Plant-Based Fast-Casual Restaurant Group First To Institute $15 Minimum Wage In 2021

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Over the past decade, increasingly sustainability-minded consumers have become interested in animal product-free food options — searches for “plant-based diet” have been creeping upwards for the last decade, according to Google Trends, and the number of vegans in the United States has increased a whopping six-fold since 2014, according to PlantProteins.co. In the last couple of years, funding has been pouring in for meat substitutes by the hundreds of millions, with even the most mainstream restaurants adding plant-based options to their menus.

Noting this growing interest in eco-friendly foods, Philadelphia-based entrepreneur Nicole Marquis founded HipCityVeg, a fast-casual restaurant that serves plant-based replacements for familiar foods. After the restaurant chain’s instant success, Marquis launched cocktail bar Charlie Was a Sinner and tapas and margarita restaurant Bar Bombon.

When HipCityVeg opened its doors on April 16, 2012, “there was such a pent-up demand for fast casual and for plant-based food in Philadelphia, we had lines wrapped around the block,” Marquis, founder and CEO of Marquis & Co., told PYMNTS in a recent interview. “We knew that if we presented plant-based vegan foods in a format that was familiar, like crispy chicken sandwiches and burgers and shakes and fries that just happened to be plant-based, that people would love it. And we’ve seen the demand continue throughout Philadelphia and DC over the last nine years.”

Beating The State To Raising The Wage

One question restaurant industry professionals around the country have been grappling with in recent months is, “If the minimum wage increases to $15 an hour, will we be able to afford it?” In Pennsylvania, minimum wage remains $7.25, despite many lawmakers’ efforts to raise it. Marquis & Co. recently made headlines when it announced it would raise the minimum wage at its restaurants to $15, effective at the start of Q3.

“We believe we’re the first fast-casual group in the country to take this step in 2021,” said Marquis. While there have been other large companies “taking the pledge for later years,” she doesn’t know of any others planning to implement the increase this year.

As with the restaurant group’s culinary philosophy, Marquis explained, the company is “building the world we want to live in,” while the change is also an opportunity to “show and incentivize our employees that they can create a career with us.”

She added that the culture of treating employees with respect will be “[reflected] right back to our customer,” explaining, “This is good for people, first and foremost, but it really is good for business.”

Weathering The Storm

The move to raise the minimum wage company-wide comes after a difficult period for the company, much as the COVID-19 pandemic has been for most restaurant businesses.

“When the shutdowns first happened, when the pandemic first hit, in March of 2020, sales plummeted by 90 percent, so we had to quickly adapt,” said Marquis.

After an initial hit that included a major round of layoffs and the closures of many of Marquis & Co.’s restaurants, the company “started to strategize.” It formed the Save Philly Restaurants Coalition, which includes 300 restaurants advocating for restaurant interests with local legislature.

“We had to advocate for the industry as a whole, and we advocated every level of government — local, state, federal — for our needs and the industry’s needs,” said Marquis. “We had to advocate for cocktails to-go in Philadelphia, which was not allowed by the [Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board]. And once that was passed we reopened [our cocktail bars] in the first week of May. We opened our doors with a new takeout menu, we installed four delivery platforms we had never had before, and created cocktail portions that were appropriate for to-go cups and glass jars, so this was a whole new model for us.”

Across restaurant brands, the company pivoted to delivery and online ordering.

While survival as a restaurant group was difficult over the last year, “in so many ways we really thrived at the company,” Marquis reflected, “so it’s been a wild ride.”

Looking Toward The Future

Marquis has noted the growing interest in plant-based foods at her restaurants, as sales have increased.

“There’s just a greater desire for healthier options,” she said. “I also think that just awareness in general has increased on the benefits of plant-based eating. I think more and more people are beginning to realize [the environmental impact],” she added. “So I think that increased awareness is driving plant based sales food sales, and I truly believe it’s the way of the future.”

Given this growing interest from consumers, we will likely see Marquis & Co.’s plant-based restaurants expand to more markets along the East Coast down the line. “Over the next three to five years, we hope to even go South a bit and [go] North — really that Amtrak corridor,” she said.

The company may also expand into new restaurant models. As consumer desire for delivery is predicted to remain elevated even after the vaccine rollout is complete, Marquis said, “the ghost kitchen model is attractive.” She specified that using ghost kitchens is an effective way “to test out new markets and use a delivery as a way to bring our food to more people” and said that these are “definitely on the horizon” for Marquis & Co.

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