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Tech companies in Seattle have been on a hiring spree. That's good news for the city's restaurant industry - more people with more income to spend on meals out. But there is an unknown hanging over the city's restaurant trade. The minimum wage went up to $11-an-hour last month. It's set to keep rising to $15 and beyond. Deborah Wang of member station KUOW reports that restaurant owners are scrambling to keep up.
DEBORAH WANG, BYLINE: In the rough-and-tumble world of restaurants, Jeremy Hardy considers himself something of a survivor.
JEREMY HARDY: Stephen, how's the morning going?
WANG: His restaurant, Coastal Kitchen, has been a fixture of Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood for 20 years.
UNIDENTIFIED SERVER: I'll grab these menus out of the way for you.
WANG: Restaurants are notoriously low-margin businesses with a high failure rate.
HARDY: With the labor pressures that are coming from this $15 eventual minimum-wage increase, we're juggling with razor-sharp daggers and if you don't get it right, it's really going to hurt.
WANG: That's because no major city has ever seen an across-the-board 60 percent increase in its minimum wage. Restaurants employ about a quarter of the city's minimum-wage workers. Labor typically accounts for about a third of a restaurant's costs. Hardy says he's now making adjustments. He's trimming staffing hours, opening one hour later and closing one hour earlier. He's also considering whether to close some hours during the day.
HARDY: I'm going through the hourly sales and if it is not making money, if it's not profitable, we're not going to do it 'cause we can't afford to.
WANG: Hardy is a small employer so he has a few years to figure out what to do. The formula is a bit complicated, but basically the $15 wage will be phased-in at different rates for different size employers over the course of several years. The biggest pressures will be on large employers who have to reach $15-an-hour first. And they're the ones who are now making the most dramatic changes.
BOB DONEGAN: So here is the little insert explaining what's going on.
WANG: That's Bob Donegan, the president of Ivar's, which runs a chain of fish-and-chips shops. He shows me the new menu at Ivar's Salmon House, one of the company's sit-down restaurants.
DONEGAN: Alaska coho - that's today - $34. Last week would've been $28.
WANG: In April the Salmon House increased the price of all of its menu items, from chowder to crab legs, by a whopping 21 percent.
DONEGAN: So that meal that last year cost you $100 today costs you $121.
WANG: The catch is that when diners pay the bill, they're no longer expected to leave a tip - it's included. The big price increase will allow the Salmon House to start paying a $15-an-hour minimum wage immediately, three years ahead of schedule.
DONEGAN: It's very early, but so far it's working OK.
WANG: Donegan says many restaurants in the city are now watching Ivar's to see if the changes work and if they should follow suit. But not every restaurant is in a position to experiment.
UNIDENTFIED WOMAN: Parmesan, peppers, napkins?
WANG: Ritu Shah Burnham owns zPizza. She employs 12 people but because she operates as a franchise, the city considers her a large employer. That means she has to pay $1.50-an-hour more this year, $2.00-an-hour more next year and $2.00-an-hour more the year after.
RITU SHAH BURNHAM: If you have to pay $15-an-hour in 20 months and that is the largest part of your expenses, it's a little difficult to do a business plan that makes that work. I tried - before I made my decision, I tried. And I didn't see it happening.
WANG: Burnham says she didn't want to go back to working 60 or 80-hours-a-week as she did when she first opened the restaurant just to make ends meet, so she's shutting-down her business at the end of the summer. It's conceivable that more restaurant owners will follow in Burnham's footsteps. Even Seattle's best-known chef, Tom Douglas, says it's not out of the question that he may have to close some of his 15 restaurants. Douglas is now in the process of raising his menu prices four percent this year.
TOM DOUGLAS: I really don't know what your saturation point is for what you're willing to pay for chicken. That's why I say I don't know. We're going to have to wait and see. I don't know if it's worth it to you to come to our restaurants when chicken's $30-a-portion compared to one that was $20-a-portion. I just don't know.
WANG: But Douglas says if price increases force diners to cut-back on dinners out, he's OK with that. He says he'd rather have people make a living wage instead of selling more chicken. For NPR News, I'm Deborah Wang in Seattle.
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