Politics in the Kitchen

The drudgery of this winter gave most of us pause, to contemplate simply everything. The pool of customers determined and sturdy enough to risk their ankles and automobiles to get to my restaurant diminished severely just as my energy costs began to exceed $3000 a month for 3 months running. (Glacial Energy is particularly culpable in this arena, I don't mind telling you). Marketing, the 20th century solution to everything, and I know bloody well we are in the 21st, that's my point, put me further into debt. Add to that numerous bungled repair jobs in my Taberna that required several visits, each one botching things further, each one causing my heart to beat like bongos being played by a bonobo on triple espressos. In a hurricane. With amplifiers. My spreadsheets in a wad, my bank accounts one and all flushed a feverish bright red, I hired a consultant.

Eli was wonderful and had me crying tears of relief after our first meeting. He contemplated simply everything. He gave me immediate tips for better service as well as advice to purchase a POS upgrade, created by a local company called Toast. Crawling with brilliant and personable MIT grads, Toast seems to have predicted every one of the infinite needs of a restaurant when designing their system. The change was smooth, and I have a better grasp on the numbers, with Eli's help.

Through it all, my cooks kept turning out flawlessly sautéed spinach and perfectly roasted free-range chickens and identically round and tender meatballs. In return, l let these kitchen full-timers maintain the hours they've always had, despite the drop in business. They have rent and mortgages just like the rest of us, so despite my crimson numbers, I kept them fully employed. "Your wages are extraordinarily high," said Eli, "and that creates a need for a very large increase in revenue." Truly. Several dollars per hour above the industry standard, it turns out. How on earth do I fix that? Fire excellent workers who have been with me for more than a decade?

Luckily he was not proposing that. As attrition happens, hire at a much lower rate, he suggested. But attrition doesn't happen in a kitchen where workers are well-paid and love each other like family. Mind you, that does include the bickering requisite of familial relationships at times. They stay. Not only do they stay, they come in early to fix the broken faucet with parts they had to buy had Home Depot which required an extra trip on the T. They bring in their boy-tools when the grease trap is hopelessly fouled up so I don't have to call the fix-it boys who charge $90 an hour and make things worse. They build shelves in the wine cellar on slow nights and paint the kitchen floor after hours so it looks nice. They were patient when the old POS dropped entire days from the payroll report and they had to wait for the remainder of their wages. They cover for each other and never, ever call in sick. Nor hungover. When all else fails, they send a cousin who's done time in a kitchen to get the job done. They all have keys to my Taberna, come to work on time, and perfectly predict the amount of preparation needed for a given day. During intensely important soccer dates, they do their prep work at very strange hours in order to make time to see their team play. The only woman in this elite group cried with me and told me to be strong during my divorce, told me not to think so much. They have watched my children grow from chubby toddlers eating oxtail with their fingers to tall teenagers who eat oxtail with a knife and fork.

Congress is discussing the Living Wage and I have 5 cooks who make $19 an hour who work anywhere from 20 to 40 hours a week. Those working only 20 or 30 have two jobs. They lead dignified if not luxurious lives, raising families and sending money home to family members who haven't been able to immigrate like they have. In my climate change-induced poverty this winter I am much chagrined to admit I actually had moments of resentment. They were getting paid and I wasn't. I was going further into debt while they paid down their mortgages. Rise above it, I thought, and that got easier as the weather warmed and Eli continued to advise. Rise above it, and live your principles, I advised myself. Did I not vote for Elizabeth Warren? Barack Obama? Do I not cringe when I hear the the CEO's who earn several million dollars a year decry a raise in the minimum wage because it will result in widespread layoffs and raise unemployment?

Justice requires struggle. My struggles this winter were enormous, and I'm sure every small business owner in the region can speak of similar anxiety. However if we abandon our principles and harm those who have even less than we do, we cannot hope to enjoy a thriving economy nor a prideful society. This is what brings an increase in revenue for everyone.

Deborah Hansen



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