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How do you make an unloved job more attractive? Restaurants Tinker With Wages.


For Ms Cohen, it was not only an attempt to challenge the concept of tipping, which she called “inherently racist and sexist”, but also to attract and retain employees. “Everyone makes it seem like the difficulties in finding staff are a post-pandemic issue,” she said. “But it was also really before the pandemic, especially in New York City.”

Her new system was expensive. Ms. Cohen says that despite rave reviews and hard-to-get reservations, she often barely made a profit. Profits hovered around 1 percent, she said. “We were always balancing on the edge of the abyss.”

The pandemic has changed that. Like many restaurateurs, Ms. Cohen streamlined her menu and served a three-course tasting instead of the five or ten previously offered. Fewer choices drastically reduced her food costs and the number of people it took to prepare the intricate dishes she’s known for, such as an aubergine tiramis served with a cloud of cotton candy.

Today, Dirt Candy offers just one five-course meal and all employees start at $25 an hour. Last month, profits hit 5 percent, Ms. Cohen said. “The only way I could pay fairly was to run a better business,” she added. “It’s not the restaurant I dreamed of, but it’s the restaurant that functions.”

Some restaurants that aren’t ready to make the jump to a new pay structure are adapting to the fringes, offering added benefits and less grueling schedules. Ellen Yin, a partner at the Philadelphia-based High Street Hospitality Group, has long offered a health plan, but will soon add one with lower premiums and a student debt reduction program. This month, Jason Berry, one of the founders of knead hospitality, a restaurant group in Washington, DC, is going to introduce a four-day work week for the managers of its restaurants.

Mr. Berry suggested the roster change — four 12-hour days instead of five 11-hour shifts — after losing two valued old employees this summer. One stopped to sell wine, the other to follow a dream and write children’s books.

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