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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

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Lissa Kryska: Beyond the minimum wage

By Lissa Kryska, Columnist
Published September 22, 2013

Nestled between a tattoo parlor and a transmission repair shop in Dearborn Heights, Mich., is Moo Cluck Moo, a small fast-food joint.

As I settle in with my sea salt fries and black cherry milkshake, the line ebbs and flows, and the guy working the counter alternately takes phone and in-store orders. He’s one of nine employees who work under head chef and co-founder Allen Fisher.

Moo Cluck Moo is different from competitors like McDonald’s. The restaurant currently has only one location, which opened in April. They only use natural, high-quality, corn-syrup-free ingredients. The buns are baked fresh in the kitchen each day, and those that they don’t use are donated to a local shelter at the end of the night.

Oh, and they pay their workers $15 per hour.

Speaking with Fisher and with Brian Parker, another co-founder, they gave a few different reasons for why they pay more than double the federal minimum wage. Ultimately, it’s all about the people.

“I want these people to look at this place as a career,” Parker said, explaining that they pay employees more because they believe it’s the right thing to do. The people they hire are skilled and experienced with food and, well, they work hard.

“It’s not an easy job by any stretch of the imagination,” said Fisher.

I was curious to hear Fisher’s and Parker’s responses to some arguments on why it isn’t possible to pay fast food workers their unusually high rate. Moo Cluck Moo’s prices are competitive, with a Moo Burger costing $3, and Parker said he didn’t feel any pressure to raise prices based on the wage decisions. Some involved in the debate over wages also argue that higher wages cost jobs, but Parker said Moo Cluck Moo probably wouldn’t have hired more people than they did, even if the wages were lower. When I asked why they didn’t pay their employees less and pocket the extra profits themselves, Parker laughed and said he would rather get recognition for doing the right thing than for driving down the street in a six-figure sports car.

It comes down to prioritizing your spending, and for the owners of Moo Cluck Moo, that’s two things: the food and the people.

While Parker expressed hope that at some point all fast food workers will make higher wages, he also acknowledged that Moo Cluck Moo doesn’t have the corporate overhead costs of larger companies, or face the same pressures executives at those companies do when making decisions that affect thousands of people.

That night, there were two employees working with Fisher, and I got a chance to speak with them.

“I prayed for this,” employee Cidney McCray said. As a single mother who has worked as a manager at both McDonald’s and Wendy’s, she was able to bring some perspective on how Moo Cluck Moo compares.

At Moo Cluck Moo, she’s been able to set up a schedule that allows her to work four full days and then take a three-day weekend to spend more time with her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter. If she hadn’t found this job, she said she would probably be working two jobs.

“I would never see my baby,” McCray said.

McCray and the other employee, Dan Chavez, both spoke about the restaurant as more than just a workplace — something closer to a family, or at least a tight-knit community. This seemed to extend to the customer base as well, many of whom were greeted by name when they walked in.

Involvement in the local community is important for the company. Parker pointed out that they participate in a lot of local events, and Fisher framed the high wages as being an investment not just in the employees, but also the community.

Moo Cluck Moo is the type of business that should become more prevalent in every industry, but especially the fast-food industry. I love that they’ve taken corn syrup out of the equation. I love that there’s a portabella burger on the menu. But most importantly, I love that they see their employees as people rather than commodities, and making sure those people are able to support themselves is a priority. Because, as McCray pointed out when reflecting on her past jobs, “It’s impossible on $9 an hour.”

Lissa Kryska can be reached at lkkryska@umich.edu.