Would You Pay Extra to Give Restaurant Workers a Raise?

A Vermont restaurant said a trial run, during which it asked customers to pay more for meals in order to give raises to employees, has been a success.

Popolo, an Italian-inspired farm to table restaurant in Bellows Falls, now adds 6 percent to diners' bills in order to boost the pay for staffers who don't get tips. The restaurant is owned by 26 shareholders.

Today, dish washers, prep cooks, and bussers make $15 an hour. That so-called living wage is more than $5 higher than Vermont's current minimum wage of $9.60.

"There were plenty of people who told me to my face we would crash and burn," recalled Gary Smith, Popolo's general manager.

Smith said the 6 percent adjustment on meal checks is better than raising food prices, because that would've also increased taxes. The business operates on "razor-thin margins," according to a message about the living wage adjustment posted on Popolo's website.

After a three-month trial run this summer, Popolo is now celebrating because Smith said business is steady, and most customers seem supportive.

"To be honest, there are some people who have stopped coming," Smith revealed. "But they aren't many. And there must have been others who have taken their place at the tables if our business is stable."

Going to a restaurant is obviously a consumer's choice. But when it comes to mandating increases in wages through new laws, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has historically opposed such proposals, arguing it would unfairly burden businesses and could cause job losses.

Consumers necn asked about Popolo's new policy had a mixed reaction to the concept.

"I think if you can afford to go out to eat, you can afford to do it," said one woman who asked necn to not publish her name.

"I'm not sure I would be in favor of the 6 percent," said Chris Barry, an area resident. "But I would feel comfortable with some percent being added, as long as it was going directly to people and not the restaurant."

Tuesday, Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vermont, congratulated the business on the move.

"We need a lot more of this happening across Vermont and across America," Shumlin told a group that gathered at the restaurant to mark the end of the trial run.

Smith predicted the new policy will help retain staff and attract strong applicants.

Smith noted that wait staff who earn tips may occasionally benefit from the new policy, too. He said if Popolo has a slow night and servers fall below the $15 an hour livable wage threshold, the 6 percent adjustment will help management give them a boost.

Smith expected the move to generally affect about 10 of the restaurant's 20 employees.

The question moving forward will be whether customers can stomach that adjustment to their bills, but Smith said, so far, they are.

The company added, in a statement posted on its website, that it is not demanding all businesses pay employees a $15 wage.

"Every business is different and business owners feel differently than we at Popolo feel," the statement read. "Owners need to decide for themselves what the appropriate path will be for their businesses."

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