Tuesday, March 19, 2013

And Financial Complications Arise

While waiting tables at a gourmet pizza place a number of years ago, a customer told me that her pizza better be solid gold for what we were charging. I smiled politely, replied with an explanation of our fresh, high-quality ingredients, all the while wanting to tell her to shove it and go to Domino's.

If you want an example of how your high-school economics class matters in the real world, eat or work at a restaurant. After 15 years of waiting tables and six years as a chef's wife, I am well aware that going out to eat is not a simple matter of order food, make food, eat food, pay for food. It is far more complicated than that. And at the moment, there is a potential situation in my home state that will have even more complicated effects on the restaurant industry.

The Minnesota Legislature is seeking to pass a bill raising the minimum wage. In one version, the rate would go up over three dollars in the next few years. For Minnesotans making the current minimum wage, this will be an economic relief. It is hard to make ends meet making non-tipped minimum wage, and I am, of course, in favor of helping the lowest-wage earners keep up with the rapidly rising cost of living.

But then I consider the situation of some restaurants, and it gives me pause. Since Chef Matt has been an executive chef, I have learned more than I ever wanted to know about food cost and labor cost. Food and labor are both expensive, and every week, Matt crunches numbers, cuts shifts, creatively uses food, and works extra hours himself to keep the restaurant running. The solution could always be to raise meal prices, but then you have the "solid-gold pizza lady" issue making a reputation for your restaurant's value.

For small restaurants, increased labor cost, for tipped employees in particular, is going to create difficulties that could make it hard to keep business running as usual. Matt's restaurant is farm-to-table, but local, high-quality foods are often more expensive, and with higher labor, it could complicate his ability to purchase the produce and meats he wants to. His restaurant has a reputation for unique, interesting dishes that make use of beautiful ingredients, but that, too, can be expensive.

If this bill goes through, and tipped employees are granted a higher minimum wage, he will likely have to sacrifice some of the things that make his small restaurant the place that it is, charge more for dishes, and work more than he already does. The part is that is frustrating for him, too, on a more personal level, is that in his company of restaurants, many of the tipped employees average a higher hourly wage than he does.

I was a server, so I know how hard they work and how essential that paycheck is. As a server in Iowa while in college, I made $2.13 an hour, and my paychecks were essentially negative. That is not okay. But when the executive chef of a restaurant, whose job it is to balance food cost, labor cost, customer prices, perceived value, food responsibility, and the creative art of cooking in a 55-hour week makes less money than a tipped employee, it is a little hard for me to swallow.

I am aware that this makes me sound insensitive to the thousands of hard-working, deserving tipped employees in the state. But there is always another side to the story. Many restaurants are not huge money-makers, especially the small independent ones. And what I see is what my husband lives each day and how this might effect our family. He is not the big evil business, desperate to cheat workers in order to increase our profit. He wants to do right by his employees, and stresses and sweats to make all things as fair as possible.

But I fear that if this bill passes, and in the next couple of years the minimum wage rises two to three dollars, some of the restaurants that this community loves will need to compromise quality, raise food prices to a difficult level, or close altogether. And to me, that means loss of integrity, loss of business, and loss of jobs. I do not know what the answer is, but there must be a compromise at hand, so the hard workers of Minnesota can continue to be employed at the restaurants that they, and their customers, and their chefs, love.

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