A look at our version of the circa-1800s Macedonian Goulash the Flint Coney sauce was developed from. Click the image for our recipe.
Just to be clear, if you want to republish this or any part of it, let me know via comments. We can discuss it.
In their current arguments against current reports of people protesting for a $15/hour minimum wage, opponents make such claims as “Fast food was never meant to provide a ‘living wage'”, “Increasing wages will increase the costs of what I pay for”, and “Those people don’t work as hard as I do/aren’t educated like I am, and don’t deserve it.”
The realities are vastly different than these claims.
As to the first claim, “Fast food was never meant to provide a ‘living wage'”, in 1929 the Flint Chamber of Commerce published a small pamphlet, “Progressive Flint”, which set out specific indicators of what had happened economically in the city since 1910. According to the pamphlet, the population of Flint in 1910 was 38,550 and had grown to 148,800 by 1928, with an estimate of 163,000 by 1930. General Motors had been founded in 1908 and its growth through those years had been rather extreme. The average annual factory wage for Michigan’s eleven largest cities was $1,450, but in Flint that average wage was $1,780.
The small volume didn’t mention restaurants, but there was a detailed paragraph that broke down the more than 1,700 retailers in Flint at the time. The list included 504 grocers and 32 meat markets. Two of those meat markets would have been Koegel’s and Abbott’s Meat. At the time of the pamphlet’s publication there was one coney shop, Flint Coney Island.
From the beginning Flint Coney Island was constantly open, twenty-four hours each day, seven days every week. Grill cooks and waiters worked the same hours as sailors on a ship, twelve hours every day, with no days off. At the time the railroad ran just south of the Flint River, within walking distance of the restaurant, so passengers and railroad workers alike discovered the Flint Coney Island as a quick place for a good meal.
According to “To To Go”, a Flint oney history pamplet published by the Genesee County Historical Society in 2007, the restaurant workers’ meals were paid, their room was taken care of, and they received $21 each week. If one follows the math on the rate of pay, that’s an annual pay of $1,092, or 60% of what the factory workers were making in Flint, and as much as 75% of what other factory workers were making across the state. If you include the room and board, those wages are even better than they first appear. Theirs were rather good wages, far better percentage-wise than the wages of the “fast food” workers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
The issue here is that other workers have lobbied for better wages, sometimes violently, and have succeeded … while those workers currently lobbying for a $15/hour minimum wage are instead being oppressed. How ridiculous, how repulsive, is this situation? Why are the protests from other workers alright but not this one? There is no logical, sensible explanation.
The past century has not been good to minimum wage workers. It’s not their fault. But they’re the ones getting ridiculously punished for it.
Regarding the second claim, “Increasing wages will increase the costs of what I pay for”, you’re being greedy, and so are employers, corporations, and middle-men. That’s all there is to it.
Let’s look at some numbers … in “How to Price your Restaurant Menu“, Lorri Mealey of About.com gives the equation for calculating prices from food costs using the industry standard of 35% markup. But here’s the catch: Labor is not calculated as part of the food cost before the markup. What this means is that labor is stripped right off the profit margin, however low that might be. This is particularly troublesome for dishes where the labor cost might be higher due to more intensive prep work.
In the article “Cheat Sheet: Retail Markup on Common Items” by Kentin Waits on WiseBread we see that the markups for many items are much higher than for foodservice … clothing and shoes at least 100%, furniture and medicines upwards of 200%, eyeglasses better than 800% markup … but grocery is, interestingly enough, far less than that of menu prices at 5% – 25%.
The question arises: Why is food in general treated so differently when it comes to pricing than just about anything else?
In the Wall Street Journal, Sumathi Reddy has written quite an interesting piece on the subject of, “Unwanted New Item on Menu: Higher Prices“. The piece is rathering interesting in the context that the cost of labor isn’t mentioned once. Instead we see statements such as, “Increased food prices have hit the restaurant industry hard, causing some to pass on part of the cost to consumers for the first time since the recession …”, “… the $20 price increase instituted earlier this year [at Per Se] was due to overall increases in costs, ‘food being the most substantial.’ [general manager Anthony Rudolf] said it was the first increase since 2008 …”, and “… the cost of a case of eggplant has more than tripled, to $72 from about $20″.
Increases in labor costs are rarely mentioned, if ever. They’re certainly not accounted for, simply because those increases don’t exist.
Back here I discussed how milk prices have changed so little since 1975. Yup, same problem. It’s still ongoing, and workers at restaurants are suffering the same as farmers and their laborers.
In “Concession stand treats – a license to print money” by Paul Michael on WiseBread, Mr. Michael rants about the prices of concession foods:
“Be it a movie theater, zoo, church event or a local concert, you can expect to pay serious extra cash for a regular item. From the $5 bag of popcorn to the $4 corndog, these are premium prices for very ordinary foods. But you usually let it go, because you’re having a good time … We’re talking a 97% profit margin on a simple Sno-Kone! … You could even hire someone to man the stand for you, at $8-$10 per hour you’ll easily cover the cost of that person’s salary with the huge markups you’re making from the menu.”
Head back on up to the cheat sheet on markups on common items. It’s on the same web site as Mr. Michael’s piece. Go ahead, I’ll wait … It’s easy to see that a 97% markup isn’t much at all when compared to other items. But less of a markup is expected only because food is involved. Otherwise Mr. Michael, you’d pay it without complaint just like everyone else. And if the markup was more inline with the rest, the food concession worker could then also get a competitive wage, if it were offered.
Again, in this post about the milk prices I’d stated specifically why I felt a gallon of milk should currently be $7.50 – $8, about triple what I’m paying at local grocery stores in SE Michigan/NW Ohio. Frankly, if foodservice workers, grocery floor staff and farmers were to actually make what they’re worth via a competitve wage, food prices across the board, from farmers to distributors, grocers, stand operators and restaurants, should also be at lease triple what they are. Those wages should also go up annually via cost-of-living increases and performance-related raises.
Think for a moment about the price of beef. But don’t think about what you pay for beef at the supermarket. Think about the fact that cattle farmers sell their animals whole, for a single price. A processor then partially breaks that animal down, with butchers completing the work later. The farmer doesn’t see the difference between 73/27 ground hamburger and the best cuts of steak reflected in his or her price. Those are set by other workers and managers later on in the process. So when you pay $2.99 for a one-pound chubb of hamburger, but then pay $7.99 per pound for a Porterhouse, it’s actually likely those came from a single animal for the same price, that price per pound to the farmer that spent time, energy, and money breeding and raising the thing, being less than that for the hamburger.
Meanwhile, you get upset, wanting to boycott the place, or yell and scream at some minimum-wage worker, if the price of your precious dollar menu item goes up by one iota, something they have zero control over, with the increases going into the owner’s or coporation’s wallet, not that of the workers, but you don’t care.
You not caring really is part of the problem. Figure it out.
As to that last claim, “Those people don’t work as hard as I do/aren’t educated like I am, and don’t deserve it”, you have a lot to learn.
Restaurant work is inherently dangerous, with long hours. Many shifts are 10, 12 or even 14 hours long, with workers sometimes being scheduled “open-to-close”, even on holdays and weekends when you’re off work. They have no “TGIF” like you do. If you’re at a family-owned restaurant, that may be the owner in the kitchen the entire time the place is open. Grills, broilers, salamanders, both deep fryers and pressure fryers, even rinse water are all at scalding temperatures that can injure, maim or even kill. Knifes, both flat and rotating, have to be kept as sharp as possible to cut correctly, and those that are rotating are moving extremely fast. Cleaning chemicals are highly toxic, and even basic chemicals such as bleach are used in large amounts. I’ve been cut, burnt and had my eyes clouded over too many times to count. I’ve had 350F fryer oil all over the back of my right hand just in simply adding new shortening into the fryer to top it off. And a friend’s face was disfigured by chemicals used to clean fryers, chemicals that were so hot as to sear him in a very short period of time.
Meanwhile, you want your fast food “fast”. Even in restaurants that don’t generally serve quicker, you want it now. So workers have to be quick. And you tend to forget you aren’t the only one there, so you get very demanding. The workers have numerous tickets in front of them, sometimes in the dozens, but that’s not something you care enough to consider. Well, I’ll tell you what, you need to consider it, especially since if you do this you don’t know what you’re talking about.
As to the worker’s education, what do you know about them? Nothing, that’s what. That kid in front of you may have aced their 11th grade calculus final while you were happy with an ‘A’ in algebra. They may be in their first year in the physics degree program at a nearby university, nailing all their courses, while you’re “only” an amazing self-taught finish carpenter. But still, who’s more educated? That 50-year-old at the register that you smirk about because of their “five-year” pin … How do you know if they were let go from a UAW position in automotive position in the 2008 crisis and can no longer get back into factory work because of age discrimination?
That’s right, you really haven’t a clue.
And as to the side issue of immigrants working in this country … A large part of the problem is that, not only do U.S. citizens consider restaurant and farm labor work to be mundane, below them and of a throw-away status, immigrants are more than ready to take their place. In The Nasty Bits Anthony Bourdain wrote:
The bald fact is that the entire restaurant industry in America would close down overnight, would never recover, if current immigration laws were enforced quickly and thoroughly across the board. Everyone in the industry knows this. It is undeniable. Illegal labor is the backbone of the service and hospitality industry–Mexican, Salvadoran and Ecuadoran in particular. To contemplate actually doing without is to contemplate mass closings, a general shake-out of individually owned and operated restaurants–and, of course, unthinkably (now) higher prices in the places that manage to survive. Considering that our economy and employment picture is now largely based on us selling hamburgers to each other, the ripple effects would be grave. … I suggest immediately opening up our borders to unrestricted immigration for all Central and South American countries. If the [Culinary Institute of America] grads don’t want to squat in a cellar prep kitchen for the first couple of years of their career, or are too delicate or high-strung or too locked into a self-image that precludes the real work of kitchens and restaurants, then they should just stand back and watch their competition from south of the border take those jobs for good. Everyone will end up getting what they deserve.
Americans, especially younger people, are largely unwilling to do the work (with wages possibly being a big factor), and the illegal immigrants are happy to step up to work harder for lower wages. But you scoff at all of them regardless, becuase you’re damn certain you’re better than they are.
Next time you want to complain about anyone else wanting a higher wage, stop thinking only about how that will affect you, and think instead about how to get it for them. Both history and current reality speak for themselves. You’re the arrogant one not thinking it through.