By now you’ve likely heard about the Working Families Agenda that the Minneapolis City Council and Mayor Betsy Hodges has proposed. It’s all anyone in the restaurant community can talk about. City Page’s Mecca Bos did a nice job of reporting on the issue if you need to catch up, but I still feel like the potential impact of this measure is being understated.
I can’t speak for all the 35,000+ small businesses in the city, but I can speak about the restaurant industry, which these measures would fundamentally change. It’s tough out there. There are a lot of restaurants fighting for guests, for every Spoon & Stable or Surly pulling in big numbers, there are more just trying to figure out how to get numbers up by the end of the month when rent is due. Not just bad or poorly run restaurants, but mom-n-pop shops that take care of their employees and often go without paychecks so that payroll will process. That is the norm. And yet this measure takes neither industry nor size into account. Everyone likes to talk about the boom, the 100+ restos opened last year. Well you know what? Over 30 places have closed this year, too. So anyone who’s going to make laws based on the fact that they keep hearing about restaurant openings is ridiculous.
The restaurant industry is a different animal, which I think needs to be recognized. It measures sales hourly, the profit margins are slim, and the unpredictability of weather can make or break a night. The fact is that the restaurant industry is in flux right now, due to the increase in minimum wage and the shortage of employees. Those two factors are already taking a toll that will show itself more when we hit January and more places start closing. Many are trying to hold on for holiday dollars, but there will be closings, mark my word. Here’s something that I don’t understand: Why are we about to enact industry changing laws for workers, when it’s already a worker’s marketplace? Quite honestly, these businesses are in the midst of figuring out a way to make themselves more attractive to employees, because they’re all in need of them, so if a good worker isn’t being given the schedule they need from one employer, surely there is another who will. As I just clicked, there are 2,500 job postings in the hospitality section of CraigsList. For context: there are 781 in retail, 650 in administrative, 156 in marketing/PR, and eight in government.
Let me be clear, I support helping working families, and I understand that was the intent of the measure. Restaurant employees are the soul of a place and have the most impact with guests, thereby winning more repeat guests and more money for all. They should be valued, and their schedules should work with their lives to support it. I just don’t think these are the right measures to attain that goal. And it feels like everyone is being punished for some bad practices. The fact that people feel blind-sided by the 60 day fast track of the vote, suddenly makes this seem like an Evil Employer vs. Ungrateful Employee situation, which it should never be and in most restaurants, isn't.
It seems the city council is trying to emulate San Francisco, which passed an initiative close to this recently. I can’t imagine that they could really compare the practices of San Francisco, with a metro population of 7.44 million, to Minneapolis, with 2.9 million. Also has it ever snowed in SFO?
The idea that restaurants should be forced to schedule employees far in advance (originally an absurd 28 days was proposed, but then potentially backed off to 14) completely guts the idea of a flexible industry, for which many, many people enter into the restaurant business. But then add a new law that prohibits the restaurant from being able to control their labor costs to offset lack of sales, which is what paying someone “predictability pay” would do, is just bizarre in our market. Forget about the obvious snowstorm analogy, what about the place with no patio that suddenly finds themselves with an 80-degree sunny day in March? If they had to schedule weeks ago, they’d be full-staffed for a day when no one in the Twin Cites wants to be inside. So no money is coming in, the rent is always due, and now you have to pay four hours of wages to multiple workers who aren’t doing anything because there’s no business. How does this make sense? Where does the money come from? What if the next day is sunny, too? How do they really expect restaurants to make this work? By charging $25 for a burger? That's not going to work.
If it passes with the original language, would the agenda be the death knell of the burgeoning Minneapolis restaurant scene? No, but it would diminish it. Because you know who will be able to afford to own restaurants in Minneapolis? Not the small independents, not the creative chefs looking to do something cool and new, not the first-time restaurateurs looking to start their own business, but the big chains.
Think of every fundraiser or charity event you’ve been to—was there a restaurant there donating food? If such restaurants are unable to schedule these events a month or more out, the charities will lose out on their participation. Remember the fun and community of Open Streets, with restaurants setting up shop out on the pavement? That stuff comes together last-minute in many cases, so you can kiss this kind of event goodbye with this plan. You know how much money they are spending on Nicollet Mall? If no one can afford to operate a restaurant on it, who's going to hang out there? I can’t wait to tell all the people coming in for the Superbowl that they’ll have to shuttle out of town to find the flavor of the Twin Cities. I’m not saying everyone will go out of business, but Mayor Hodges might end up being the best thing to happen to the St. Paul restaurant scene in years.
If you care about the Twin Cities Dining Scene, send your opinions to firstname.lastname@example.org. They are still taking feedback on the measure until Oct. 16. There is a public hearing scheduled for Nov. 4. Make your opinions be heard.
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