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Obama talks small business with Buffalo Wild Wings franchisees

When Buffalo Wild Wings franchisee Bobby Pancake received a call from the White House on his cell phone, he didn’t recognize the number so he let it go into voice mail.

Upon returning the call, however, he swiftly discovered that he and Steve Wheat, his partner in High 5 LLC, a six-unit franchisee of Buffalo Wild Wings based in Bear, Del., would get to meet with President Barack Obama the next day to discuss the state of restaurants and other small businesses.

Pancake, who called the June 11 meeting “an absolutely great experience,” said he and Wheat were invited to Washington after being awarded the U.S. Small Business Administration’s National Entrepreneurial Success Award in May.

The annual award is presented to a successful business that received SBA assistance during its initial growth phase. The two partners founded High 5 in 2004 with several SBA guaranteed loans used to finance the first three of the company’s current six locations. Today, High 5 generates sales of $13.2 million and employs more than 400.

Previously, both Pancake and Wheat had held corporate positions for the Minneapolis-based Buffalo Wild Wings Grill and Bar — Pancake as director of operations for company locations and Wheat as local store marketing manager.

Terry Haney, the general manager of the Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant in Dover, Del., accompanied Pancake and Wheat to the White House.

Pancake, who admitted that he did not vote for Obama in the 2008 election, said the three restaurateurs met with the president for 20 minutes together with two owners of a technology company in Rockville, Md.

“It was pretty intimate,” Pancake said. “We spoke candidly, and he was completely engaged in the conversation. We talked about the restaurant industry and small businesses in general.”

Wheat, who called the meeting with Obama “a privilege most people don’t get,” said that the president voiced his concerns about “getting small business moving forward again.”

One of the key points of discussion, Pancake said, was the problem small businesses had arranging bank loans.

“We talked about getting the banks to loosen up so business can grow,” he said. “We told him that if Congress were able to make changes, we would like to build a couple more restaurants and add more jobs. He was really interested in what we had to say.”

Specifically, Wheat said, the president discussed the need to raise the cap on SBA loans from $2 million to $5 million.

Following the meeting in the Oval Office, the group convened for a press conference, during which the Obama discussed the Small Business Jobs Initiatives and the need to “make it easier for smaller firms to hire and to grow.”

Noting that small businesses historically have created two-thirds of all new jobs in the country, Obama said, “we’re going to need to make sure that small companies are able to open up and expand and add names to their payroll” in order to replace the millions of jobs lost during the recession.

Obama said that small businesses lost 2.4 million jobs from the middle of 2007 to the end of 2008.

“And because banks shrunk from lending in the midst of this financial crisis, it’s been particularly difficult for small business owners to take out loans to open up shop or expand," he said. "It’s been hard to finance inventories and payroll and new equipment.”

Obama also said he is urging Congress to approve tax breaks and lending incentives that would help to spur hiring and small business growth.

During the press conference, the president took a moment to make a joke about the Buffalo Wild Wings franchisees’ names, saying, “Obviously, they’d have to be restaurateurs, named Pancake and Wheat.”

Pancake, for his part, called the president “very kind,” and added: “While I don’t necessarily agree with all of his policies, there are things I definitely agree with. Some of his small business initiatives are very good. Some of these things will help small businesses get back on their feet and grow.”

The opportunity to discuss business with the president was “a once in a lifetime experience.”

However, Pancake added, he’s determined “that this won’t be the pinnacle of our career. It’s motivated us to get more involved politically in fighting for the industry.”

Contact Paul Frumkin at [email protected].

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