Each year, many small business owners across the nation find themselves confronted with ethical dilemmas that pit their deepest beliefs against their bottom line. Though speaking out, especially on controversial political issues, can often polarize customers and employees, it’s the uphill battles that tend to create community leaders, as Nashville restaurateur Randy Rayburn (of Sunset Grill, Cabana, and Midtown Café) discovered amid the economic whirlwind of 2009.
Leading a group of small business owners in Tennessee, Rayburn filed a lawsuit against the state, challenging the legality and constitutionality of a proposed law that would allow permit holders to bring concealed handguns into restaurants and bars that served alcohol, so long as the carrier didn’t drink.
“I had concerns about taking sides in such a high profile subject, and, frankly, I didn’t realize at the time just how high profile it would become,” Rayburn says. “There’s always legislation that can hurt or help our industries, and sometimes we have to get involved to protect our business and family.”
As was the case with many small business owners that year, Rayburn’s restaurants were fighting to survive under the economic stress that had suffocated many businesses across the nation. Still, Rayburn weathered the storm and even hired a lobbyist out of his own pocket. And, after much debate had passed throughout the various branches of government, a judge finally deemed the law unconstitutional that November.
Rayburn’s victory was short-lived, though. Even as public polling showed that seven in 10 voters opposed mixing handguns and alcohol, a new version of the law was approved in 2010. Many, including Rayburn, figured the NRA’s heavy involvement was responsible. “The NRA lobbyist reminded legislatures that this would be a litmus test vote for the support of the NRA in the following elections,” Rayburn says. “The NRA was pushing the law, and the legislatures were afraid to challenge them out of fear of financial retribution in following elections.”
While the political process ultimately didn’t play out the way he and so many other small business owners had envisioned, Rayburn’s efforts did not go unrecognized. He was featured as a guest on several national talk shows and was also nominated for the Tennessean of the Year award in 2009 by Nashville’s prominent newspaper, The Tennessean, for his “exceptional contribution” to the people of state.
Like many small business owners that have chosen to stand up for what they believe is right during hard times, Rayburn finds more value and solace in having a clear conscience than pleasing every customer for the almighty dollar, although Rayburn’s convictions may have ultimately helped his business, too.
“Sometimes, a man has to do what he believes is right,” Rayburn says. “I still have customers, daily, thank me for my efforts. So, I know I did the right thing. I want my son Duke, someday, to understand and be proud of his DaDa.”