The folks at Chuck’s Fish and FIVE know that the simple things make all the difference, like when they wrap their shrimp in a strip of bacon. So simple. So brilliant.
Bacon enthusiasts rejoice.
The same formula applied when the restaurant’s management decided in May to raise their starting minimum wage by $3 to $10.25 an hour.
“We want our workers to be able to go out to have a beer when they want to, or to be able to go see a movie, to do all of those little things that will make them happy outside of work,” said Jason Greear, head chef for Chuck’s in Tuscaloosa.
For Alabama, the minimum wage remains stagnant at $7.25 an hour and a lot of folks, for one reason or another, would like to keep it that way. The founder of Chuck’s Fish, Charles Morgan III, can’t speak for his father, a man known for his opposition to the racial violence that plagued the south of his generation. Still, the elder Morgan is remembered as a man ahead of his time who, like his son, defied popular opinion in favor of doing what he felt was right.
Known to many by his nickname, “Chuck,” he worked as a civil rights lawyer and, after the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, he delivered a controversial speech blaming Birmingham’s white business establishment for profiting from the city’s racial tension. A slew of death threats forced him to close his office and move his family to Atlanta. There, he established a regional office for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Now, in each of his son’s restaurants, several copies of a photo taken of the elder Morgan holding the 30-pound king mackerel he caught to win a fishing tournament in the 1980’s hang on the walls. The photos are accompanied by a large-type paragraph detailing his work during the civil rights movement.
“The restaurant is basically named for that photograph,” the younger Morgan told The Birmingham News. “That’s ‘Chuck’s fish.’ That’s about his only fish, but it was a good one.”
While Morgan III may not be as involved in politics as his father, he seems to carry the torch of his legacy of pursuing change by doing something few businesses dare to.
“Some businesses and industries might be attracted to the state of Alabama because of the low minimum wage,” Morgan told the Birmingham news. “The reason we’re here is because of the abundance of talented people in the work force.”
At each location, all employees begin at $10.25 an hour. The store’s employees still work their normal hours, roughly 30 hours per week. Menu prices remain at the fixed rate they were sold for before the raise. Instead, the raise is funded by reallocating some of the restaurant’s normal profits.
“The people that work so hard for us — porters and line cooks — we want to make sure that they have just as much of a chance to earn a decent living, and we want them to be capable of climbing the wage ladder just as rapidly as anybody else in our restaurants,” Cris Eddings, managing partner for both restaurants, told “Across the board, we want everybody to have the same chance to achieve the same quality of life no matter what position you’re in in the restaurant. If you work with us, you’re going to get paid well.”
According to Greear, the new raise increases the restaurant’s overall wage standard by 30 percent. He said that the standard wage increase for most restaurants usually tends to be only about ten to 15 percent.
“That’s what we feel is reasonable to live on,” Greear said. “A few of [our workers] have children to support. It’s easier for them now to be able to pay their bills and to do the things they need to do. [The decision to raise wages] came from the top down. The guys there saw a need and they addressed it.”
Greear, 37, has worked for Chuck’s for three years, and has watched many employees who began in entry-level positions rise through the restaurant’s ranks.
“They start on these lower stations and work their way up,” Greear said. “Generally, in terms of promotions, it’s all based on tenure and experience: how many stations you can run, what all you can do in the kitchen. And it all depends on the worker. Some of the guys only want to work one station.”
He pointed to an employee slicing a slab of meat behind the counter.
“Antonio over here can work all five stations,” he bragged, smiling.
When Antonio Sanders started working there three years ago, he was hired as a dishwasher. After about eight months, he asked Greear to be moved up to work as a chef. He didn’t have any prior professional experience as a chef, but he was raised in what he described as “a cooking family.” Greear though his skills just needed to be cultivated.
“We’re willing to train guys here,” Greear said. “If somebody has the drive to work, we can teach you and we can work with you.”
Greear said that the restaurant has a remarkably low turnover rate, and he makes a point to maintain his current staff by training them so that they’re able to operate each of the restaurant’s stations. When he feels a worker has made sufficient progress, he contacts his supervisors to suggest a promotion.
“It’s easier to keep your employees than to have to retrain new people,” he said. “If I had to constantly train new guys, then we’re not going to have the same product and the easiest ways to keep employees is to make them happy.”
Still, the seasonal nature of the restaurant industry does present a small challenge. Typically, Greear oversees about 12 people who work in the kitchen, and another five porters who work in the back of the restaurant. Once business picks up during football season, he plans to hire an additional two kitchen workers for the duration of the season. Luckily, news of their new wage increase has attracted a fair share of applicants.
Maintaining consistency and high wages requires adherence to a formula, though. Greear suggested that a business can only do it successfully if they make a point to operate with a business strategy that is contingent on the success of those efforts. The unique thing about Chuck’s is that the store only operates from 5-10 p.m. Most of the workers begin preparing for the shift by coming in a few hours before, thereby allowing them to maintain a 30+ hour weekly schedule. By opening the store later in the day, managers can maintain a full staff with high wages.
“We bring in [new workers] based on skill and need,” Greear said. “I’m not going to hire someone unless I can give them the hours that they need.”

About The Author

Jon is the creator and owner of Honest Wine Reviews, a website that reviews today's popular wines and wine clubs. His book, "Wine With Friends - 25 Recommended Wines to Serve and Share" is now available on Amazon.

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