“I got my son back because I worked here. It kept me out of trouble and on the right path,” Hillsdale resident Stacey Osborn said. She was an employee at Tastes of Life, a local restaurant in Industrial Park that closed on Sept. 28 because of Michigan’s minimum wage increase.
Pastor Jack Mosley and his wife Linda began Tastes of Life to support their residential program, Life Challenge of Michigan, and provide training in social, developmental, waitressing, and cooking skills to people who need a second chance. Some of his employees had cancer, deaths in the family, or spent time in jail time or struggling with substance abuse.
“Life has issues,” Mosley said. “This was a place to sure them up, and help them cope and get through.”
He explained that unlike a typical business that might fire a chef with a hot temper “who breaks dishes,” Tastes of Life management is more long-suffering and wants to help their employees polish their life skills.
Osborn was there from day one — Father’s day of 2012 — until the restaurant closed. She said she came to the restaurant with a lot of issues that the Mosleys helped her through.
She had looked for other jobs, but said nothing could compare to what Tastes of Life was to her. She said other jobs involve alcohol or bartending and she doesn’t want to work some place that will send her in the wrong direction.
Terry Hatch, another employee, worked at the restaurant for six months and said it was more than a job for her.
“I have a few disabilities and this gave me friends. It was a lot more than a paycheck,” Hatch added.
Co-worker Makenzie Wirick came to Tastes of Life in April of 2012 and left only a week before it closed.
“It gave me something to do and I have friends here. Jack was a big part of my family and this was a nice place to work,” Wirick said.
The minimum wage increase harms other small retail businesses and restaurants in Hillsdale, causing them to cut hours and raise prices, but those who already paid above the minimum wage have not faced the same struggle. Mosley, who hired minimum-wage workers, couldn’t keep up with the wage increase and after closing his restaurant, 12 people lost their jobs.
After doing the math when the minimum wage increased, Mosley realized they would need 200 more customers a week to stay open. That, accompanied by the fact that many of their senior customers go south for the winter, and food prices have risen dramatically, made Mosley close the doors.
The building will become a women’s center, Mosley said, where pregnant women or those with young children will be able to go for a discipleship program.
“We are disappointed,” Mosley said regarding the closure of Tastes of Life. “But we want to thank anyone reading for their support.”
Lori Burger, manager of House of Pizza and BBQ, said she has started cutting her employees’ hours. She employs seven young women, and the minimum wage affects her profit margin.
“It’s good for the employees, but as far as the restaurant owners, it’s not good,” Burger said.
After the lunchtime rush, she sent two employees home early.
“I hope it doesn’t affect us staying open,” Burger said.
She said that although she will keep taking applications, there’s no sense in hiring new employees when she is cutting hours for the ones she already has.
Lisa Slade has worked at the Finish Line Restaurant since 1976 and now owns the business. She said the first incremental wage increase hasn’t affected her yet because she only has one minimum-wage employee. However, she said the future increases will most likely mean she’ll have to raise menu prices.
“It irritates me because the government dictates what to pay,” Slade said. “I like to give people raises when they do a good job. The guy who is doing a good job shouldn’t make the same amount as the guy who is still learning.”
She added that she is trying to be wise about when she schedules people, making sure they don’t have more people on the floor than they need.
“To me, it seems it’s all going to wash,” Slade said. “Not just my prices will go up. Most businesses are going to raise their prices. How did that help?”
Pai Ringenberg, owner of the Coffee Cup Diner, shared Slade’s sentiment.
“You get more, you pay more,” Ringenberg said.
If the government raises the wage, businesses raise prices to cover it and that influences the cost of living, Ringenberg said. As a result, the government will want to raise the wage again.
She pays her employees more than minimum wage, but she increased their wages anyway to be fair and because she doesn’t think anyone can live off the minimum wage. Her employees who made $8 now makes $9 an hour. She also increased her menu prices, but with her high grocery bill, said she isn’t profiting as much.
“But I’m not a worry wart,” Ringenberg said. “Business still looks good.”
Debra Kamen, owner of David’s Dolce Vita, a small downtown retail store, said her business runs on very small margins in order to compete for customer purchases.
“We have a store manager and a couple of part-time employees,” Kamen said in an email. “These folks are hard working professionals and very knowledgeable of our industry products.”
She said she raised all her employees’ wages.
“Our feeling is that folks who have worked hard to get to their current wage should not be put at a disadvantage by those that may not have worked as hard due to a stroke of the pen by the State,” Kamen added.
However, because of its small margins, that increase has had a significant impact on business. She said there is no way to absorb those costs without sales volume increases, so instead she has to pass the increase in cost on to the consumers by increasing prices, or face closing her business.
Kevin Conant, co-owner of Here’s To You Pub & Grub, said the wage hasn’t affected him because he already pays his employees more than minimum wage, but he was still concerned that food prices would increase.
Where the wage hike has negatively affected some restaurant and retail business in Hillsdale, it hasn’t touched other industries.
Jane Stewart of Smith’s Flowers has three employees and they all make more than minimum wage. Her flowers mostly come from Columbia, where the price of labor hasn’t increased.
“I am a proponent of the minimum wage,” Stewart said. “It’s a fair wage.”
She added that she doesn’t know how someone could make it on minimum wage unless they have two jobs.
“This will stimulate consumption,” Stewart said. “And help people who are working and trying to work.”
Sue Smith, executive director of the Economic Development Partnership of Hillsdale County, said the minimum wage also hasn’t harmed the industrial or manufacturing sector.
“These are much higher skilled jobs, so they are willing to pay a higher wage,” Smith said. “If you need a skill set and work ethic, you have to pay for that.”
She said the higher wage gives these workers more disposable income to spend at the restaurants and cleaners or use to go shopping at the dress shop or jewelry store.
Smith said she is a big proponent of performance pay. She added that the hospital pays more than minimum wage because there is a certain expectation of knowledge, customer service, and a special skill set.
Mary Bertakis runs a small organic farm and has only one employee, who she pays above minimum wage, including room and board, because of his skills and education in organic farming. She said she expects a good work ethic, and like Smith, is willing to pay for it.
Before the minimum wage hike, employment was growing slightly in Hillsdale County, increasing by 1.2 percent since this time last year. The industrial and manufacturing sector has grown by 6.8 percent, while retail has grown by 0.8 percent, and the agriculture industry and finance and insurance industries have decreased by 4.6 percent and 1.3 respectively, according to the South Central Michigan Works second quarter report.
Even where the minimum wage affected the job market, downtown businesses are remaining positive.
“We are disappointed,” Mosley said. “But we haven’t given up.”