“Everything else about my café was ethical and I just felt low pay was unethical.”
By Ramona Andrews
An important element of Bristol Good Food 2030 will be supporting good food jobs, and one part of this is Living Wage accreditation. Bristol City Council’s Living Wage team contributes to the Infrastructure Working group, which forms part of the Local Food Economy theme. We caught up with Babs Greaves, owner of vegan café Eat Your Greens, about the challenges of paying a Living Wage and their personal motivations for committing to it.
When Babs Greaves advertised a vacancy at Eat Your Greens on the Bristol Vegans website last year at minimum wage for the first probationary six weeks, they already felt embarrassed about the rate before sharing the ad. After posting the ad, an anonymous member of the forum called them “trash as bad as Tesco”. This comment was hurtful, but it was a wake-up call to structure the business to pay staff in a way that they could be proud of – even though it felt almost impossible at the time.
Babs was ashamed to be offering minimum wage, although they had felt that there was little choice at the time. They describe just how bad their own work-life balance has been in the past: “Working in a café is intense – it’s such hard work physically and it’s so draining.” The restaurant opened in April 2018 and it had been a lot of work for very little pay: “We were open five days a week, all admin and ordering on days off. It was a lot. I was doing double-shifts – day and night, day and night, all alone in the kitchen from 7am until 1am, over and over again. It was absolutely exhausting”.
For Babs – and so many others working in the food industry – business was challenging to the point of the café nearly going under during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Despite these difficulties, they realised that they needed to find a way to make the commitment to pay a fair wage to staff: “Everything else about my café was ethical and I just felt low pay was unethical.”
“If not now, then when? If you can’t pay people in a way that says I value you, I value your time through fair pay, they will never value their job. This way staff are always going to be more invested in the business.”
The Living Wage is a UK wage rate that is voluntarily paid by businesses to meet everyday needs. Paying staff a living wage increases motivation and retention rates, and can improve the businesses’ reputation. The Bristol Living Wage City initiative’s aim in 2019 had been to more than double the number of accredited Living Wage employers in Bristol by the end of this year, but this is now a huge challenge in the current climate.
The Bristol Good Food 2030 Infrastructure Working Group has been discussing the challenges that businesses are facing paying the Living Wage in the face of rising supply and energy costs. Bab’s energy bills have just gone up by 400% and they had to raise prices by 16% to cover costs, having managed to prevent price increases for three years, despite the business’ costs going up all the time. Amid the cost-of-living crisis, this year has seen the highest annual rise in food prices for more than 40 years.
Babs says: “People want you to pay a living wage, but I don’t think they understand just how difficult it is for food businesses. There is so little margin, no money, especially for businesses where you’re concerned about ethically sourcing ingredients and trying to have an ethical outlook across the business. In June 2021, I decided just to bite the bullet and signed up to the Living Wage – I wanted this to align with my values, but it’s still such a struggle to balance the books.”
The pandemic had helped Babs reassess their own work-life balance and they made the decision to operate reduced hours (Friday to Sunday) to allow themselves and their staff a better quality of life.
As for the ethics of the rest of the business, provenance is at the heart of the café. Vegetables are sourced from Barley Wood Walled Garden, “all organic, all grown with love”. Mark, the head gardener there who is also vegan, had approached Babs to supply the café. Plus Eat Your Greens source vegetables from “a local guy who only grows squash on his allotment and I serve all kinds of squash from him”. Essential Trading (who also pay a real Living Wage) supply dried goods.
The reduced hours help Babs and Eat Your Greens’ staff to stay positive: “we don’t resent the café and we bring good energy on the days we are working and then it’s a better experience for the people who come in. I’ve stopped apologising for our hours. We had two weeks off in summer. I used to say, ‘I’m so sorry for the inconvenience’, but actually we all need a holiday and a break. You can lose the sense of community with an open 24/7 mentality.”
Babs acknowledges that paying Living Wage is a great challenge for any food business – Eat Your Greens nearly went under last month with very little left in the café’s account after all the wages went out – it’s not easy. However, one benefit that they are hoping will offset the cost is that better wages very often mean a lower staff turnover.
Despite the challenges of the pandemic, it brought a new perspective: “covid changed everything. I remember taking the dog out for a walk when the restaurant was closed. Even though I was panicking about the future of the business, it was wonderful just seeing how green it was outside – the shock of not having been outside for a year and half! I started doing things, like learning about mushroom foraging and trees. Things that I’d wanted to do but hadn’t had the time. I want to bring some of that back to the business now for my staff, so that we also give something back to the community”.
Bristol food businesses with Living Wage accreditation include The Assemblies (The Canteen, No.1 Harbourside & Old Market Assembly), Future Doughnuts, Box-E, KASK, The Drapers Arms, Volunteer Tavern, Kate’s Kitchen, The Malago, Om Burger, Scarlett Pub Co, Sweven Coffee, Bristol Twenty Coffee, Psychopomp, Zero Green, Better Food, The Bristol Cheesemonger, TrueStart Coffee, Essential Trading and Wogan Coffee.
Essential Trading was a lead partner for Bristol Bites Back Better, the post-pandemic campaign from the team behind Bristol’s bid to be a Gold Sustainable Food City, aiming to create a resilient future for the city through food. Essential’s Jimmy Nelson writes for the campaign about the co-operative’s history and values and how they have offered a different model of food supply since the 1970s.
By setting the wheels in motion now, together we can transform the future of food in our city, building in resilience over the next decade. So, what change do you want to see happen that will transform food in Bristol by 2030? Do you already have an idea for how Bristol can make this happen? Join the conversation by filling out the form below.
So, what change do you want to see happen that will transform food in Bristol by 2030? Do you already have an idea for how Bristol can make this happen? Join the conversation now.
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