Bear's Smokehouse Owners Raising Minimum Wage To $15 An Hour For Most Employees

In two years working at Bear's Smokehouse, cashier Amanda Farmer has seen her hourly wage rise by $2 to $11.15.

Now, the hourly wage earned by the East Hartford mother of two — and most of her co-workers — are just days away from getting the biggest bump up yet.

The owners of the fast-growing Bear's Smokehouse are raising the minimum wage for the majority of their employees to $15 an hour as of Jan. 1, making a powerful statement as the debate over increasing the minimum wage in Connecticut to that level heats up.

Jamie McDonald, who with his wife, Cheryl, founded Bear's as a takeout counter in Windsor in 2013, said the move makes clear business sense.

"It will help us attract higher-caliber employees which turns into better service and just has a snowball effect," McDonald said. "But more so, we have been lucky enough to be pretty successful since we opened, and it's a good way to be able to share that success with our employees."

The move also will help Bear's keep employees longer and cut down on training expenses.

Farmer said she hasn't yet calculated the bottom line for her paycheck but she already knows what she will do with the extra cash: pay bills.

"I'm very, very excited," Farmer said.

The increase will affect about 80 of Bear's 100 employees. Those employees work in three restaurant locations — Front Street in downtown Hartford, Windsor and South Windsor — and Bear's commissary in South Windsor. Workers who earn tips aren't eligible.

The decision is a big step for the 3-year-old Bears: it is expected to cost the business $1.3 million to $1.5 million a year.

Jamie McDonald said Monday the cost of increasing the minimum wage will not be passed on to restaurant patrons in the form of higher prices.

Bear's announcement comes as Connecticut's hourly minimum wage is set to rise on Jan. 1 from $9.60 to $10.10. Two weeks ago, the Connecticut Low Wage Employer Advisory Board urged lawmakers to raise the state's minimum wage to $15 an hour over several years.

The recommendation has sparked debate on both sides of the issue. Advocates for low-wage workers say it will help more people escape poverty. But restaurant and food industry lobbying groups argue it will force more businesses, especially mom-and-pop establishments, out of business.

Nationally, the issue is also getting attention. President-elect Donald Trump's nominee to oversee the Department of Labor, Andy Puzder, who turned around two struggling fast-food chains, opposes a $15 minimum wage.

"I don't necessarily think it should be mandated because not everyone is necessarily doing well," Jamie McDonald said. "It could easily put you under. We're doing well enough that we feel part of the profit that we are taking in can be returned back to the employees this way."

The McDonalds have considered the wage increase — one, they say, that will allow employees to more easily afford housing and necessities such as food and clothing — for about a year.

Bear's was already paying a higher than mandated minimum wage of $10. Workers earning tips have been paid $8 an hour, higher than the typical $6.60 to $7.

"The majority of our employees are from the Hartford area, and we see a lot of them that are working multiple jobs and still struggling to make ends meet," Jamie McDonald said. "It's just the right thing to do when you hear talk of 'The One Percent' and CEOs that make all this money while their employees are still struggling."

The McDonalds say they understand the struggle firsthand, having married and had children at a young age.

"Jamie was in the Navy, worked full time while he went to school full time," Cheryl McDonald said. "I worked as much as I could, but the struggle paying for day care while making $12 an hour didn't make it worthwhile. You were always looking for that job that could accommodate, could be flexible and pay you something that could pay for Christmas."

At the lunch hour Friday, Bear's on Front Street hosted about 50 in the restaurant and bar areas, though the McDonalds said customer traffic was slower, probably because of holiday parties. A color drawing of a bear draped as the Mona Lisa looks out over the bar. The sound of Southern rock fills the air and the aroma of barbecue is everywhere.

Jamie McDonald attributes the restaurant's success not only to food at reasonable prices but tapping into a market — authentic barbecue — that was underserved in Connecticut.

The McDonalds also are close to opening three new ventures by the end of January. They include a pizzeria at Bear's first location on Arch Street; a taco shop at Union Station; and Cook & The Bear in West Hartford's Blue Back Square, offering a craft barbecue menu.

The latter two locations are partnerships with Tyler Andersen, chef-owner of Millwrights in Simsbury.

Jamie McDonald said the three new locations are expected to double Bear's employment by this time next year. He said he is in discussion with his partners in the new ventures about extending the $15-a-hour minimum wage.

"There are some people who would say, 'Why would you do it, if you don't have to?'" Jamie McDonald said. "Hopefully someone else who is having the same level of success will do it. Some won't."

This story was updated at 3:34 p.m. on December 19, 2016 to note that patrons of Bear's Smokehouse will not see higher prices after the minimum hourly wage increases.

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