Baker and owner of Union Special Bread, Andrew Ullom, pays his employees a living wage. I wanted to know how and why.
Taking my order number and Jeddah’s Lavender Rooibos Khoisan Tea, I found a seat at the end of one of Union Special Bread’s communal tables to wait for owner Andrew Ullom. The purpose of my visit, besides eating the biscuits and gravy that were the closest thing to God that day, was to talk about Ullom’s living wage policy.
To give perspective on what’s considered a living wage in Raleigh, I referenced MIT’s Living Wage Calculator for Wake County. The living wage for a family of four with two adults working is $15.86 per hour. For one adult with zero children, the living wage is $12.35 per hour. In comparison, the North Carolina (and federal) minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. In 2016, only 38,000 working people in North Carolina made the referenced minimum wage out of 2.5 million. Imagine being a family of four living on $7.25 per hour and working at least three jobs.
A brief background.
Ullom sat down beside me as I sopped up the last dollop of gravy with the smallest bite of biscuit. Being the curious human I am, I naturally asked about his background to better understand Ullom’s path to an employee-first culture. “I learned that there can be dignity in the restaurant culture when I worked with Ashley Christensen,” he said. “There is a way to make this a career and pay your bills and have a mortgage. Our ultimate goal is to have people here say they can afford to work one job.” Intrigued, I wanted to know more.
Being the son of a chemist and geo-physicist, Ullom spent his formative years in a very structured, stable environment. “We weren’t super wealthy, but we never had the lights turned off,” he explained. “We always had food in the fridge and cupboard, and I took that for granted.” It wasn’t until Andrew went to college that the proverbial lights turned on for him, when they were literally turned off. He realized he had to work to pay his own bills. Ullom sought work where he felt the most comfortable, in the kitchen.
“I started washing dishes when I was 15 in high school,” he said. “So I got into that culture and saw that people working for $7 an hour struggle.” Being a 22-year-old, broke college student and working in kitchens, Ullom saw the struggle first hand. In the same breath, Ullom acknowledged being fortunate enough to open his own business. And because he was fortunate, he wanted to make sure that the people he hired had opportunity as well.
The how and why.
Insuring an employee-first culture with living wage is possible, but there are steps and sacrifices to get there. According to Andrew, the first thing is to make sure you own more than 51% of the business. “I’m not on the hook for a massive amount of repayment on investment. That helps a lot,” Ullom explained. He continued, “You have to have ownership behind the idea that you’re not going to get rich doing this. I’m ok with that. I’d rather use this place as a conduit for doing good in the community rather than making a shit load of money.” That was the first time in a long time I’d heard someone say they put community before a load of cash.
We broke for a few minutes, so Ullom could refill my mug with hot water. I was very capable of doing this myself, but to Ullom service was second nature. While he checked on a few folks before returning, I looked around at the staff. The faces wore smiles of contentment, and everyone flowed in sync with each other. If I had to guess what fueled the positive energy that bounced from wall to wall, it would be the respect that Ullom pays his employees.
“I sleep a lot better at night knowing that people are making between $15 and $16 an hour minimum here,” Andrew continued. “If our staff is well paid and they have a good time at work and this is a safe place for everyone to come, the food shows that.” Not only did I believe Andrew because the biscuits and gravy tasted like the sunshine felt, but he had numbers to back up his statement.
Lines wrapped around the building the first two days Union Special Bread opened its doors. The bread and pastries sold out in what felt like minutes. And every weekend since its opening, Union Special Bread has packed the house. “We’ve done between 400 to 450 covers every weekend,” said Andrew. “We’re turning this restaurant five times a day, and that is what’s helping us pay the bills.” Union Special Bread is well on its way to their $1 million goal with retail and wholesale in their first year, which would cover the $350,000/year labor cost. And, they made their initial ascent without paying for a marketing team or publicist. Jaw drop. I said to myself, “It is possible to be a good human and be successful.”
As we chatted, I wondered why Ullom chose Gateway Plaza, an old strip mall on the outskirts of downtown Raleigh. Ullom had a space in downtown Raleigh and was ready to go to the bank until the owner gave Ullom some hard truth. “He said he wanted me there and was ready to sign a lease, but he knew I wouldn’t be able to afford it,” Ullom recounted. That was a sobering conversation for Ullom, and he was appreciative for the honesty. Not only would he not have been able to pay a living wage, he would’ve been out of business. “I shudder thinking about what that would’ve looked like,” he said. “With the rent load and living wages, I would’ve worked 100 hours a week.”
I have deep respect for those working in the food and beverage industry who want to make a positive impact. Ullom knew he wanted to pay his employees a living wage. He knew what he needed to do to make it happen. And, well, he made it happen. “I think that earning a living wage is a right. It isn’t a privilege. And if you go to work for 8 hours a day, then you should be paid a living wage. I’m personally not going to wash dishes for $8 an hour, and I’m not going to ask anyone else to do that,” Ullom commented with conviction,
One of the biggest complaints in the food and beverage industry is the lack of pay and benefits, however people like Ullom prove that it’s possible to change. You have to make sacrifices in some areas, and as guests typically pay a higher price in food, they don’t seem to notice or complain because the quality and environment add a great deal to their dining experience. As a good friend once told me, service is reciprocal. When you serve someone, they turn around and serve you. If you do it with positive energy and respect, everyone feels full, satisfied, and ready to be a better person. With that, I would say a living wage is worth the sacrifice and worth the flavor baked and swirled into those buttermilk biscuits and gravy. Plus like Ullom, you’ll sleep better at night.