GR brewery raises wages in hopes of boosting recovery

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The pandemic and worker shortages have closed several thousand bars and restaurants for good in Michigan, according to industry experts.

So what will it take for the rest to survive?

As Kalamazoo’s oldest brewpub was recently closing, joining that long list of pandemic victims, the owners of a brewery in Grand Rapids were raising wages, hoping that would help.

The owners of The Mitten Brewing Company knew they would take some criticism for raising wages and, ultimately, menu prices. But then, after announcing on social media on June 30 they had raised their minimum starting pay from $12 to $15 an hour, they had their two busiest weeks since the pandemic began.

Under The Mitten’s new system, servers who rely on tips will be guaranteed at least $15 an hour, even if the tips fall short.

The state minimum wage is $9.65 an hour.

“This is the time we’ve been waiting for,” co-owner Chris Andrus said. “It’s going to be further damaging to our industry if people can’t get the workers they need because we have to make hay while the sun shines and the sun is shining on us pretty bright right now. This is our moment to try to climb out.”

Not all have climbed out.

Kalamazoo’s first brewpub, the Olde Peninsula Brewpub and Restaurant, closed earlier this month after 25 years.

The site of the former Olde Peninsula Brewpub and Restaurant in Kalamazoo. (July 14, 2021)

“I think it’s just super sad because they’ve been there a lot of years,” former customer Vicky Duncan said.

Olde Peninsula is among about 3,000 bars and restaurants that have closed in Michigan since the pandemic began, according to the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association. That’s more than 1 in 6.

The owners of the Mitten don’t want to join that list.

“The bit of irony of the situation right now in hospitality is that we’re finally able to open wide and make all the money that we’ve lost, and the workforce just isn’t there for a lot of people,” Andrus said.

In the week after the Mitten announced higher wages, he said he got eight applications.

“It is going to help us give our long-term employees some much-needed rest and days off because a lot of our long-term staff was working doubles, triples to meet the hours we needed to stay open to survive,” he said.

He said he plans to raise menu prices next week, in part to cover higher wages. That has led to criticism on social media, he said.

“There’s been a lot of, ‘Oh, wait till you see how much the prices go up,'” he said. “Every time I get the chance I say, ‘Yes, prices are going to go up. They’re going to go up everywhere regardless of what they’re paying their employees because of the price of commodities.’ You might pay $1.50 more for a pizza but that’s because our food costs are commensurate to that.”

He said he’s paying more for things like chicken wings and cheese.

“This is just really to stay even,” Andrus said. “This isn’t putting any more money in my pocket. It’s either going into the pockets of our employees or just allowing us to stay open.”

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