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November 27, 2012

Battle Lines Drawn in Skinny Pancake Livable Wage Controversy

Skinny pancake logo 2Skinny Pancake owner Benjamin Adler says that if he paid a "livable wage" to employees working at his airport restaurants, he'd have to charge $20 for a sandwich. "No restaurant pays their dishwasher $17.71 an hour," he tells Seven Days. "It's not sustainable."

Adler was reacting Tuesday to an avalanche of outrage prompted by a Burlington Free Press article, which reported that Burlington's mayor and board of finance had approved the Skinny Pancake's request for an unusual exemption from the city's livable wage ordinance. Burlington's ordinance requires that city employees and contractors receiving taxpayer funds pay workers a "livable" wage — presently $13.94 an hour, or $17.71 an hour if health insurance is not provided — unless they received a hardship exemption.

Adler lobbied for a hardship exemption and city officials approved one because Skinny Pancake says it would lose money on the airport venture otherwise. One reason for the special treatment: The Skinny Pancake and its sister restaurant, the Chubby Muffin, source almost all of their meat, cheese and vegetables from Vermont farmers and food producers. Adler estimates his restaurants spend $400,000 a year purchasing Vermont-grown foods — and will spend an additional $250,000 buying local food for the airport cafes.

The Free Press article also suggested — without saying explicitly — that Mayor Miro Weinberger's personal relationship with Adler and his brother, Ted, both of whom supported the mayor's campaign last spring, could have influenced the outcome.

Adler vigorously defended the exemption even as people who helped pass the livable wage ordinance back in 2001 warned that the move set a troubling precedent. Adler argues that the livable wage ordinance itself might need review. In spirit, he says he's "all for" guaranteeing a livable wage to people working on the taxpayer's dime. "But in practice, it's setting the bar so high that even a company like mine can't get near it. Is that the right bar to have set?" asks Adler, who pays himself "barely more" than livable wage standards. "Or is it too much money?"

SkinnypancakeAdler plans to open three locations at BTV: a pre-security Chubby Muffin that will be all "grab-and-go" foods, and two post-security Skinny Pancake restaurants inside the terminals, each with seating for 30 and a full bar stocked with Vermont beers and spirits. The restaurants will serve a mix of Skinny Pancake's signature crepes and paninis and pre-made sandwiches and salads, Adler says. The first will open mid-December and the other two in February.

Altogether, the airport food stations will employ 30 people. Adler says that any worker who comes with a reference from the current airport food vendor will get an interview to work at Skinny Pancake.

Adler says his employees at the airport will be paid around $12 to $13 an hour. The Free Press story said two other vendors who bid for the airport contract — Hudson News and Bruegger's Bagels — had indicated they would pay Burlington's livable wages.

During the bidding process this summer and fall, Adler says city officials were "very back and forth" on whether he'd be required to pay a livable wage at the airport outposts. In the end, airport officials asked him in May for two business plans — one in which he paid livable wages, and one in which he did not. Ultimately, lawyers determined the wage ordinance did apply, and Adler would need an exemption not to pay it.

Adler and Weinberger both took issue with the suggestion that Skinny Pancake's unusual treatment was the result of favoritism. Adler says he simply outbid the other food vendors, pledging to pay the city 24 cents per passenger served, or a guaranteed minimum of $145,000 a year. Adler tells Seven Days that he met Weinberger during the campaign. "He reached out to me just like Bram [Kranichfeld] reached out to me. Frankly, I grilled him. I gave him a pretty hard time, but after weighing the pros and cons, I supported him." Adler adds that he donated $25 to Weinberger's mayoral campaign.

For his part, Weinberger tells Seven Days that his years-long acquaintance with Adler's brother, Ted, and the small checks the brothers wrote his campaign had no influence on him voting "yes" on Skinny Pancake's food service contract and livable wage exemption.

"The drafters of the livable wage ordinance specifically contemplated that some businesses may need to be given hardship exemptions," Weinberger says. "It's right there in the language of the ordinance." Weinberger adds that three separate groups — the airport staff, the airport commission and the board of finance — all approved of the hardship exemption because the Skinny Pancake made a convincing case they could not make money without it.

"Everyone felt the quality of the food service would clearly be superior to what we have at the airport," Weinberger says. "It was compelling — the local commitment Skinny Pancake has made. The food supply comes from local farmers."

Weinberger stresses that his administration "takes seriously" the livable wage ordinance, noting that of the six leases approved for the airport since he took office in March, five have livable wage requirements. "We are playing this by the books," Weinberger says.

Others are less sure of the mayor's commitment to livable wages.

"I think the precedent is not good," says Doug Hoffer, who was elected state auditor in November and who helped draft Burlington's livable wage ordinance as a policy analyst more than a decade ago. "Clearly, it opens the door to everybody and anybody pleading poverty."

Hoffer doesn't buy the argument that it's worth exempting a city-contracted business from paying livable wages because that business supports the local food economy, as Adler's restaurants do. Corporate chains might be better able to absorb the cost of paying higher wages in one location, but Hoffer says he wonders, "Why does it have to be either or?"

"What good does it do the community at large to source locally if we have a bunch of employees who can't afford to buy those goods, or pay their rent, or pay for child care or the other basic needs that are at the core of the livable wage?" says Hoffer, who lives in Burlington. Hoffer acknowledges that paying livable wages is "not easy" for small businesses. "But it doesn't sound like there was enough discussion" on the exemption.

File photo by Matthew Thorsen


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