Hey folks! I’m taking a break this month. That also means I’ll be re-publishing some of my favorite pieces from the Boss Barista archives, which will probably be new to many, if not most, subscribers. I’m excited to share them with you!
First up, today’s podcast episode is a reair of a conversation from 2019, when I interviewed Michael Schroeder of Oddly Correct Coffee in Kansas City, Missouri. Oddly Correct is a small chain of coffee shops, and in 2019, it announced that it would be establishing its own minimum wage, based not on the U.S. federally mandated minimum of $7.25 an hour—a number that hasn’t changed since July 2009—but on the living wage (an amount that can vary from place to place, but which is meant to reflect what a person could feasibly live off to meet basic needs).
A few quick notes: This episode aired in a slightly different format from past episodes—I did a series called “roundups” where I tackled specific topics, so you’ll hear a different introduction and music. This is also structured as a produced episode, including moments where I narrate over clips of my interview with Michael (in the below transcript of this episode, I’ve identified Michael’s interview portions in italics). Here we go!
Hey friends, welcome to the Boss Barista Roundup, a show where I tackle a topic and ask you, the listeners, to share your stories, thoughts, insights, and experiences with us. I’m Ashley Rodriguez, and this week, we’re talking about what it means to reimagine the minimum wage in the U.S.
The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, although 29 states have set a higher minimum wage than that. However, all but six states have what's called a tipped minimum, or an amount that’s lower than the minimum wage that you can still legally pay your staff. If employees receive tips, they can be paid a very low hourly baseline by their employer—rules vary state by state about just how little that amount can be.
In general, when we think of the minimum wage, we think of low-paying jobs. And for many, the minimum wage simply isn’t enough to support themselves or their families, or make their lives work, without picking up a second job or sacrificing basic needs.
But what happens when we start to think about minimum wage differently? What if we could guarantee that people left work every day with more than what they needed just to get by? What sort of power structures would have to be reassessed or questioned or flat-out knocked down for that to happen?
Michael: All the places that I have worked before, the power structure and the resources were all structured like this upside-down pyramid, right? Like at the top, you have ownership, and maybe like a couple executive-type roles or people doing the main leadership of the company, and they're the most resourced and the most compensated.
But the mobility in those places, particularly in coffee, is really limited. And then you have some type of middle management and things like that. But then down at the bottom, you have a very large population of people doing the customer-facing work, but those are the people who, in my experience, when I was working as a barista, I felt the least resourced. And I definitely know that I was the least compensated.
That's Michael Schroeder, who on November 4th, 2019, announced an incredibly ambitious new pay structure for the business. He works for Oddly Correct Coffee in Kansas City, Missouri. On Instagram, Oddly Correct announced that all employees would make at least $18 an hour.
If they made that in tips plus their base wage, that was great. But if their tips didn’t get them to that hourly wage, Oddly Correct would subsidize it and ensure that every employee took home a guaranteed amount of money every day.
Michael: So the basic idea is that we are setting a minimum wage at Oddly Correct—so that's $18 an hour. No matter how many hours you have that are customer-facing and you're getting tips, or if you're doing production work and stuff like that, depending on how much of that work you're doing, your tips and stuff can fluctuate week to week.
So what we're saying is a starting base pay at Oddly Correct is $10.50 an hour. Every six months we do reviews, and you get raises depending upon if you're taking on more responsibility and performance and cost-of-living increases and stuff like that. But then with your base rate and tips, we calculate what was your average hourly income. And if it drops below $18 an hour, then we will raise the base pay to make up the difference. But if employees who are working and getting tips that put them over $18 an hour, we don't touch that. So we're really just setting like a minimum wage for our company.
This is huge, especially for a place like Kansas City, where the minimum wage is $8.60 an hour [2022 note: It has since gone up throughout the state of Missouri to $11.25]. And in Missouri, employers are allowed to claim a 50% tip credit [2022 note: This is still true], meaning they can pay you half the state's minimum wage if you make the other half in tips.
So essentially an employer can pay you as low as $4.30 [2022: $5.58] an hour, as long as an employee makes the other half—the other $4.30—in tips. But Michael and his team at Oddly Correct wanted to upend that idea.
Michael: Rumors of places that had planned to do the minimum wage, like they were gonna use tips to bring people up to the Missouri minimum wage—so they were gonna take their employees’ tips every week and then calculate, ‘Okay, what's the hourly that we can pay them to where they're getting $8.60 an hour?’ So leveraging customers’ generosity to then pay them as little as possible.
I had heard stories about places that had either done that or were talking about doing it—both through a survey and just from like people, other baristas coming into our shop and stuff like that.
So that actually gave me an idea: What if I flipped it on its head and said, ‘I'm gonna use generosity as a tool to help us pay every single person a living wage.’ So instead of saying like, ‘Okay, here's the maximum that we're ever gonna pay someone,’ including their tips, I said, ‘Let's set a minimum that we're ever gonna pay someone, including tips. So that that's where kind of like the initial structure came from.
Michael and the team decided on a minimum they'd pay anyone on their staff. And one of the reasons Oddly Correct gave for this policy is contained in their initial Instagram announcement. They say, if a job is worth doing it's worth doing well. Instead of focusing on the output of employees, which we might think of when we hear a sentence like that, Michael will focus on the worth part, and how to translate that worth into tangible wages.
Michael: So thinking: Okay, how can I actually, in my mind, properly value the work that every single person is doing, knowing that I believe that every single person has value—period. But that if I think that that person's job is worth having on my team, then I need to show that I value with how I'm compensating it.
So trying to make it less of that pyramid, like a point at the bottom and wide at the top, to like more of a rectangle. That was an image that came on pretty early. And then from there, just starting to think like, ‘Okay, how can I be at a spot or when can I be at a spot to make that happen?’
The more I started thinking about that stuff, the more I realized that, ‘Okay, well, if I want to have the best people doing every single job, even if I have someone who's just pulling shots all day long, if I think that that job is worth doing, then I should be paying a wage that makes it a job that someone can continue to do, especially if they're passionate about it.’ If they're passionate about creating really good beverages and serving people in a really kind and engaging way.
This plan sounds ambitious, idyllic even, but is it actually feasible? We answer that question—after the break.
Hi friends. This is Ashley in 2022, today, now, whatever. When I aired this episode in 2019, I read an ad for an organization called getchusomegear.
Getchusomegear redistributes donated coffee gear to baristas and other coffee professionals that hold marginalized identities. If you have any old coffee gear that's collecting dust in a cabinet, or you just have extra items, getchusomegear will find a new home for them. Right now, they’re in need of drippers—you can donate any pourover coffee brewers you have in your closet or basement and getchusomegear will help find them a new home.
Getchusomegear has done SO MUCH in the three years since I originally read this ad—Chris McAuley, getchusomegear’s founder, was a guest on the show in January 2021 and they recently launched a new program called getchusomebeans.
Getchusomebeans provides coffee beans, green coffee education, and perhaps even roasting classes in the future. Resources and training opportunities are unequally distributed, and the entire goal of the getchu programs is to give tools to the baristas and hourly coffee workers who often don’t get the things they need. Check out getchusomebeans, donate drippers and equipment to getchusomegear, and find out more on Instagram at @getchusomegear.
Welcome back to the Boss Barista Roundup. I'm talking to Michael Schroeder, director and roaster at Oddly Correct Coffee in Kansas City.
He's talking to us about how his shop has set a new minimum wage for baristas. Every barista will walk away with at least $18 an hour, no matter what. They'll get a set base pay, which will be subsidized if their tips don't get them to that $18 an hour.
This $18 an hour—that's nearly double the minimum wage in the city! Michael and his team at Oddly Correct have been praised for this policy. Their post on Instagram announcing it has over 100 comments commending them, but that doesn't mean it hasn't been met with some pushback.
Michael: There have been people sort of saying like, ‘Hey, why are you doing this? To make us look bad?’ [Laughs]
Which is 100% not our intent. I think there's a lot of close-handed information, gatekeeping in coffee in a lot of senses. But I think that there's just not an air of transparency. That's not like a natural feeling thing for a lot of business owners.
You're kind of taught to like protect your secrets and not share your recipes and not give away how you're doing things because someone could come and copy it or it just reveals too much about your process. And I just wanted to get ahead of what I felt was an important movement for transparency. That was for the most part being led by baristas and the people doing the work.
Transparency is a hot topic in the coffee world right now. Folks across the industry are demanding more transparency in pretty much all realms.
People are asking what roasters are paying the farmers who grow their coffee, and recently a number of spreadsheets where baristas could anonymously report their wages have swept across the nation, revealing wages ranging from livable to eh to downright deplorable.
What Michael saw was a moment for him as a person driving the business that he works at to take some of that burden of transparency off baristas and assume it within the business.
Michael: Seeing like all these wage transparency reports that are 100% led by baristas and the people in the communities, I thought, ‘Well, shouldn't the companies be the ones who are being transparent?’
I don't want my employees to feel like they have to be transparent for me. So that was the heart behind it—was to get out there and say like, ‘Hey, we think this is important. Here's what we can do where we're at.’
We just wanna be open about it. Putting it out there, especially on the internet, that kind of holds me accountable to really do what I say I'm gonna do.
So you may be thinking this all sounds great, but how is Oddly Correct going to do this?
As fair as this feels to me, this also feels like a lot of money. And the number 18—where does that come from? This number is a result of careful planning and knowing exactly how much money Oddly Correct has. And for Michael, he's not worried.
Michael: I was looking at an MIT study where they created this tool—like an online tool where you can enter in your zip code and it'll pull up a living wage based upon housing costs and healthcare costs and food costs.
It's really interesting, but that's where I was starting to look when I was thinking, ‘What does it even take to just make a living wage and in Kansas City, if you're working 40 hours a week?’
It's like $11.80 something an hour, but the total being about $1,900 a month to make a living wage. They describe it as a very fine line between financial independence and the need for assistance from like government programs, for housing and food and things like that. So it's basically kind of what minimum wage should be if I'm gonna talk about it.
Someone working 40 hours a week on minimum wage can't support themselves completely. Like they can't exhibit financial independence. So this living wage is sort of what that actually would be.
I started looking there and then took the data that I had gotten from that survey— basically the average hours that people are working and stuff like that and said, ‘Okay, so if a barista is working 30 hours a week and they make $18 an hour, then that'll put them well over that living wage with $400 a month spare for discretionary spending or saving, for buying a house, a down payment, and building savings and things like that.’
If someone on our team is working 30 hours a week and making $18 an hour, this is gonna put them well over that minimum wage—or not minimum wage, that living wage, and give them a greater degree of financial independence. So that's where the number came from. And I knew that it was like something right now we could handle as a business.
Beyond the math, there's this underlying theme that continues to come up over and over as I talk to Michael: It's not so much that Oddly Correct can afford to pay this much, even though they can, but it's also that they believe it's right to pay this much, especially if you know where the value of your business is.
Michael: One, I know it's tough running a business and meeting the bottom line, but I think it just comes back to that initial idea that if I can't place a proper value on my greatest resource, as opposed to viewing it as my biggest liability—yes, it is the thing that we pay the most money into week after week, but it's because it's bringing us the most benefit.
So I think it just comes from actually seeing value in it, as opposed to feeling like it's a weight that has to be managed. You know, people don't actually think that the work is as valuable as it, as they wanna say that it is. If you think that other things are more important, that's what you're gonna put your time and energy and money into.
I'm not saying that like any of those other things are bad necessarily. It's not wrong to have a marketing budget or to have the newest machine or anything like that. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, but if we really want to create an environment where the people are put first, and we really believe that if they're really well resourced, that they're actually gonna give us the most benefit, then that's where we're gonna put our resources.
It is kind of that mentality of—there's something that guitar players say, they say tone is in your fingers. You could have the best, most amazing guitar and amp, but if you don't have that tone in your fingers, something inside you to actually make good music come out … all the best stuff's not gonna help you.
We take that and say, ‘Okay, we know that we can do good work. So let's do the best we can with what we have within a system that allows every one of us to be doing okay.’
That was Michael Schroeder, director and roaster at Oddly Correct Coffee in Kansas City. You can learn more about their plans to increase the minimum wage by following them on Instagram at @oddly.
You can also look up what the living wage is in your city by using the tool Michael mentioned—the MIT living wage calculator—by visiting https://livingwage.mit.edu/.
Last mention from 2022 Ashley. I touched base with Michael Schroeder to ask if there were any updates—remember, this episode was recorded before the COVID-19 pandemic, and he said that since our episode aired, they’ve been able to:
Add three new salaried positions to their staff
Track barista wages to over $20 per hour
Grown their staff from 10 employees to 15
Watch two employees buy homes
Michael reports that a lot of the challenges that other businesses have faced—like the “labor shortage” caused by the pandemic—haven’t really affected Oddly, and that by being vocal about their wage structure, they’ve attracted customers who care about and support their goals. He says that average tips have jumped up from 12.5% in 2019 to 16% today.
He does admit there are still challenges. Inflation affects their costs of goods, they want to make their products more accessible to all consumers, and he acknowledges that a tip-centered system prioritizes customer-facing work, even though there are tons of jobs in coffee where workers never interact with customers. So does that mean we move towards a tip-free system in the future? Is his city ready for it? He’s still not sure.
I wanted to end on this email update because I think it’s a good reminder that solutions aren’t stagnant, and we shouldn’t simply celebrate one achievement, one milestone. Progress is a journey, and I appreciate the continuing work the team at Oddly Correct is doing to make hourly coffee work more sustainable. I hope more people use their work as a blueprint for what’s possible in their own cafes.