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Zoe Ma Ma's Sustainability Initiative Helps Fund a "Living Wage"

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Cities from Los Angeles to Chicago are hiking the minimum wage. Here in Denver, Edwin Zoe of Zoe Ma Ma, which I review this week, has taken matters into his own hands with what he calls a “sustainability initiative fee.”

The 15 percent fee, which is automatically added to the bill unless a guest opts out, goes to a handful of items, including more organics, recycling, renewables and cage-free products, but the “first priority,” according to Zoe, is full-time living wages. “Principally, it makes no sense to me that we, as one of the richest nations, pay dedicated, hard-working people, many with families and children, minimum wages that cannot afford them reasonable housing, education, or health care,” he says.

As a result of the fee — which is only assessed at the Denver location, not the original Zoe Ma Ma in Boulder —  Zoe says he’s able to pay employees more in Denver than in Boulder. By the end of the summer, he’ll decide whether to implement the fee in Boulder, a decision that hinges on whether or not “the SI fee proves not harmful to our business.”

The fee’s impact on the bottom line remains to be seen. But it’s clear that the fee doesn’t sit well with some customers. A month and a half after the Denver branch opened, the fee was lowered from 20 percent to 15 percent, and one person threatened an office-wide boycott.

Public opinion might be different if guests were asked upon ordering whether they wanted to include a 15 percent sustainability charge in support of living wages, rather than having the charge added to the bill automatically, like a tax. Although there are signs explaining the initiative around the dining room, they are small and easy to miss; guests might appreciate a heads-up from the person at the counter before they pay. And more transparency might help matters when it comes to how the dollars are distributed. I was disappointed to learn that all the produce is conventional, despite the signs’ claim of more organics.

Like it or not, a similar fee isn’t out of the question at other restaurants, too, says restaurant consultant John Imbergamo. If Colorado were to significantly raise the minimum wage and take away the tip credit, restaurant owners would find themselves scrambling to fund the difference. “That’s not coming out of the air,” says Imbergamo. “You’ll either create higher prices or mandatory service charges.”

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