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Fast-food workers in cities around the U.S. rallied today for higher wages. In Chicago, where the city council backed a minimum wage hike this week, workers protested outside of a McDonald's. As the push for a higher minimum wage gains ground, NPR's Allison Aubrey brings us this story of a small Midwestern burger chain that's figuring out how to pay higher wages and still be profitable.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: A typical fast-food worker makes about $8 or $9 an hour, but not here, at the Moo Cluck Moo fast casual-chain in the suburbs of Detroit.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: How are you guys? Take your time, guys. If you have any questions, let me know.
AUBREY: As diners here select from a menu of free-range burgers topped with house-made aioli and buns made from scratch, manager Dan Chavez stands at the grill finishing a made-to-order Moo Burger.
DAN CHAVEZ: Well, what we're doing here is we're on our last flip on our burger, so we're actually going to give that a salt and pepper shot.
AUBREY: Chavez has been cooking in restaurants for about 15 years. He moves quickly from the grill to the fryer. He oversees baking and talks to customers.
CHAVEZ: It's more fun than I've had at other jobs because of the fact that we get to do everything ourselves.
AUBREY: And for all of this multitasking, he's paid pretty well, $15 an hour.
CHAVEZ: It feels good - let me tell you - to be able to pay my bills and still have money left over to enjoy a little bit of life.
AUBREY: Moo Cluck Moo has been in business almost two years and co-founder Brian Parker says at first they brought people in at $12 an hour with the idea that everyone would be trained to multitask, no one is just flipping burgers. And now Parker says their investment is paying off. Revenues at their two locations are up, and their workers are sticking around. Now all of them are paid 15 an hour.
BRIAN PARKER: Because of our low turnover and because the people that we have working for us are really, really into their jobs and love what they do, that $15 an hour really, truly wasn't a big stretch from 12.
AUBREY: Parker says there's savings and not having to constantly train new hires. Despite an uncertain beginning, not knowing if the higher wages would be sustainable, Parker says his small chain is now thriving.
PARKER: Yeah, we are, absolutely. And it looks as though in Q-four here in 2014, that we're going to actually show profit in the last quarter.
AUBREY: And they're planning to expand to new locations. Now of course, to make this Moo Cluck Moo model work, customers have to be willing to pay a little more. A homemade bun and a grass-fed burger starts at about six bucks. That compares to a little under $5 for a Big Mac.
PARKER: We will make no bones about it. We're not the bottom of the chain.
AUBREY: So are small burger chains, like Parker's, that are willing to pay more to workers and offer more upscale menus going to put pressure on the giants such as McDonald's and Burger King to raise wages?
Here's Michael Strain, an economist at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute.
MICHAEL STRAIN: No, I don't think that.
AUBREY: He says that there are two different models here and two different kinds of customers. There are people who will pay more for food prepared from scratch, and there are traditional fast-food chains that are not going away.
STRAIN: McDonald's is going to appeal a lot to people who like the Dollar Menu and people for whom that price-point is very appealing.
AUBREY: And they'll continue to offer that, as long as they can find people who are willing to work for the kind of wages they offer now. But if workers become too expensive, Strain says, we'll start to see more automation and fewer jobs.
STRAIN: So imagine that, you know, some machine gets invented that can operate the French fry machine at McDonald's.
AUBREY: That's one less worker. It's already started happening, Strain says. When he was a kid, it was a person, not a soda machine that filled your cup.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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