across your article and have been reading along. I want to express my admiration of your writing skill and ability to make readers read from the beginning to the end. I would like to read newer posts and to share my thoughts with you.”

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29. Carpenters Phila said... on Apr 17, 2012 at 11:44PM

“I recently came across your article and have been reading along. I want to express my admiration of your writing skill and ability to make readers read from the beginning to the end. I would like to read newer posts and to share my thoughts with you.”

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30. Carpenters Phila said... on Apr 17, 2012 at 11:44PM

“I recently came across your article and have been reading along. I want to express my admiration of your writing skill and ability to make readers read from the beginning to the end. I would like to read newer posts and to share my thoughts with you.”

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31. Pissed in Philly said... on Aug 24, 2012 at 03:37PM

“F the Unions, just thugs, low class, white trash! You guys make me sick!”

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32. Middleclass carpenter said... on Sep 27, 2012 at 11:54AM

“Im nor a thug or low life white trash I'm a college graduate. I'm also a very highly trained union carpenter. Spending 4 additional years in carpentry school as well as going through an apprenticeship. Union jobs feed my family! The hey day of union members being paid to do nothing is over contractors don't go for that anymore! I'm sorry that many of you have a bad taste in your mouths but do your research talk to some actual union members we aren't scum yes there are a few bad apples now and then.”

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33. Middleclass carpenter said... on Sep 27, 2012 at 11:54AM

“Im nor a thug or low life white trash I'm a college graduate. I'm also a very highly trained union carpenter. Spending 4 additional years in carpentry school as well as going through an apprenticeship. Union jobs feed my family! The hey day of union members being paid to do nothing is over contractors don't go for that anymore! I'm sorry that many of you have a bad taste in your mouths but do your research talk to some actual union members we aren't scum yes there are a few bad apples now and then.”

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34. Anonymous said... on Oct 3, 2012 at 01:21PM

“Hey #17 - You Listen Up! Learn how to spell and quit trying to be a thug! My shop is union and we have a ton of work down here in TX. We run 2 shifts 7 days a week and have much more work than you guys do! My union guys don't bitch and complain nor do they act like kids wanting a hand out. Where do you think you will do more business in Philly by hiring union? That's not true. All my clients leave Philly never wanting to go back! They would rather spend their money elsewhere where they are treated with respect instead of taken advantage of.”

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35. Steamfitter Local420 said... on Jan 13, 2014 at 05:01PM

“Building collapses and piss poor safety conditions...the hiring of illegal immigrants, these are just a few things you have to deal with in non union labor. Most of these non union outfits are filled with workers who once were in the union and couldn't cut it in apprenticeship school or couldn't pass a drug text to get in! Nothing wrong with a fair days pay for a fair days work. What about all of the UNION construction in the city that has exponentially increased profit for investors! Non union work is just big shots trying to save a dollar at any expense! Build Union! Buy American!”

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