When my wife and I opened Vena’s Fizz House, an Old Port bar and restaurant, in 2013, we made each other a promise: We promised that we would pay our bartenders and servers a fair wage, instead of the current sub-minimum wage for tipped workers of $3.75.
We made this pledge for a couple of reasons: first, we have both worked in the restaurant industry for many years before we became teachers, so we understood the precarious and stressful nature of relying on tips for income.
Second, we strongly believe in the simple fact that if you pay a decent wage, you will retain employees who will feel valued, work harder, be more invested and, ultimately, save you time and money.
As former teachers who taught for nearly two decades each, we know exactly how it feels to work hard, love what you do, but never be paid fairly for your investment in your work. We knew that if we were going to ask our employees to invest their time and energy in our business, we would have to invest in them.
Our soda-makers, bartenders and servers – traditionally tipped positions – all start with a base wage of $9 per hour, and every employee has the opportunity to move up through the ranks. Our head bartender has been with us for about 19 months and already earns $11 per hour plus tips. And we will happily raise our employees’ starting wage to $12 and beyond as the state minimum wage increases.
We hope you will join us in supporting Yes on Question 4 on Nov. 8. It would raise the statewide minimum wage from the current $7.50 an hour to $9 next year and then by $1 per year until it reaches $12 in 2020.
More importantly for our industry, it would raise the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers from the current $3.75 to $12 by 2024. Going forward, the minimum wage would increase along with the increase in the price of goods.
One Fair Wage – where all working people are guaranteed the same minimum wage by their employer – is in place in seven states, and the restaurant industries are thriving there. So is tipping.
Some of the greatest eating cities in this country, places like San Francisco, Seattle and Las Vegas, have One Fair Wage, as do rural states like Montana and Alaska. All the data suggest we can have a fair wage system and great, thriving restaurants. The National Restaurant Association’s own projections say the seven states with One Fair Wage will have stronger restaurant industry growth in the years to come than the national average.
All of my employees know they will always make at least the true minimum wage hourly, so their tips – the value of which has not changed with a higher base wage – are truly a gratuity to supplement fair pay. The servers, bartenders and soda-makers all readily share their tips after each shift, instead of fighting for tables and customers, because they know when they work together, they will all do better and things will run more smoothly.
Vena’s Fizz House is a relatively new addition to the Old Port – we opened just over three years ago – but we have quickly gained a reputation for our attention to detail and personalized service. My wife and I are extremely proud to have been featured in Food & Wine magazine, as well as to have been recognized by The Food Network’s Alton Brown as one of his Top 8 list of national stops and by the Portland Food Map.
None of that would have been possible, however, without the support and dedication of our staff. They are the faces of our business and the reason why we have grown so quickly.
We’re excited that this referendum will mean we are no longer putting ourselves at a competitive disadvantage in order to provide our employees with a fair wage.
How can we expect to retain the amazing talent in this city’s restaurant industry when we continually tell them they are worth less than those working in other professions? How can we continue to penalize our tipped employees – in Maine, 82 percent of whom are women – for choosing to work in our vibrant and thriving restaurant industry?
When we were teachers, we both supplemented our income with jobs in restaurants and retail and were subject to the subpar wages and subpar treatment from customers that come with making such a low wage. We hope you will join us and the owners of over 600 other Maine small businesses in voting Yes on Question 4.