Skip to content

Getting Crumbs in Portland’s Food Revolution

In the 1970s, Portland, Maine was a typical New England seaport, with a typical working waterfront slum that that smelled like fish. Trendy tourists weren’t coming ashore from cruise ships, and while there were restaurants—mostly Italian—none were that special. Things began changing in the late 1980s and early 1990s as the forces of gentrification led to the renovation of the Old Port neighborhood near the harbor.

Around that time, Portland’s rents were still reasonable enough that a chef with a dream could find a space and start building a reputation. Then, The Food Channel, the New York Times, and a host of other foodie publications like Food & Wine and Bon Appétit began to discover Portland. (The last declared it “the foodiest town in America.”)

Over the past decade, the city—home to more than 200 restaurants—has become a high-end foodie destination. Restaurants like Vinland, with its nineteen-point “manifesto” posted prominently on its website announcing that Portland is in the midst of a “food revolution,” demonstrates that food has now become yet another lifestyle badge that people use to demonstrate their superiority and sophistication.

Lacking the power for a political revolution, at least we have some kind of revolution, right? Portland diners have increasingly emphasized organic food and obsessed over what’s good and bad about what and how we eat. Unfortunately, Vinland’s claim that its ingredients are all “100 percent local, organic” can easily set you and your guest back $200 for a night out. But as costly as these high-end dining experiences can be, that money doesn’t seem to be making its way to the restaurants’ workers. In a report earlier this year, the EPI indicated that more than 40 percent of workers in the nation’s food industry are barely living above poverty levels, and that’s certainly true in Portland.

Portland’s mayor, Michael Brennan, noted in a variety of media reports that the economy in Portland “is doing well,” and decided it was time to appoint a minimum wage advisory committee in August. His plans are to raise the minimum wage to $9.50 per hour by January 1, and eventually moving it to $10.68 in two years. (The statewide minimum is $7.50 per hour.) One sticking point in the proposal has been the law that allows restaurants to pay tipped employees a sub-minimum wage of $3.75. Ironically, push back has come from many of the restaurant owners that fall in the category of the city’s high-end, as well as, high-priced restaurants.

Changes to the city’s wage status quo have raised concerns from several high-profile restaurant owners. They claim that their workers are doing much better than the food workers toiling at chain eateries and fast food restaurants. According to local restaurateur Noah Talmatch, owner of Timber Steakhouse & Rotisserie, which has a $78 steak on its menu, “I have servers that make $1,000 to $1,500 a week in tips alone—I can show you the tip books,” he said. “I don’t have an employee at my restaurant making less than $12.00 an hour.”

Talmatch also expressed concerns about the mayor’s plan, especially if it eliminates the tip credit. “I pay my workers well because I know that no one can survive on the current minimum wage, or even $10 an hour, said Talmatch. “The problem with forcing me to pay tipped employees $9.50 an hour would force me to lay off employees and raise prices.”

Greg Dugal, president of the Maine Restaurant Association, which traditionally has fought minimum wage increases for food workers, echoed that ominous warning. “We’re now trying to craft a law and keep the current tipped minimum wage where it’s at for restaurants,” Dugal told me.

When I interviewed food service veteran Katie Wallace, she indicated that Talmatch and other restaurant owners in Portland are providing a decent living for people like her. “Portland is a bubble, and a self-sustaining economy,” said Wallace. “We all know each other—we eat at each other’s restaurants and support our local brewers. When the rest of the economy was doing poorly during the recession, things weren’t so bad here in Portland.”

Wallace, a single mom, supports herself and daughter, while living on Munjoy Hill, a neighborhood that has been experiencing inflated real estate prices and rapidly rising rents, driven up by the march of real estate development across the city. But what Wallace is lacking, like many workers in her situation, is affordable health insurance. While the Affordable Care Act offers insurance options with manageable premiums, a restaurant worker like Wallace essentially works part-time hours, and would fall below the thirty-hour-a-week threshold that requires an owner to offer it to them.

Wallace’s situation demonstrates an issue that comes up time and time again when broad-based reforms for workers are introduced. Workers lack protections, or in this case, health insurance. Then a program like the ACA is introduced so workers can access affordable health insurance. Business owners, worried about profits, push back. Lobbyists are unleashed. Wash, rinse, repeat. The bottom line is that workers—paid well or not—still end up falling through the cracks. Without a nationalized, single-payer plan like Canada’s, or a European version, access to healthcare will remain fragmented, even for restaurant workers like Wallace, who compared to others working at McDonald’s, is paid very well.

One restaurant in Portland that has taken a different approach to the traditional owner/worker model is Local Sprouts Café, part of Local Sprouts Cooperative, which incorporated as a worker-owned cooperative in July of 2008. The two central characteristics of worker cooperatives are that worker/owners invest in and own the business together, and it distributes surplus to them and decision-making is democratic, adhering to the general principle of one member-one vote. Essentially, workers have a vested stake in the business.

I spoke to Jonah Fertig, one of the founding members of Local Sprouts, which dates back prior to the People’s Free Space in Portland, a group Fertig was also involved with. I asked him about the cooperative model in the context of raising the minimum wage, and even the possibility of a living wage. “The goal in becoming a cooperative for us was always, good jobs for worker/owners,” he said. “Cooperatives empower workers and eliminate the divisions between labor and management.”

Cody Ross, a member of Local Sprouts in Portland, clarified their model for me in an email. He wrote:

Cafe workers at Local Sprouts are not paid using the server model. We pay cafe workers hourly and above minimum wage. Tips are split among all workers equally. Of course, we don’t have servers, per se, nor table service—our front-of-house workers, though they perform many duties, are comparable to baristas while they’re working on shift.

According to the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives, of which Local Sprouts is a member, “successful worker cooperatives tend to create long-term stable jobs, enact sustainable business practices, and develop linkages among different parts of the social economy.”

Portland, with its many locally-owned restaurants and small businesses, offers a self-contained and self-supporting economy ringed by local food producers. The city’s location on the water, with a major shipping port and transportation links, is a key commercial and transportation hub. What would be truly revolutionary in Portland would be changes that empower all workers and create a robust economy for all of Portland’s population. A food scene that is currently the darling of critics and food snobs, but that leaves a trail of crumbs for workers and producers, is merely more of the status quo.