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View from a small business in a recovering economy

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The rise in the U.S. unemployment rate — to 7.9 percent in January — suggests that people are coming back into the job hunt after giving up on finding work during the recession. And the increase takes the U.S. economy further from the 6.5 percent unemployment target that the Federal Reserve has set — at which point it will back off its current policy of maintaining incredibly low interest rates to spur business investment and hiring.

But some places in the United States have already seen unemployment fall far enough to hit the Fed’s target. This reporter traveled to Boise, Idaho — metro-area population 600,000, metro-area unemployment rate 6.2 percent (December 2012) — to see what it’s like to run a business in a genuinely recovering economy.

Blake Lingle greets diners at his Boise Fry Company with a casual “Welcome,” followed by an exhaustive tour of the menu. It features six varieties of potatoes with nine dipping sauces (including Thai, garlic aioli, and marshmallow), plus three homemade soda flavors (root beer, orange-basil, and raspberry lemonade). Oh, and burgers — bison and beef, plus a homemade vegan patty, all available with grilled onions and special sauce (blueberry habanero, anyone?).

Lingle, 32, calls this fare “fries and burgers,” rather than “burgers and fries.” ,

The original Boise Fry Company restaurant is a lunch-counter storefront tucked into an aging strip mall just minutes from downtown. It’s cornered the gourmet French-fry market, and won numerous local and regional awards in the process.

The menu is chalked on a blackboard above the ordering station. “At the top is the Russet,” Lingle explains. “That’s the potato you’re going to get in every restaurant in America. Gold is below that: It’s a slightly more buttery, softer, sweeter potato.” Other varieties currently available — many from nearby farms in Southwest Idaho — include yams, lauras, sweets and purples.

“This is a fairly high-priced burger joint,” says Lingle. “It’s not McDonalds. You’re going to pay twice as much to eat here.”

A small order of fries costs $2.39; a large, $3.59. The priciest item on the menu, at $8.00, is “The Bourgeois”: Thin-sliced Russets fried in duck fat and finished with truffle salt.

Lingle didn’t launch this startup when the economy was recovering. He opened in mid-2009 — when unemployment was hovering around 8 percent to 9 percent, the Boise housing market had crashed as badly as Phoenix and Las Vegas, and local employers like Hewlett Packard and Micron were laying off thousands of workers.

“A lot of people asked me why I started then,” says Lingle. “I was determined to open a business. And at some point, if it happens to be the right time, you can’t let a lot of other variables go through your mind. I was reading a lot of articles at the time, and some of America’s most successful companies actually started during recessions. I think sometimes it allows you to think out of the box, to be a lot more conservative in your financial approach to a business, because you realize how risky it is.”

Lingle did some things right at the beginning — starting with ‘location, location, location.’ He opened his first restaurant adjacent to St. Luke’s Medical Center, Idaho’s biggest hospital and one of the state’s biggest employers. Health care employment is relatively recession-proof, so the lunch-crowd stayed pretty steady, even in the depths of the recession.

Now, Lingle is opening his third restaurant in Boise. He’ll have thirty employees, most of them full-time. He pays well above minimum wage — around $12.50/hour — with full medical and dental benefits. After two years’ service, employees get a custom bike.

And in Boise, where the unemployment rate has fallen by two percentage points in just the past year, and now sits well below the national average, things are starting to look normal again.

“In the past few months, it seems a lot of my friends and colleagues have gotten promotions, or gotten new jobs,” Lingle says. “I’ve seen a lot of other people take entrepreneurial risks that I wasn’t seeing.”

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