When the coronavirus pandemic first swept Philadelphia last year, restaurants and bars were among the first businesses to shut down, leaving eatery owners and employees out of work and the food industry in limbo.
Now that they’re back in business, with some restrictions, Marquis & Co. — Latina woman-led vegan restaurant group based in Philly — is raising the minimum wage for all its employees.
Founder Nicole Marquis said that starting in July, the restaurants will raise their minimum wage to $15 an hour, calling it, “Fifteen for our Families.” In Philadelphia, the minimum wage is currently $7.25 an hour.
“Even though we’re just coming off the worst time imaginable financially for restaurants, we believe that this is not only the right thing to do for our workers who have been through so much over the past year, but it is also good for business,” said Marquis.
The announcement comes after a particularly rough year for Marquis & Co., which runs nine restaurants and three brands, including HipCityVeg, Bar Bombón, and Charlie was a sinner.
“We spent a whole year really with one challenge after another,” said Nicole Marquis. “When the pandemic hit, our sales dropped by 90% overnight, and we had to furlough hundreds of employees in one day. It was really a shocking and traumatic time for employees and for me.”
Marquis said she had to completely shut down two of the group’s nine restaurants for two months — the closures included the HipCityVeg location in Radnor and its Charlie was a sinner restaurant. The group was able to reopen those restaurants but has had to adapt to functioning online. Along with sales from outdoor dining, Marquis & Co. relied on the federal Paycheck Protection Program and other grants, which covered rent and payroll. Its restaurants have operated 25% capacity since January.
Valencia Washington, who has worked with the company for four years and is a front-of-house employee, said the wage increase is a game-changer.
“Especially just coming out of last year, it’s been very difficult on families,” said Washington. “Most of us have families, children that we have to take care of as well.”
Earlier in the pandemic, Washington said, she transferred to one of HipCityVeg’s suburban locations right before it was forced to close. She said the managers at the HipCityVeg 18th Street location checked in on her often and offered her available hours to work, since they were still open for business. During such a rough time, she said, she was grateful the company was looking out for its workers.
The minimum-wage increase will not only affect employees but most likely increase recruitment, which Krystal Harris, head of talent development and training, said has been slow lately. She also noted that most people like the employees who work for Marquis & Co. are balancing two jobs, so the wage increase will allow them to stay home a bit more and have an impact on their quality of life.
According to Marquis, last year it was hard to get customers to feel comfortable dining at the group’s restaurants, whereas now stronger sales are returning. She said she plans to expand by opening more locations within three to five years.
”As more and more people get vaccinated and as COVID cases begin to drop in some areas, we’re seeing increased confidence. It does feel like a ray of sunshine at the end of this very long tunnel,” said Marquis. As the founder of Save Philly, a coalition of over 300 restaurants in Philadelphia, she launched a vaccination clinic where a good portion of her restaurant workers received their shots.
But after a painful year, her focus isn’t solely on how much money the restaurants are bringing in, but also on the quality of life of her employees.
“We learned in this last year, when we were all in the trenches together, that our company is a team of leaders with an entrepreneurial mindset, and that’s what it took to get through the crisis,” said Marquis. “And we realize now more than ever that our people are our greatest asset.”
WHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.
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