Food News

This Business Gives Employees a Raise...Two Years Ahead of City Schedule

Employees at Queens Eleven and Blue Sparrow will be getting a bump in pay.
Employees at Queens Eleven and Blue Sparrow will be getting a bump in pay. Mark Antonation
Many restaurant owners have grave concerns about the City of Denver's new minimum-wage increases set to ramp up steadily between January 2020 and January 2022. But two bar and coffee shop business partners are using the occasion to give employees a bump that will put them two years ahead of the city's schedule. On New Year's Day, Jeffrey Knott and Fiona Arnold, co-owners of Blue Sparrow Coffee and Queens Eleven (a cocktail and coffee bar that just opened this month), will begin paying all tipped employees $12.85 an hour, the amount that the city won't require until 2022.

Denver just mandated new minimum-wage increases to $12.85 ($9.83 tipped) beginning on January 1, 2020; to $14.77 ($11.75 tipped) on January 1, 2021; and to $15.87 ($12.85 tipped) on January 1, 2022. Knott says the majority of his employees are tipped (other than three or four salaried managers), so he and Arnold made the decision to crash the schedule after surveying customers. More than 80 percent of customers supported the idea of a wage increase, and about 76 percent of them said they'd be fine with price increases to cover the cost, Knott notes. So along with employee raises, Blue Sparrow will be bumping menu prices by 11 percent.

"This really all started out at Blue Sparrow," he continues. "Quality is first and foremost, and to provide that, we need professional baristas, and we need to take care of them. I don't see a reason to wait; it's the right thing to do."

Knott adds that employee retention has always been high at Blue Sparrow, which opened at 3070 Blake Street in early 2017. The coffee shop has always paid above minimum wage, and it also offers health and matching 401(k) benefits to qualified employees. But the company is growing, with the recent addition of Queens Eleven at 3603 Walnut Street and a new Blue Sparrow that will hold its grand opening at 1615 Platte Street on January 3, so the partners wanted to make sure they were ready to expand from just over twenty employees now to more than forty by late spring.

Wages and benefits aren't the only employee considerations Knott and Arnold are focusing on. "We think we've always done the right thing, but people don't necessarily know that, so we're going to show them," Knott explains. "We're going to continue to improve our transparency in areas like the gender wage gap and diversity."

In fact, Blue Sparrow's website has an entire tab dedicated to "Transparency." Right now, it contains a detailed explanation of the wage increase, but Knott said other information will soon be added. He also notes that he has worked closely with Prodigy Coffee, a coffee shop that trains and employs at-risk youth, and has already hired three Prodigy apprentice graduates. "Their lives are bigger-picture, and we try to be hyper-aware of that," he says of all his staff.

Queens Eleven is now open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily (midnight on Saturdays and Sundays), serving coffee and breakfast items, including Onefold breakfast burritos by day and surprisingly affordable cocktails (most are in the $8 to $9 range) by night. The new Platte Street Blue Sparrow is in soft-opening mode until January 3, so hours may be a little irregular until then (especially with New Year's Day coming up).
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Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation