In restaurant closing, minimum wage makes for convenient scapegoat

A few weeks ago, the Washington Post lamented that today’s workers are “ghosting” their employers. They just stop coming to work. No notice. The nerve.

Fast forward to what happened in Boston Thursday when the owner of the oldest restaurant in the city, Durgin-Park, a Boston institution since 1827, gave his loyal workers 10 days notice that they’d soon be out of work.

“It shouldn’t go under,” said Gina Schertzer, the head waitress who has worked at the restaurant since 1976, in a phone interview with the Boston Globe. “I thought this place was going to be alive longer than I’d be alive.”

She’s 76. How’s that for loyalty?

In another fit of disloyalty, the manager blamed the minimum wage the employees dare earned.

There’s a lot of that in the restaurant business; we saw the same thing in Minnesota when smoking was banned. Restaurants that weren’t very good at being restaurants closed, their owners citing the smoking ban, because why not deliver one more political cheap shot?

We’ll see it again in 2022 when St. Paul’s minimum wage goes to $15.

But the Globe tells the real story, even if it decided to include the minimum wage angle at the top:

“There’s plumbers here every day, there’s heating guys here every day,” [Bartender Richelle Mazzone] said. “That’s where it goes instead of going in your pocket as profit.”

John Bell, who has worked nine years waiting tables and bartending at Durgin-Park, said he enjoyed seeing customers who have come to the restaurant for decades.

“You feel connected to some of the people, it’s just the experience of the place,” said Bell, a Quincy native.

Bell said the restaurant had not been keeping up with industry trends. Ciders, for instance, have become popular, but the bar did not carry a popular cider brand until the past year, he said. Sour beers have been trendy for more than a year, but the bar just got on board last month, he added.

In short: it was mismanaged.

But the minimum wage (it went up to $12 only four days ago) — and the employees — make for a convenient punching bag for managements that just can’t figure out why employees aren’t more loyal these days.

  • wjc
    • Justin McKinney

      Follow any number of service industry pages on Facebook, and you will see what I realized through years of work in the industry – restaurants would have to pay workers upwards of $30 an hour to match the tips many servers and bartenders bring in. I’m 100% behind minimum wage being a livable income, but doing away with tipping isn’t the answer without significant pay increases, which in turn leads to significant price increases, IMO.

      Edit – when I was in the industry, I made minimum wage ($9 something an hour) and got tips, so I wasn’t in the same situation as a lot of people that get paid $2 an hour plus tips. So there’s that. But my original point stands.

      • Jeff C.

        When I was a bartender there were some nights when I was really well paid, thanks to tips. There were other nights when I averaged less than 25 cents per person (I was a banquet bartender so I knew how many people were at my event). My point is that an employer wouldn’t have to pay $30/hour unless they are ALWAYS getting that much, which, in my case, didn’t happen. Friday nights, yes, Monday nights, no.

  • Mike

    There are few things more loathsome than business owners not wanting to pay their employees, then whining about it and expecting sympathy from the public. Personally, I would stop patronizing any establishment that treated its workers this way.

    Big corporations aren’t any better; they just have smoother PR people. In virtually any business these days, it’s simply assumed that the loyalty should only go in one direction. It’s been so long since there was any going the other way that the mere suggestion of it seems strange and unnatural.

    Also – this seems to be a very Anglo-American phenomenon, culturally speaking. (The French don’t tolerate this.) Our society has been brainwashed by the right-wing ascendancy of the last 40 years to think of business owners as almost saintly “job creators” rather than simply people who want to make a profit.

    There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make a profit, but the notion that business owners/executives deserve exalted status and respect is absurd and demeaning. Of course, this ideology is very convenient for the ruling class.

  • Gary F

    The restaurant business is a tough game. I would never have one of my own.

    I don’t blame them for getting out of the game. Its too much work and to high a risk for the money you make.

    • lusophone

      Sure took ’em a while to figure that out, “…a Boston institution since 1827…”

      • Joseph Lammers

        Economic conditions, like you know, the minimum wage laws,change. What is possible in one environment may well be impossible in another.

      • Gary F

        And now with the new regulations and minimum wage, that was it.

        • Probably would’ve been a good idea to change the drink menu. But, yeah, employees should make less to counter poor decisions. It’s only right.

  • Mark Snyder
  • QuietBlue

    The minimum wage excuse is especially ridiculous considering the tightness of the labor market, which is raising the floor for wages much more than any law. For example, Target is currently at $12/hour and plans to get to $15 by the end of next year. And I think Amazon is already at $15 for their hourly positions.

    • Joseph Lammers

      Then obviously we don’t need minimum wage laws.

  • Veronica

    So, here’s the thing:

    I’ve been a business owner, and I’ve worked with businesses and nonprofits both, and I e done bookkeeping in all of the roles.

    In all cases, I’ve ended up having to do some forensics to figure what on earth a number of bonkers vendor charges actually entailed. I have always found “leaks in the boat”—overcharges from vendors, silly expenses that have been on autopilot because someone forgot there was a contract that kept renewing with price increases, old services that were state of the art 15 years ago, but now have much cheaper, better alternatives….the actual waste is maddening.

    So businesses that blame labor costs earn my ire. It’s lazy—intellectually and practically. It’s also just dumb. Almost every single industry(almost) lives and dies by customer experience. Once you treat your employees like an irritation, it’s not far from your customers feeling that way, and then—game over.

    • Rob

      You really hit the nail on the head with your observation about treating employees like an irritation. Such treatment seems to have become the norm for most U.S. businesses.

      • Veronica

        I now “just” do books and payroll. I see allllllll of it. I was also an employer at one point. I suffer no fools. Most of these complaints are utter shite.

  • JamieHX

    // “‘It shouldn’t go under,’ said Gina Schertzer, the head waitress who has worked at the restaurant since 1976…”
    It’s amazing and maddening that in 2018 people are still using the very sexist term “waitress” instead of “waiter” or “server.” And that women have to wear those unbelievably stupid dresses while the men wear a nice shirt and tie. I see that at a restaurant and I turn around and walk out. I let the manager know why I’m leaving if they’re around.

    • Ever been there?

      • JamieHX

        To Durgin-Park? No, just going by the video and the photos.

    • echos of the mt’s

      Server? Why not call them a slave while you’re at it! /sarc Thank goodness most people don’t care about such things.

  • If you can’t afford to pay a living wage, you can’t afford to be in business. Asking people to work for below poverty wages so you can own a business is entitlement at its finest.

    • Guest

      OK, I am a single teen living at home or a retired bored guy told to get out of the house by my wife. My living wage is peanuts.

      IS it moral to offer a job I will jump at, that a father of 6 will pass on?

      WHOSE living wage?

    • Joseph Lammers

      No one is forced to take those jobs.

  • davegrille

    Minimum wages are a bad idea whose time is long past.

  • BillK

    It’s funny to see people who have never run a business of their own chime in with tales of “mismanagement.”

    It’s very convenient to blame on greed the fact that most restaurants run on a profit margin of 1% – 2%, from which capital improvements, building upkeep and utilities need to be paid before the owner can even think of paying themselves.

    It’s so much easier to blame business owners when you have never been one.