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HipCityVeg and other restaurants to raise their minimum wage to $15 an hour to attract workers

Founder Nicole Marquis says the move will pay off in recruiting and staff retention.

Nicole Marquis, owner of HipCityVeg, at her first restaurant, at 127 S. 18th St.
Nicole Marquis, owner of HipCityVeg, at her first restaurant, at 127 S. 18th St.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

The minimum wage at the nine Marquis & Co. restaurants will rise to $15 an hour, effective July 1.

Saying the decision will pay off in recruiting and staff retention, founder Nicole Marquis said about 115 workers would be affected at the fast-casual HipCityVeg and the full-service restaurants Charlie was a sinner and Bar Bombon, where hourly pay averages about $11.50. The national and state minimum wage for tipped employees is $2.83 an hour, though employers must make up any difference to the minimum wage of $7.25.

The raise was announced amid an acute shortage of restaurant workers and in a time of reassessment in the industry about wages and working conditions.

Marquis’ move should be felt more deeply at her HipCityVeg eateries in the Philadelphia area and Washington, where the front-of-house workers do not share tips.

Although other restaurant groups in the Philadelphia region pay at least $15 an hour — and many tipped employees make far more than $15 an hour — Marquis’ decision is rare in the huge fast-casual sector.

The national fast-casuals including &pizza and Starbucks have announced plans to raise their minimums in coming years. The idea of a $15 minimum wage has been part of the national political dialogue for several years, but last month, the Senate rejected an attempt to raise it to $15 an hour as part of the American Rescue Plan.

» READ MORE: 5 things to know about the minimum wage debate in Pa.

“We believe it’s the next important step toward growing our company and our culture,” Marquis said. “We’re just building the world we want to live in and communicating through our actions how much we value our team and the people who helped us get through this past year. ... When we treat our team with respect, they direct that right back to our customers.”

Meanwhile, restaurateurs and retailers are scrambling to fill counter worker, waiter, and dishwasher jobs as restaurants begin to ramp up outside and indoor dining amid general optimism of a recovery.

Paying better wages is “not a restaurant-specific issue,” said restaurateur Michael Schulson, who pays at least $15 an hour at restaurants such as Sampan, Harp & Crown, and Osteria. He said retailers such as Target and Amazon also pay at least $15 an hour, competing for workers who may have left the restaurant business during the ups and downs of the pandemic.

For now, the extension of unemployment compensation and the recent $1,400 stimulus checks are keeping many idled workers home, said Tonya Breslow, whose search firm, Mis En Place, has been offering signing bonuses to attract workers. Fireside Grill in Newtown Square, for example, will pay $3,000 for waiters, while the company that operates Walnut Street Cafe and Sunset Social in University City will pay $250 for hourly workers and $500 for management.

“One restaurant owner kiddingly asked me, ‘Should I add limo service?’” Breslow said.

The labor shortage has become so acute some restaurants are closing for a day here or there to allow stressed workers to rest, she said.

Although Breslow believes that more people will soon return to the workforce, higher wages are here to stay. “If you want professional people, you have to pay professional wages,” she said. Still, $15 an hour for 40 hours a week is $600 a week, or $31,200 a year. That’s hardly a high salary, though it is a long-standing reality of the restaurant business, where some people hold at least two jobs.

Marquis said the higher wages would be factored into the pricing. “This is a people business,” she said. “And so this is a good investment for our company. We’re able to focus even more on offering careers rather than jobs, which is the key to our growth and our employees’ growth.”