Undercover Congressman

Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., shovels spent grain into a dumpster while working at Half Acre Beer Company on Wednesday, August 6, 2014. (Andrew A. Nelles/ For RedEye) (Andrew A. Nelles / For RedEye / August 6, 2014)

You could say that Congressman Mike Quigley is trying to tap into what makes small businesses work—especially in Chicago, which has a dismal reputation on that front.

On Wednesday, the Chicago Democrat spent a few hours at Half Acre Beer Company on Lincoln Avenue, where he got a taste of how a small craft brewery operates. At one point, Half Acre's director of operations Dan Whiteley scooped a handful of yeast foam from a bubbling bucket and held it to Quigley’s face.

"Try it—it's really bitter,” he said. Quigley sampled it and winced.

Quigley shoveled used barley into a waste bin, then poured hops into a tank full of hot wort that would become Daisy Cutter pale ale. He even loaded the finished products into boxes that were ready for sale. It was the latest stop in his “Undercover Congressman” program, similar to the TV show "Undercover Boss." 

It also falls months before his likely re-election in November. Without pointing fingers at fellow Democrats at City Hall or anyone else, Quigley acknowledged that Chicago has a reputation for being unfriendly to business. 

So how can a congressman help Chicago's small business climate?

“It has that reputation. It has a long way to go to overcome that, and it’s a variety of factors. To the extent what I do in D.C. can help that, I think some of it has to do with trade-type issues — pro and con — [and] tax issues. I learn more about the kinds of help that will help small businesses and the people who work there. I tell you, transportation is huge. I worked in a restaurant in Elmhurst and ... the entire lunch shift flipped hamburgers and made fries and talked to the people I was working with, and I tell you, they told me the hardest part was getting there. ‘I make this much and there’s no train that takes me here.’ You can forget about that, why it matters. Transportation becomes so important for folks.”

The Undercover Congressman project has brought Quigley to dozens of workplaces. He has made cheesecake at Eli’s, worked at a treatment plant at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and made hot dogs at Superdawg.

“Good workout!” he said as he shoveled spent grain from a tank Wednesday. “If I was a little more than average height, it would be easier. It’s a leverage thing,” said the congressman, who stands 5-foot-7.

Quigley toured the facility at 4257 N. Lincoln Ave., in North Center, asking questions ranging from how best to stack boxes of Daisy Cutter onto a pallet to how to market beer to women. Mainly, he said, his goal is to listen.

“I‘ve heard everything,” he said when asked what concerns local business owners. “Chinese currency manipulation, the tax code, local problems, local political problems.”

Chicago got a D+ in the latest Kauffman Foundation/Thumbtack survey of small business friendliness. Business owners rated Chicago last out of 82 cities for optimism about the local economy.

Democrats nationwide, including Quigley, have supported a minimum wage increase as election season ramps up. Many business advocates say increasing the wage would be an unnecessary strain on their finances in a still-struggling economy. Quigley was quick to say that not all business owners oppose an increase.

“When I talk to small businesses, they tell me as the economy grows they can tolerate it more, and how you phase it in matters,” he said after sampling some Half Acre Pony pilsner. “It’s a tough balance on so much of this. In the end, the cure to a lot of this is growing the economy.”

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