Dutchtown is a neighborhood in South St. Louis with a rich history and a vibrant community. The oldest standing Ted Drewes location still operates in the neighborhood, and a Dutchtown bakery served the very first gooey butter cake. Although it has struggled in recent years, several small businesses are working hard to rejuvenate the neighborhood.
· Iron Barley – Tom and Gen Coghill started Iron Barley in 2003 and were the first business to start Dutchtown’s contemporary revitalization. Several Food Network television shows have featured their food. They also put on an annual Tomato Fest; proceeds from the festival go to help local charities.
· Urban Eats –Caya Aufiero and John Chen started Urban Eats 7 years ago with the express purpose of helping revitalize Dutchtown. Urban Eats shares space with an art collective and hosts community events such as a regular board game meet-up.
· Sister Cities – Pam Melton and Travis Parfait started Sister Cities in 2013. The restaurant serves Cajun food and barbeque. A local Bitcoin group meets in the restaurant once a month and, as with Urban Eats, art from locals decorates the walls.
I spoke with the owners of all three of these restaurants about the minimum wage hike (parts of my interviews can be seen here). The bottom line: the mandated wage increase will harm this community. Increasing the minimum wage from $7.65 to $11 will force these restaurants to restructure in order to remain profitable. This could mean laying off employees, moving to the county, or perhaps even shutting down.
Travis Parfait, co-owner of Sister Cities, told me that with an $11 minimum wage, he might have to cut out much of his staff completely and work the front of the house himself. “Restaurants are a very low profitability business, and if you increase one of the many costs by almost 50 percent . . . it can’t hold it. It won’t bear that.”
It’s a similar story at Urban Eats, where John Chen says that poverty is a wider social problem that cannot be fixed by mandating minimum wages for employers. John calls the city’s minimum wage law the “sink or swim” approach: “Here’s the minimum wage increase, and you figure out how to cope with this. . . . That’s irresponsible. I argue that it’s unethical.”
The minimum wage hike is an another government-made obstacle to urban renewal—one that threatens to undermine the efforts of local business owners who have spent years working to help bring economic life back to their neighborhood. Without the jobs and community spaces provided by the people I spoke with, the revitalization of Dutchtown might be stopped in its tracks.