Whether you’re local or not, Vermont’s blooming microbrewery industry provides beer connoisseurs with an array of options to quench their thirst, with once-bare-bones brewery tasting rooms evolving into warm and cozy destinations, often featuring entertainment.
Waitsfield is one of the latest towns to undergo a brewery bloom. Take a trip to the Mad River Valley town, home to Sugarbush and Mad River Glen ski areas, and visit the taproom at Lawson’s Finest Liquids and sample any one of its award-winning brews. But when you step up to pay for that beer, instead of leaving a tip, you’ll be asked if you’d like to make a donation.
Lawson’s Finest is one of a growing number of establishments bucking the trend of paying employees minimum wage — or sometimes, less — plus tips. Instead, they’re offering employees a living wage plus benefits, and donating the money that would otherwise be a tip to charity.
“When we opened our new space in Waitsfield (in October 2018), we really wanted to think about how we treat our staff, especially in an area with such a seasonal economy,” said Karen Lawson, who founded Lawson’s Finest 11 years ago with her husband, Sean. “We realized that there was an unsustainability to minimum wage plus tips for our employees.”
Instead, the company offers its employees a living living wage and benefits.
“We wanted to treat our staff, our beertenders, in a way that they would see this as a permanent job and not as a seasonal job,” she said. “But, when people go out, they’re used to tipping, so we saw this as an opportunity to give back to our community.”
Instead of feeling obligated to leave a tip, patrons have the option of giving a donation, and this model has been met with great success. Lawson’s has donated more than $80,000 to a variety of local service organizations, from Downstreet Housing & Community Development to Central Vermont Home Health and Hospice.
In July, Lawson’s Finest donated $13,000 to the American Cancer Society Hope Lodge program in Burlington, which provides accommodations for patients receiving cancer treatment and their caregivers.
“Lawson’s Finest donation will help us continue to provide a nurturing, comfortable environment for patients during their stay,” said Angela Putnam, manager of the Hope Lodge in Burlington.
Lawson’s Finest is not alone in employing this model.
“Since we started our brew pub 16 years ago, we have always tried to professionalize as many jobs as possible,” said Jen Kimmich, co-founder and CEO of the Alchemist Brewery. “At the pub, we salaried our dishwashers, hosts and kitchen staff. Likewise, today, all of our tasting room staff is full time, salaried with generous benefits.”
Not only does the staff at the Alchemist not accept tips, the samples are free, leaving customers with a few more dollars in their pockets; often, those dollars are donated to charity.
“Since we opened our taproom in 2016, we have rotated the nonprofit that we highlight each month,” Kimmich said. “We don’t consider this philanthropy because the donations come from our very generous customers. We simply provide them with the opportunity to give and, hopefully, learn a little about a local nonprofit.”
Good for charity, great for workers
“Lawson’s and the Alchemist are examples of how a business can provide a living wage,” said Samantha Shaheen, communications manager for Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility (VBSR). “Both businesses are part of VBSR and are outstanding employers, going well beyond paying their employees a living wage.”
In Vermont, 10 percent of the state’s work force is in the restaurant and hospitality industry. About 9,000 people, or 71 percent of the industry, work for minimum wage plus tips, or in many cases, sub-minimum wage plus tips.
While the state’s minimum wage is $10.78 an hour, state law allows employers of tipped employees to pay a little as half that amount, or $5.39 an hour. State law defines a tipped worker as anyone who earns at least $200 a month in tips.
“We’re not just talking about restaurant workers. We’re talking about babysitters, dry cleaners and valets,” Shaheen said.
In Vermont, the poverty rate for tipped workers is 10 percent, and 16 percent of tipped workers receive benefits through the Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program (SNAP).
The grim reality of living off of tips is even worse for workers when the work is seasonal, such as in and around Vermont’s ski areas. According to the Vermont Department of Labor, in 2016, there were 900 people in the Mad River Valley who worked in the restaurant and leisure industry. The next-highest category — industry and trade — included 300 people.
While VSBR has taken a position in favor of employers offering a living wage, it continues to study the issue of tipped employees.
“While the Alchemist and Lawson’s are the outliers, we do see an increased awareness across all the industries that utilize a tipped work force to understand the options and benefits of moving out of that system,” Shaheen said. “We’ve talked with close to 20 food and beverage businesses in the state, who have either eliminated tipped wage or are on a path to do so.”
Another benefit of eliminating tips in lieu of a living wage — worker retention, a real challenge for restaurants located in areas where the economy is seasonal.
“People feel valued and respected,” Lawson said. “As a result, we’ve had very little turnover.”