Commentary

#WageWeek interview: Empire Properties and Empire Eats

greg hatem - empire

Greg Hatem (photo by Ana Pardo).

As a follow up to National #WageWeek, the Progressive Pulse is highlighting the work of local business leaders who are raising the wage floor for their employees. This blog post is the first in the series, and represents an interview with Greg Hatem, owner of Empire Properties and Empire Eats in downtown Raleigh. Hatem worked with his staff over the past year to raise the wage floor to $10.15 for all 550 employees across his companies.

Q: When did Empire decide to prioritize raising the wage floor?

A: “Creating a long-term relationship with our employees has always been important. About 8 months ago we committed to getting it done within a year. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t just because of financial issues. We had legacy employees, where when we started looking we realized someone had a wage because of when they were hired, and then you’re bringing somebody else on at a different wage. So we had to slowly equilibrate that and make sure that we bring new people on at a good salary. We did it position-by-position and restaurant-by-restaurant, and we finished it up last month.”

Q: What were the underpinning values behind the company’s decision?

A: “It’s not just about work or a job, it’s about people and culture. What we value most are people that believe in the mission and the culture, and we want to make sure there’s a relationship. It’s not just an employer-employee relationship; we have people trying to help us create our vision, and in return we have a responsibility to help them create their vision and take care of their families. So it’s very symbiotic.”

“It was something we believed was possible if we had time enough to plan for it. That’s why we gave ourselves a 12-month window to do it strategically. Our belief is we end up working with folks that are more productive, who are happier, their life situation is better. What you’re really doing is investing in your people, and that has a return in itself. It’s just smart business to take care of the people around you, because that is the core of your business. If you take care of your people, they’ll take care of your guests. It’s not an expense, it’s an investment.”

Q: What was the reaction from your employees when they learned of the changes?

A: “We had a huge response from [employees] when we did it, because they knew we cared. I actually had one of the guys in the kitchen give me a hug because it meant that much to him. We have so many people that have been with us for 3, 5, 10 years. We’re there for each other.”

Q: What advice would you give to other business owners considering a similar move?

“Invest in your people. Invest in them in the day-to-day […] and help them become better at their job. When you do that, you create a better environment for your guests, and that’s the virtuous cycle.”

This interview has been edited for brevity.

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