Emily Arthur and Ian Steger at their Project Coffee

Image: Isaac Eger

The interior of Project Coffee, located in historic Burns Court, is bright and clean. The only wall hanging is a black-and-white menu board listing the café’s modest offerings. Wide, street-facing windows welcome natural light, and ample seating welcomes customers. The coffee is excellent, and the food is yummy. But behind all these standard café offerings is a social experiment.

Project Coffee pays its workers $15 an hour, plus tips. If you do the math, a 40-hour-a-week barista could make $31,200 annually without tips, a livable income. By contrast, the minimum wage in Florida is $8.46 an hour, or $17,600 for a full-time worker. Tipped workers, however, often earn $5.44 per state law if their employer claims a tip credit of $3.02 an hour. 

Ian Steger, Project Coffee’s 24-year-old co-owner, along with Emily Arthur, believes it’s worth taking the risk on a higher wage. He has been pulling shots from behind espresso machines at various coffee shops, from Starbucks to tiny independents, for the last six years. The biggest problems facing every place he worked, he says, was low morale and high employee turnover. The obvious solution? Pay them more.

“The stress of having to perform day in day out just to pay your rent wears on you,” says Steger. “Setting the bar higher for what you can guarantee to bring home creates a better workplace.”

A $15 minimum wage may be on Floridians’ 2020 ballot as a constitutional amendment. Florida For A Fair Wage collected the required 766,260 petition signatures in October and the proposed amendment is headed to the state Supreme Court for review. Some major corporations, like Amazon and Disney, began to offer their employees $15 an hour last year, and certain cities, like New York City and Seattle, also have adopted a $15 minimum wage.

The Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, with the support of Gov. Ron DeSantis, is against the proposed Constitutional Amendment, stating that a 77 percent increase in labor costs will lead to job cuts and increased automation in the hospitality industry. John Horne, the owner of Anna Maria Oyster Bar and three other restaurants, says he can’t raise menu prices to compensate for increased wages. “In Florida, I can’t raise my menu 40 percent,” he says. “I can’t raise it 20 percent. Retirees are not getting a pay raise.” He’s not opposed to raising wages—to $10 or even $15 an hour—but not for tipped workers whose hourly rate he estimates at $30 ($62,400 annually) to $40 ($83,200 annually) in Sarasota, or for entry-level workers, such as high school students who work as hosts and hostesses. (Horne’s numbers are quite a bit higher than the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ May 2018 report that the annual mean wage for the 9,190 waiters and waitresses in North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton was $29,530.) 

Project Coffee employee Erin McQueary, 22, says it’s been gratifying working for an employer who values her. Before working at the café, McQueary worked at a law firm in St. Pete making $16 an hour, but she hated the work. While the commute to Sarasota adds to her expenses, she says it’s worth it.  “When your employer not only agrees to pay you a livable wage but insists on doing so, it communicates to me that not only my labor, but my personhood is valued,” she says.

Project Coffee has been open since July and has one full-time and two part-time employees. So far, Steger says he hasn’t lost a single employee and he’s turning a small profit.

Steger agrees his business model is a risk and he might not be making as much money as other coffee shop owners, but he says all business startups are a risk.

“I cannot think of a better investment than labor,” he says. “A business is nothing without labor, and paying a dignified wage is the only recognition of that. As someone who has exclusively worked in service, I am well aware of what a business can generate and how labor cost factors into the equation. We run a tight ship, but the dignity that a life-sustaining job provides keeps morale, motivation and energy high. Fifteen dollars an hour does not pose a threat to the success of a business—and if a business relies on suppressed wages, maybe it is not a business worth having.”

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