Evanston restaurant owners are opposing a council member’s proposal to raise Evanston’s minimum wage and guarantee that tipped workers would earn at least the new minimum.

At a town hall meeting at the Civic Center Thursday, Amy Morton, who owns the upscale dining spots LeTour and The Barn, said the restaurant industry hires people “with no college education, hires people without a high school education.”

“We are an industry that when people commit and can show up on time,” Morton said, “They can go from a dishwasher to a restaurant owner. There’s no other industry in the world that creates opportunities like that.”

She said changing the subminimum wage would hurt workers, most of whom work in restaurants to subsidize the life they want to live, as opposed to fulfilling a professional calling.

Nataki Rhodes. Credit: Desiree Shannon

But Nataki Rhodes, a Chicago-based organizer with the activist group One Fair Wage, said she was forced into low-wage work after losing a $60,000 a year job.

She said she considered herself a professional. She said she has taken classes in the hospitality field to improve her skills at the low wage jobs she has had to take. She said that many workers like her use their restaurant earnings to support their families.

“I had to actually raise my son” on low wage restaurant work. “To say it’s OK to make a living off of low wages and just rely solely on tips, that’s not fair.”

Evanston does not currently have its own minimum wage ordinance, and so is governed by the Cook County ordinance that sets the minimum wage at $13.70, slightly above the statewide minimum of $13.00.

An ordinance proposed by Ald. Devon Reid (8th) would raise the minimum wage in Evanston this year to $16 an hour for businesses with more than 50 employees, and a buck less for smaller firms, with further increases in future years.

That would raise Evanston’s minimums to be roughly equivalent to those in the City of Chicago.

What drew much of the fire from restaurant owners was a provision that would eliminate the lower minimum wage for tipped workers.

Derek Gaspar, who owns The Lucky Platter restaurant, said his workers were doing well under the current wage structure and were concerned they would wind up making less money under the proposed minimum wage plan.

Saru Jayaraman, president of activist group One Fair Wage, claimed that nationally “over 5,000 restaurants” and “200 in the Chicago area” have raised wages voluntarily to $15 an hour or higher plus tips in response to the pandemic-triggered exodus of workers from the industry.

She said Evanston stood to lose restaurant workers as higher minimum wages become available in surrounding communities like Chicago.

Jayaraman said studies of restaurants in communities that have adopted a “fair wage” approach for tipped workers don’t bear out that employees typically make less money than under the traditional subminimum wage system.

Meeting participants were asked to fill out a survey on their phones. Credit: Desiree Shannon

Julie Matthei, who owns Hewn bakery, took a conciliatory tone.

“One way to get everyone more aligned on this is to put some measures into effect that also help small business owners,” she said, like lowering the liquor tax, lowering parking fees and lowering sales taxes.

“It would really be helpful if there was a little bit of give and take,” Matthei said. “Maybe we wouldn’t have to raise our prices as much if there was a little bit of help from the city on some of these other things we have to pay.”

Update 7/14/23: Reid’s plan as presented at an Economic Development Committee meeting in May would have only required restaurant owners to make up any shortfall between the lower, tipped wage and the regular minimum wage that the employees hadn’t received in tips. He now says he wants to completely eliminating the lower, tipped wage, so employers wouldn’t be able to count an employee’s tips toward meeting their payroll obligation.

That’s in line with an effort endorsed Thursday by Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson to eliminate the lower, tipped wage there.

The proposed ordinance is scheduled to be reviewed by the Human Services Committee at its Aug. 21 meeting.

Desiree Shannon relocated to Evanston in 2022 from Columbus, Ohio. She has a journalism degree from Otterbein College of Ohio. During her undergraduate studies, she completed an internship with the Washington...

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  1. Nacaki Rhodes was not forced into anything, nobody forces anyone to work in the restaurant business, additionally for Jaraman to assume people only accept jobs based on pay is not only patronizing, it’s arrogant and wrong.

  2. “She said Evanston stood to lose restaurant workers as higher minimum wages become available in surrounding communities like Chicago.”

    So the activist calling for the change basically makes her argument moot by referencing what many would simply call a functioning labor market.

  3. Jayaraman’s comments make little sense. Saying “over 5,000 restaurants” and “200 in the Chicago area”have raised wages voluntarily to $15 an hour or higher plus tips in response to the pandemic-triggered exodus of workers from the industry implies that the current proposal keeps Evanston restaurants from paying more than the minimum. I agree with Ms. Mathei. To keep and expand Evanston’s restaurants let’s make Evanston more business and restaurant friendly. We could start by booting Reid.

  4. I spent most of my life living near the Canadian border where wait staff is paid a higher hourly wage than their US counterparts. Canadian consumers know this and tip little if at all. This proposal could more than cancel out the higher hourly. Reid and our clown council need to keep their unqualified noses out of this issue. A fair market always corrects itself.

  5. Amy Morton wouldn’t understand what it is to start at the bottom as she is the daughter of a well known restaurateur. Nearly every other industry manages to pay employees minimum wage and be successful. Many businesses have people who start with little or no education and rise to ownership. Upscale restaurants such as hers, by their nature, should pay better.

    1. Rich, while I do support a minimum wage increase, I don’t think referencing Amy’s background is necessary or relevant.

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