Sunday, March 23, 2014

Salty-sweet economics: comparing Second Helping and a certain 24-hour bohemian coffee shop

In a tiny storefront in a small strip shopping cluster on Central Avenue, workers at Second Helping Charlotte hustled all day Friday to serve a crush of customers.

A volunteer from the nearby Merry Oaks neighborhood took phone orders. One employee struggled to increase her speed at the register. A bit of media coverage and a boost from social media bumped up business at the carryout restaurant that serves home-style food like fried chicken, meatloaf and desserts from Neet's Sweets. The leaders of the carryout and catering business had spread the word that the storefront just wasn't bringing in enough cash. Closing loomed.

Second Helping was started to employ women who had been incarcerated - those who faced huge obstacles to employment. So a closing meant the loss of jobs for people who had few other choices.

The higher social purpose spurred neighbors in Plaza Midwood and Merry Oaks to help - through social media, with food purchases or by giving time on site taking phone orders.

That's not an uncommon story. Why it matters now is that the surge of business fell on the same day that a beloved bohemian Charlotte coffee spot faced a social-media assault. One former worker shared a tale of perceived wage theft and time-clock shenanigans, and word again spread through Facebook, Reddit and Twitter. Other former employees joined the pile-on. Some loyal customers said they planned to avoid the coffee shop until labor questions were resolved.

The coffee shop responded late Saturday night with a Google document shared on Facebook. It tried to walk the fine line between defending itself and not commenting on a "personnel matter." It failed.

The writer said the business intentionally hired people “who are not otherwise employable,” or as one Reddit commenter called the workers, "alternative people" with tattoos and piercings.

(What exactly are "alternative people?")

By about 9 a.m. Sunday, the coffee shop's defensive post was deleted. That's a good thing, because in light of Second Helping's mission to hire formerly incarcerated women who face true employment obstacles, the words fell flat.

But this isn't a story about crisis communications or the power of social media and local TV coverage. It's a story about a changing economy, where service jobs make up a larger part of the labor force, and where the fight for a living wage has targeted chains like McDonald's and has even become part of North Carolina's U.S. Senate race.

The 24-hour coffee shop and hangout opened in 2008, amid the great economic unpleasantness. By 2011, its staff had grown to 60, and one owner visited the White House to share how it succeeded when other small businesses failed. The hangout space and bohemian environment were key - it created community in a part of town where wages were scarce and time was plentiful. Now, amid economic recovery, it's struggling with scaling up, perhaps even turning into a franchise, without losing ambiance.

One Reddit commenter defended the coffee shop, noting that it paid all employees more than minimum wage and helped with car-repair issues and an eviction problem. The shop had also given to charities without asking for receipts for tax write-offs, the commenter said.

The defense, though, echoed the paternalism of Charlotte's textile-mill past. Good service and a communal environment are hard to scale. Prior goodwill can turn into a negative social-media pile-on in an instant.

The pressure of the price of labor is increasing as North Carolina’s economy recovers. Some policy leaders say we should let Adam Smith's invisible hand of the market determine wages. In more-liberal Raleigh or Chapel Hill, the living-wage concept has spread more broadly, and service-worker pay of $10 an hour - the proposed new federal minimum wage - is common.

In Charlotte, the invisible hand is here, now, and the communication tools of Facebook, Twitter and Reddit speed its effects. That invisible hand includes many customers who support businesses with social purposes like Second Helping. Its storefront grossed $1,200 on Friday, up from an average of $100, not including donations. Those numbers pale compared to the coffee shop, but it's a start.

The beleaguered coffee shop grew in a community that once was a paternalistic mill town, in a city where industry has traditionally kept unions away by treating employees well, at least until the great re-set of recession. As the economy turns, Adam Smith's invisible hand will serve labor as well as business owners. And the often-invisible power of people who care about socially responsible spending has strengthened.

That’s a salty-sweet economic reality. It even helps alternative people.

Want to help?

Second Helping offers carryout at its Central Avenue storefront at 2903 Central Ave. It accepts pre-orders for delivery at several other locations in Charlotte. It’s an LLC formed by nonprofit Changed Choices in Charlotte. A quick look at Changed Choices’ tax forms through Guidestar for 2012 showed no issues with excessive compensation of directors.

Photo courtesy of Second Helping. (I wish I knew the worker's name - if you know it, please let me know.)