We talk a lot at Bread Furst about ways of increasing the wages we pay to staff. It’s complicated.
Bread Furst’s starting wage for sales help is $12 an hour; that is 50 cents higher than the minimum wage in Washington but it’s hardly worth boasting about. We’ll increase our minimum wage again at the end of the year and we’ll continue to increase it. But I am afraid it is always going to be too low.
Restaurants are able to pay far more than we can. Even though the minimum wage for wait staff is $2.77, the staff are not dependent on that wage. In a successful restaurant, the minimum wage becomes unimportant because of tips. A server at a busy restaurant can earn $70,000, even more, $100,000. The wages of servers are three or four times higher than those of our sales staff.
A small independent retail food business like ours cannot compete for staff, at least not with money and I don’t know if we will ever be able to pay a living wage in a city as expensive as Washington.
We have a heterogeneous staff: People who want to learn, culinary school externs, people who want to open their own bakeries, some saving for school, some trying out a career, people who have worked with us in other food businesses, and people who respond to our ads for help or just walk in.
Some of those are people who haven’t had much work experience, are marginally employable; some don’t speak English or don’t have good work skills or interpersonal skills.
Many of them pass though the bakery very fast. Our turnover is ferocious on the sales floor; you may have noticed that.
Eun, our general manager, and I sat down last week with a young man who had been coming to work late nearly every day. Eun wanted to give him a last warning, a last chance.
I told him that I realize that being punctual all the time may be a requirement he has never before encountered. But, I told him, if you can learn to do this your opportunities for work will grow and grow.
The next morning he called Eun on the telephone and told her that he wouldn’t be coming in again; he didn’t want to be held to a standard of punctuality.
People say they oversleep. Or their grandmother died. They can’t get out of their neighborhoods because there was police activity on the block. Their boyfriends are sick. Their boyfriends are arrested. Their baby sitter didn’t show up. They have to be witnesses in a trial. Metro was late. Busses didn’t come.
We are, for many people, an entry into the labor force. That’s not a bad thing to be. When people succeed here – when they sharpen their food skills and service skills and acquire the habits of being dependable, they can, if they want, move on to jobs that pay more – like restaurant service jobs.
We try to compete with restaurant incomes in other ways – by creating an environment that is like family, by emphasizing how much the customers like us and return and learn the names those who work here (and vice versa).
Jerimi Meade came to us May 15th. Tall, skinny with dreadlocks, he was a whirlwind and some of you may remember him. He was always in the customer areas, wiping tables, sweeping, polishing glass. I, of course, took to him immediately and got quickly fond of him.
I told him that he was my “swat team.” We walked together through the bakery’s customer areas and I showed him what I see. He told me he would like to repaint the wainscots. He told others that he really liked working here. I didn’t ask much about his life – I wish I had.
Early in July he disappeared. He stopped showing up for work.
Eun did what she always does when this happened. She telephoned him frequently and got no answer and so she worried because none of thought he was the kind of person to stop showing up.
I felt bad that he had disappeared and then I went off on my cross-country drive.
I don’t know what happened to him. Perhaps the police do. What I know is that on August 25th we learned that he had been bludgeoned to death and was accidentally discovered in a field in southeast Washington.
There had been a death notice in the Washington Post on July 27th that said this:
JERIMI S. MEADE
Passed Friday, July 15, 2016. He leaves to cherish his memory wife, Aishya; son, Nehemiah; daughter, Nyema, mother, Gwendolyn; father, Steven; six sisters; one niece; one nephew; a host of other family and friends. Services will be held Thursday, July 28, 2016 at Austin-Royster Funeral Home, 502 Kennedy Street, NW. Viewing, 10 a.m. Service, 11 a.m.
Most of us encounter this kind of violence only when we read in the Post that a person or two was killed in Washington by a gun. But one of the sadnesses of a small business that employs a diversity of people is that we encounter it a little more.
For a while a young man worked for us. He was one of two young men who accepted our invitation to stay at the nearby hotel during the massive snowstorm last winter so that we could remain open.
A few months later he was arrested and charged with having murdered his girlfriend.
Stories like that are exceptional of course. Mostly, people who come to work here with narrow work experience and narrow life experience fail simply because they can’t manage our standards.
We try. Eun teaches and coaches all the time and some of the salespeople you encounter here respond and stay with us. It’s wonderful when they do.
Jerimi might have been at Bread Furst for a long time. He was a special person. He liked being here at 6 AM, an hour before we opened. I really knew that he was special and am ashamed that I did not take the time to find out more about that specialness. I know more now.
He had a mother and five sisters and a devoted mentor with whom he lived for a while and who was in his life steadily. He had graduated from high school, was bright and artistic and had a presence, but even so, he had trouble with the police and spent some time in jail. I was told he sold drugs to help support his sisters and ultimately his children too.
You know the cycle: A boy gets into trouble, has an arrest record and then a jail record. He doesn’t accumulate a work history and without that but with a criminal record it becomes harder and harder to get a job.
One of our staff who got close to Jerimi and who comes from the same background says, “When you grow up in a certain environment you get drawn in even if you don’t want to.”
It’s hard to overcome childhood. Indeed it’s hard to overcome – period. Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher who wrote about universal change, also wrote, “Character is fate.”
This bakery is becoming what I wanted when we opened, a neighborhood place. I am happy when I see as I did one day last week three young teenaged girls sitting together after school eating cake.
It is also more than any other bakery I have started in the past a workplace of diversity
President Kennedy once said, “A rising tide lifts all ships,” but in our modern culture that has turned out not to be so true. The tide has lifted some ships a lot more than others. We can provide here a place where ships can rise slowly but many of the ships go down.
Jerimi spoke about turning his life around and I wish we could have been part of that. Jerimi had character but I don’t think it was his fate. His fate turned out to be a great deal sourer than his character.
It is sad. In some ways Jerimi had more of a chance than others do. The family that adopted him was devoted to him. He had a chance to go to summer camp in the west when he was young. He had a chance to get more educated.
He wasn’t a hero.
Another of our staff who come from the same background but without some of Jerimi’s advantages says, “You have to be careful about your friends. Jerimi wasn’t careful enough.”
Perhaps for him as well as many others, environment is fate.