Originally published in The Commons issue #360 (Wednesday, June 8, 2016). This story appeared on page B5.
BELLOWS FALLS—As a national dialogue rages about a higher minimum wage, a small-town Vermont restaurant recently announced its new mission: to ensure that every one of its employees earns at least $15 per hour.
In 2012, according to a news release, Friends of Bellows Falls decided the town needed a restaurant. The village’s only full-service eatery had burned down a few years earlier. Meanwhile, a historic building in The Square — the former Hotel Windham — was sitting mostly unused. The group put two and two together and hatched a business plan.
To raise money, they took their idea to the community and soon, with 25 investors, they opened Popolo, with farm-to-table cuisine and an intimate music venue.
To address the minimum wage, Popolo’s directors have once again reached out to the community for support. The plan is simple. Each diner will be asked for an additional contribution, based on a fixed percentage of their purchase.
Popolo calls this charge the “Living Wage Adjustment.”
“Six percent is the magic number for Popolo,” Gary Smith, the restaurant’s general manager, said in the news release “I’m sure it’s different for every employer but, based on our previous experience, 6 percent will cover the pay increase here.”
Smith said he is choosing this approach, rather than just raising menu prices, because “that strategy also adds more tax to the bill. We think explaining the plan with complete transparency not only offers a better deal to our customers, it reminds them they’re all helping to guarantee our workers enough to live.”
Popolo has consulted with the Vermont Department of Taxes, Smith said, and they agree that, as long as the restaurant follows some simple rules about the notice and disbursement of this revenue, the charge won’t be subject to the state Rooms and Meals Tax, so all the additional revenue will go to employees.
Raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour is an issue receiving much attention, with Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders one of the most vocal proponents. Though Vermont’s minimum wage is now $9.60 per hour, the federal minimum wage is only $7.25. Some cities have already increased the minimum wage with an eventual target of $15 per hour.
Smith said Popolo and its shareholders feel that waiting for the increase doesn’t fit with the company’s principles, so they adopted the Living Wage Adjustment as an immediate remedy.
“Many small contributions make this improvement possible,” Smith said, “There aren’t many diners who will balk at spending a couple dollars more to secure quality of life for our workers. It’s part of the cost of dining out.”
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