What happens when you can’t pay your employees in cool anymore

I’ve previously written about the dangers of trying to make a career out of something 19-year-olds think is cool. There are risks on the other side of the paycheck as well, though.

There’s been a flurry of media attention paid to the difficulties restaurants are facing trying to re-staff their kitchens and servers. This piece is my favorite so far, for the simple reason that it pays less attention to policy and politics, and more to the actual jobs in question and what restaurants can actually do to convince employees to return. Rather than condescend to the service industry as a petri-dish for wage policy experiments in “unskilled” labor markets, it dares to recommend employers investigate both the goods they are selling and the value proposition to employees they are trying to hire.

The restaurant and service industries have long been a haven for employees who might otherwise find resistance in the labor market. St. Anthony Bourdain first found his way into our hearts with his love letters to the kitchen as pirate ship, and in doing so contributed as much as anyone to making the restaurant industry cool. Really cool. 2nd-tier rock star cool. Not Beatles cool, but more than few chefs found their way to third-to-last-band at Lollapalooza cool.

And from this pirate ship rebel identity and willingness to hire employees of fringe legality, the restaurant industry found itself with a capacity enviable for any employer: it could pay people with something other than money. It could pay you with a willingness to overlook, ahem…questionable work histories or I-9 employment eligibility. It could pay you in enabling a contrived identity. It could pay you in “No, you’re not selling out trying build a career in a kitchen and yes, you can totally reaffirm that to yourself with two full sleeves of ink.” It could (unfortunately) also pay you through tolerance of workplace aggression, misogyny, and sundry behaviors otherwise on their way out of the office Overton window of acceptable behavior.

There is risk, however, in growing reliant on paying people in non-pecuniary rewards, especially “coolness”. What happens when, whether via a pandemic or just, well, aging, employees realize they can’t pay their rent with cool? What happens if working in your industry stops being cool? What if the world changes, and it broadly stops tolerating the workplace hostility attractive to some of your previous employees? Absent such variously fleeting, juvenile, or outright terrible non-pecuniary indulgences, they’re going to demand higher pay. In money.

The restaurant industry was, quite likely, in exactly the kind of equilibria that major exogenous shocks can shake us out of, sometimes forever. And make no mistake – this isn’t just something that restaurant owners are going to have a tough time adjusting to. I expect a lot us frequent restaurant customers are in for a rude awakening as well. Increased restaurant labor costs pass directly into higher prices. By 2010 the average household in the United States had grown accustomed to dining out more than at home, a luxury enabled by prices kept lower in no small part by a labor force paid in non-pecuniary benefits. I am very much part of that average. Growing up in a family that dined out less than once a month (and that was usually at Pizza Hut), constantly eating out at an endless variety of restaurants has become my single favorite luxury enabled by my employment.

Yes, I’ll probably get a little wistful for the days when I could afford to eat-out almost every night. But it’s also exciting to imagine what a new and different restaurant industry might look like. As an economist, I’ll admit a bit of ironic amusement if it is not the $15 minimum wage that makes way for the oft-prognosticated wave of automated kiosks and labor displacement, but rather the end of a labor pool mythos that leads to a labor exodus. The sudden and collective realization that while, yes, we all concede that a 14-inch scimitar and a flask of Fernet Branca on your hip are cool, they’re not nearly as cool as health insurance and a 401k from a job where the sous chef doesn’t hump your leg every shift.

Which is a long way of saying:

Beware dependence on monopsony power born of coolness, for it is fleeting and full of bankruptcies. Just ask every magazine or media company staring down a writer’s union who’s members have hit their early 30s and realize they can’t pay Brooklyn rent with Williamsburg street cred.

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