Getting What You Pay For

While all members of our industry have an abiding interest in finding and keeping the colleagues needed to run our businesses, some of us have different attitudes toward the value placed on human resources. Earlier this summer, for instance, the National Restaurant Association once again took a stance against any increase in the current minimum wage. Now, make no mistake: The NRA is a credible, well-run and highly effective membership group that has done an excellent job of communicating the importance of the restaurant industry to our economy and society. However, even an experienced and usually common-sensical organization such as the NRA can get it wrong on an important issue, and it is this column's opinion that the restaurant association's position vis-à-vis the minimum wage is less than helpful for several reasons.

The first begins with the premise that in business you get what you pay for, and the lower the minimum wage is (now $5.65/hour) as a percentage of the national average wage (some $18 - $23/hour), the less likely it becomes that any employer will be able to attract worthwhile new hires to jobs paying the lowest rate allowed by law. So, by keeping the minimum wage "uncompetitvely" low, restaurateurs find it harder to attract the caliber of employees who could contribute to the success of an enterprise. This perpetuates the "burn 'em and churn 'em" mentality that treats low-level staff as replaceable commodities.

Now, hold on, I can hear those of you who agree with the NRA's position saying, there are good grounds for keeping the minimum wage low. To begin, young people seeking a first job, immigrants without English competency and others entering our workforce have to be trained and can do little to add value to daily operations, so their pay should be commensurate with their contributions. In addition, the relatively low cost of minimum-wage positions allows many small businesses to create jobs they could not otherwise afford to offer and reduces the need for public assistance. What's more, once in any job, even at minimum wages, employees can learn work skills that qualify them for higher-paying positions in the future, opening the way for a next generation of new hires and perpetuating an upwardly mobile economic cycle.

Our industry as a whole would be better off if restaurateurs would get ready to pay more to the people who make their operations profitable.

All this is true, up to a point, and no company should be mandated by law to offer jobs with wages that threaten its survival. But by arguing against raising the current minimum wage, the NRA inadvertently presents the position that entry-level jobs in the restaurant industry are worth next to nothing, as little as the law allows, and that everyone looking to build careers in positions that are valued by their employers should search elsewhere. This is self-defeating, as it hampers the development of a culture that regards any restaurant job as a building block in a long-term career in the hospitality services industry. And this is the critical point, for until the U.S. restaurant industry conditions itself to afford the training, retaining and re-training of employees whose work is respected because it adds value and leads to greater responsibilities, service, culinary performance, customer satisfaction and even food safety will never be what they could be.

Every professional in the E&S distribution channel has an obvious stake in the growth and betterment of restaurant and foodservice operations. What may be less obvious are the potential benefits to E&S professionals to be derived from a better-trained, career-committed end-user community. These could easily include equipment used more often in correct applications and maintained properly, better understanding of service and installation requirements, and greater demand for higher-quality, more sophisticated E&S. Since these are the sort of products that can command the highest margins, it becomes apparent that our industry as a whole would be better off if restaurateurs would get ready to pay more to the people who make their operations profitable.