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From dishwasher to owner: How Coney Island's secret recipe can help you, too

Trade instant gratification for learning, listening, saving and working, James Todoran says

Saturday, December 7, 2013 - 12:01 am

Thursday, as demonstrators took to the streets outside fast-food restaurants in support of an increase in the $7.25-an-hour federal minimum wage, “Jimmy” Todoran was hard at work as the new co-owner of one of Fort Wayne's oldest and most-loved businesses.

Todoran might have had much in common with the demonstrators except for one very important distinction: When he first went to work at Coney Island as a 15-year-old dishwasher earning $3.75 an hour, he was determined to move up by earning it – not by demanding it.

“I always knew I wanted to own my own business, and the older gentlemen (who worked or ate there at the time) took a liking to me. They were from the World War II generation and taught me that if you work hard you can succeed, and I admired and respected that,” said Todoran, now 42, who last month bought an interest in the iconic 99-year-old wiener stand at 131 W. Main St. for which he has worked almost continuously since 1986.

“Today, people want immediate gratification,” Todoran said, expressing a sentiment that could have been directed specifically at this week's demonstrators – but wasn't. It was an acknowledgement of the dues many people try to avoid but which he gladly embraced as the price of advancement. Night dishwasher in the back room turned into a job behind the counter which gave way to night then day management positions.

It wasn't much money at first – his starting hourly salary of $3.75 equates to just $7.73 today. Even so, Todoran was able to afford his own apartment at 17, gradually gaining the skills and experience that eventually justified a salary big enough to buy part of the company.

The key, Todoran said, was that he always lived within his means. Contrast that approach with the demonstrators who this week demanded $15 an hour for the kind of entry-level work Todoran did when he was 15 Even if the protests convince politicians to increase the minimum wage, the workers will have done nothing to improve their own skills, marketability or self-determination.. They will have only what their employers have grudgingly given them. No less-- but no more, either.

Contrast it to all the picketing workers who say they can't support their families on $7.25 an hour – as if the minimum wage were intended to support families in the first place.

Predictably, President Obama jumped on the so-called “income gap” this week, calling inequality between rich and poor a "fundamental threat to the American dream.” He seems not to have noticed how the gap has widened during his presidency despite record levels of government assistance, or that the very regulations and policies he has supported have impeded people's ability to earn and keep the profits upon which jobs depend. “I got lucky. It's harder now,” Todoran said.

Harder, perhaps. But hardly impossible.

“Can young ones follow in my footsteps? Absolutely,” Todoran said. “When I was in high school higher education was supposedly our only option if we wanted to succeed (he earned a general studies degree at IPFW). Now the trend seems to be focusing more on trades, which are great. But don't discount the path I took. Even if I hadn't achieved my goal of ownership, I made a pretty nice living as manager. My advice is: Never stop learning! Ask your superiors questions about anything and everything.

“And when you advance? You're not above the job you did. I still sweep the parking lot and do dishes.”

It was reported this week that per-capita income in northeast Indiana, while up slightly, is still just 81.2 percent of the national average – a reflection of the loss of manufacturing jobs that once dominated the local economy. Local economic-development officials want to reverse that trend and are working to improve education and skills, create “shovel-ready” development sites and reduce bureaucratic red tape.

They aren't talking about doubling the minimum wage because they understand that such an approach would simply mask – and thereby perpetuate or exacerbate – the very conditions they hope to improve.

If you want to earn more, in other words, you should be willing and able to do a lot more than carry signs and shout outdated slogans.

Todoran's success has come through hard work and self-improvement, not a sense of entitlement, which may be one reason why he is able to be generous while so many others seem to resent not having even more.

“People ask me, 'Aren't you excited (about co-owning Coney Island)?' But, really, I feel content and relieved. I've always felt that I'm just a caretaker here. The place really belongs to Fort Wayne.”

And that means something, because you can't truly be generous with what you haven't earned.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at or call him at 461-8355.