The Marquis & Co. restaurant group — owners of vegan restaurants HipCityVeg, Bar Bombón, and Charlie Was a Sinner — announced today that it will be instituting a $15 dollar minimum wage for all employees across its nine restaurants. The change will take place in July of this year and will ensure that both hourly and tipped workers will make at minimum $15 an hour.
“This is going to affect 75 percent of our Philadelphia workforce,” founder Nicole Marquis says. In Pennsylvania, the minimum wage is currently $7.25. In D.C., where there are two HipCityVeg locations, the minimum wage is already $15. “Our [tipped] servers and bartenders make well above $15 an hour already, but our food runners, our bussers, our barbacks may not.”
At restaurants around the country, labor shortages have become a huge problem as many businesses are preparing to open at fuller capacity, and nicer weather means more people will feel safe eating out. With more Pennsylvanians getting vaccinated, the light at the end of the tunnel is near, but many former restaurant workers — vaccinated or not — have legitimate reasons to not come back to work. Time away from restaurants exposed their toxicity, they found work in other industries, or were just burned out by the constant ups and downs of employment last year.
“It’s a mixed bag of issues,” Marquis says. “We had two rounds of layoffs because there were two shutdowns. After the second round of layoffs, our employees looked at us and said, ‘We need to find another career that’s stable.’” Many of them did, which has put Marquis’s restaurant group in the same boat as every other business: Recruiting so far has been a challenge. “[Some] employees moved out of the city altogether. We have a group of employees who are single moms or single dads, and finding childcare was impossible. It was a brutal year.” To bring employees old and new back into the fold, the $15 minimum wage was her solution. “I just recruited someone back from Amazon,” she says.
Marquis has led a few other initiatives like this one when the pandemic began to sweep through Philly’s restaurant industry. She was one of the co-founders of the Save Philly Restaurants coalition, which succeeded in securing a COVID-19 testing site for workers in the beginning of this year, then organized dedicated vaccination clinics for restaurant workers in March, among other initiatives. This latest decision was inspired by Marquis’s desire to not only recruit workers in anticipation of a busy summer, but to retain them in the long run: The restaurant industry has a notoriously high turnover rate.
So how will the group pull it off financially? “We’ve had to think about this and say, ‘Okay how are we going to do this?’” Marquis says. “While this may add cost in the short term, there will be significant savings in retention and reduced turnover in the long run.” Menu prices will go up, according to a representative from Marquis & Co., who says “we believe customers want to pay for good ingredients from the best sources, just like they want to eat at a restaurant that takes care of its workers.”
While Marquis acknowledges that the $15 minimum wage is “the right thing for us,” it may not be for other restaurants. “Every business is doing what they can,” she says. “I’m Puerto Rican — as a Latino-owned company and as a single mom, that also was part of what pushed us, too. If one of the effects is that other restaurants see this as an example, and I can help in any way, that’s awesome.”