News Column

Cafe's 'Minimum Wage Fee' Sparks National Backlash

August 8, 2014

Nick Woltman, Pioneer Press

Waitress (file image)
Waitress (file image)

Aug. 08--The Oasis Cafe in Stillwater this week found itself at the center of the fiery national debate over the minimum wage.

The restaurant's owner, Craig Beemer, began adding a 35-cent charge to every bill on Aug. 1. It was intended to offset the added cost of Minnesota's new $8 minimum wage, which took effect that same day, Beemer said. He labeled the charge a "minimum wage fee" on each ticket to explain the higher price to customers.

In the week since, outraged phone calls and Facebook posts have accused Beemer of political grandstanding and trying to deny his employees a living wage. The furor has even drawn national media attention.

"It's been pretty shocking how this thing has blown up," Beemer said. "They're painting me as some kind of Gordon Gekko character. That couldn't be further from the truth."

Beemer says it's only his servers who make minimum wage, adding that, with tips, they regularly take home between $20 and $35 an hour. Dishwashers and cooks start at $10 an hour and $12 an hour, respectively.

"We've always taken great pride in attracting good people and paying them well," Beemer said.

But raising his servers' pay to the new $8-an-hour minimum -- a 75-cent increase -- will cost him about $10,000 a year, he said. The restaurant, which operated at a loss last year, couldn't afford that.

Beemer calculated that adding a 35-cent charge to each bill would offset the higher wages for his servers and the corresponding increases in payroll taxes and unemployment insurance.

The backlash started small, Beemer said. On Saturday -- the day after the fee was instituted -- a woman posted a photo of an Oasis receipt on the restaurant's Facebook page, pointing out the minimum wage fee.

"You couldn't just increase your prices by 35 cents for two meals? ... Shame on you," she wrote.

Beemer responded, explaining his reasoning, but the furor grew as the photo circulated around the Web.

"So how much does a 'brick through the window' fee cost?" one person wrote on the restaurant's Faebook page.

"I hope your restaurant burns to the ground," wrote another.

The diner's phone has been turned off since Wednesday night, when kitchen manager Colin Orcutt took a call from a number in Portland, Ore.

The caller asked Orcutt to tell Beemer to kill himself, Orcutt says.

But Beemer has also heard from a number of supporters who say they plan to visit Stillwater specifically to patronize the restaurant. A Minneapolis gun club posted on the Oasis Facebook page that they plan to hold a social function at the restaurant to boost business.

But the calls for a boycott worry Beemer.

"It's scary," he said. "This is how I make my living."

Beemer isn't alone in dealing with the impact of the wage increase. Restaurants across the state are raising prices and cutting hours in response to the new minimum wage, said Dan McElroy, president of Hospitality Minnesota, a coalition that includes the restaurant, lodging, resort and campground associations.

"He's making an effort to be transparent, rather than just increasing the menu price," McElroy said of Beemer.

Hospitality Minnesota advocates allowing employers to pay tipped employees less than non-tipped employees, as long as their total earnings reach a certain threshold. Such a provision was debated in the Minnesota Legislature as part of the minimum wage increase, but was narrowly defeated.

Rep. Ryan Winkler, who sponsored the bill to raise the state's minimum wage, said it appeared to him that Beemer was trying to make a statement with his minimum wage fee.

"My impression is that it's a political protest," Winkler said. "I'm sure that when a vendor says pancake batter is going to get more expensive, he doesn't put a pancake batter fee on his receipt."

For his part, Beemer has no immediate plans to remove the added charge from his bills, but is bracing for another tumultuous week.

"This may have been a bad decision," Beemer said. "Time will tell how this is going to impact our business."

Nick Woltman can be reached at 651-228-5189. Follow him on Twitter at @nickwoltman.


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Original headline: Stillwater cafe owner's 'minimum wage fee' makes political waves

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Source: (c)2014 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.)

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