Eating & Drinking

“Whatever happened to the $3.99 breakfast?” How I juggled food prices and minimum wage — and lost

For 25 years, Ada’s Diner, a beloved greasy spoon in the heart of Centretown, had been a mainstay for cheap grub. It remained reliably quaint and unfettered until a few years ago, when the owners decided they would retire. With every intention of maintaining its classic diner charm, I partnered with restaurateur Ion Aimers and chef Dominic Paul to convert the tiny 20-seat restaurant into Wilf & Ada’s, something more befitting of the chef-run neighbourhood eateries we so admired.

We fervently set about baking our own breads and making preserves. We even committed to making our own bacon, bringing in unprocessed pork bellies from a local farm and curing them for three days before smoking, roasting, and slicing them. The bellies would hang suspended from metal hooks in our tiny walk-in fridge; huge slabs of pink-and-red-streaked meat that once lined the guts of 500-pound swine were now slated for one of the unrelenting production lines that would come to define our modest kitchen.

“Whatever happened to the $3.99 breakfast?”

Within days of reopening the diner as Wilf & Ada’s, I was fielding remarks such as this on a regular basis. I mastered a diatribe that explained our commitment to locally sourced products and from-scratch kitchen techniques. Those who got it, got it; many respected and lauded us for it.

But there were those who felt that to charge any more than a few toonies for a brimming plate of home-style breakfast (while daring to commit the mortal sin of not including coffee in the price) was simply absurd.

When the author converted Ada's Diner into Wilf & Ada's, the menu began to feature made-in-house ingredients — and higher prices
When the author converted Ada’s Diner into Wilf & Ada’s, the menu began to feature made-in-house ingredients — and higher prices

I can’t say that I was surprised. I had prepared our front-of-house team with a script to use in response to complaints about the new price points while sternly warning them against apologizing — because in reality we should have been charging a whole lot more. Even with our double-digit menu items and frequent lineups out the door, our labour costs were still threatening to disrupt our business model — and many of our staff were being paid only minimum wage.

According to Ontario’s Ministry of Labour, people earning a minimum wage are more than likely employed in the food industry (in addition to accommodation, retail, and agriculture). Restaurants, it is assumed, have less necessity for skill and more instances of transience; the typical restaurant labour force consists of dishwashers paid at minimum wage, while cooks, depending on their position, are paid on a sliding scale slightly above minimum wage. Assuming it is a licensed establishment, servers are paid an exemption wage (slightly lower than the standard minimum wage) because there is an expectation that their wages will be made up for in tips — and they often are.

In my first job as a restaurant manager 10 years ago, at a busy restaurant in the ByWard Market, I filed daily reports that detailed the movements of every shred of food sold and every second of labour worked. I would hit send and wait, mere seconds it seemed, for the inevitable bellow from head office, owners screeching via SMS about the high costs of labour. Young, inexperienced, and eager to please, I cowered and cut wherever I could. Employees were called off their shift or sent home early, leaving me and a skeleton crew at the mercy of an unpredictable market.

And still, the numbers were never good enough, which led me to question if they ever could be. In my short-lived tenure of running my own shop, I found the race toward an ideal bottom line never comes to an end. Labour costs were always nipping at my heels; even when I felt we had hit a good stride, something was goading me further, reducing the livelihoods of our staff to the slashing of a few percentage points.

From my experience and those I hear about from other restaurateurs in Ottawa, no one really wants to be paying their staff a minimum wage, which will temporarily hover at $11.60 until its climb to $14 come January 1, 2018 (and then to $15 on January 1, 2019). It’s a move that industry groups like Restaurants Canada and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) are in a frenzy trying to reverse (at press time, the legislation had not been officially passed). CFIB says their members fear massive cutbacks and closures are inevitable in an industry with average profit margins of 3.4 per cent.

“That tells you there’s not a lot of financial wiggle room,” says CFIB’s Julie Kwiencinski. “Restaurateurs are very creative, but there is only so much they can do.” She points to the results of a recent CFIB survey that indicated 64 per cent of employees in small- and medium-sized businesses are already making $15 an hour or more.

These workers are now considered as making a higher income; after the increase in the minimum wage, they will find themselves at bottom-of-the-ladder wage status, placing pressure on employers to bump up their salaries — and possibly leaving less room for entry-level positions.

“There will be a domino effect from wage compression, and the unintended casualty will be the low-wage worker,” Kwiencinski says.

The effects of the increases are also expected to ripple throughout restaurant supply chains, driving up the costs of everything from toilet paper to pepperoni — and your bill. “Customer behaviour will likely change,” Kwiencinski says. “People will eat out less or not at all. And they will be tipping less.”

Some industry vets seem less concerned. “We already have all of our dishwashers up to $13 an hour,” says Ivan Gedz, co-owner of Union 613 and a staunch activist for workers’ rights. When I asked him how he felt the upcoming increases would affect his business, he merely shrugged.

“If we raise all of our prices by 25 cents, then we will come out on top.”

Others aren’t so sure that this is the way forward. “At the end of the day, the wage increases do little to address the elephant in the room,” said one restaurateur, asking that her name be withheld. “There will still be that disparity between what servers and cooks are making, something that we have been trying to figure out how to manage since we first opened.” It’s a troubling discord, with front-of-house staff (servers, hosts, and bartenders) often pitted against the back-of-house (cooks and dishwashers) in terms of income. In nearly every restaurant, the bulk of tips go to servers.

When I left Wilf & Ada’s last summer, I decided to go back to serving tables, knowing full well that I could work part-time and make a salary similar to the one that I was making as an owner (which wasn’t too far off minimum wage). I picked up moonlighting gigs in various dining rooms across town, and even though I had been out of the game for only a few years, I was still utterly dumbfounded by the amount of cash that was pouring in, often 15 to 20 per cent of the day’s earnings, in tips. While most of the restaurants that took me in were enlightened enough to pool tips, once the usual two to three per cent was skimmed off the top to be split among the back-of-house staff, a busy night would still easily net me a few hundred dollars. It’s a windfall that, in theory, could (and dare I say, should) be rolled into the menu price; this would afford owners the ability to pay everyone on their payroll a higher wage and relieve diners of their obligation of arbitrarily earmarking an additional sum to the final bill. Most importantly, it would dissolve the income disparity that divides the restaurant — one that keeps servers flush and cooks broke.

But are we, as consumers, willing to pay the fair price? Not long ago, I found myself faced with this question while out grocery shopping. In the spirit of introducing a modicum of frugality into our otherwise frivolous foodie lifestyles, my partner and I decided to try making our own kombucha, reasoning that we should splurge on top-notch ingredients. After sourcing several kilos of sour cherries from a neighbour’s backyard, a few forgotten bags of organic black tea from the recesses of our cupboards, and a hunk of squid-like SCOBY (that’s the symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) from a friend, all we had left to buy was the sugar — which we soon discovered would set us back $7.99 if we decided to go fair trade and organic.

Even though every other item had essentially cost us next to nothing, we still contemplated what seemed to be an exorbitant amount to spend on sugar. But we weren’t sure. Jonathan, my partner and a chef who has spent years pouring over food costs, looked at me somewhat bewildered. “I really don’t know,” he confessed. “I mean, I know how much it costs, but what is it actually worth?” His question got me thinking about the $3.99 breakfast, the $1.99 bag of sugar that I knew we would find a little further down the aisle, and how little a price tag reveals about the people behind the product.

The one thing it often reveals, however, is how much (or little) we think something is worth — for bacon and eggs (coffee included) or a few cups of sugar. But as more of us push past those gut reactions and question why food is cheap, the more we will encourage an equitable food system where people earn more than the minimum. In the end, we hoped that the eight dollars we spent on sugar that day was right on the money.