Worker pay under fire Labor Department finding wage violations at area restaurants Restaurateurs say awareness may lead to change

It's not just workers who suffer when restaurateurs break the law: "An employer trying to do the right thing, they're put at an economic disadvantage when someone's not in compliance with the law," says Jamie Benefiel, district director for the U.S. Department of Labor, Wage & Hour's district office in Columbia.

Still, restaurateurs are apt to enforce the same illegal employment practices that were in place when they first worked in restaurants. "It was the way I was brought up," Indigo Road Restaurant Group's managing partner Steve Palmer says of measures such as giving $100 to a server tapped to cover a manager's shift. But restaurant owners who've lately corrected their policies say increased awareness of labor statutes and growing concern for workers' welfare could lead to an industry-wide break with the past.

When chef Katie Button first opened Curate in 2011 in Asheville, she initially allowed her staff to work off the clock if they wanted to use the extra time to finish their assigned tasks.

"It was very short-lived," Button says. "I never felt good about it."

Button realized, too, that she was endangering the longevity of her staff by creating a kitchen environment in which assignments couldn't always be completed within the allotted time. So she examined why the work wasn't getting done as quickly as she'd envisioned.

"'Do I need to discipline them?' 'Do I need to hire another person?' " Button remembers asking herself.

What she ended up doing was streamlining systems to maximize kitchen efficiency. For example, all of Curate's recipes are executed in grams, which cuts down on the food and time waste associated with remaking recipes.

Button also hired more staffers so she wouldn't get stuck paying overtime wages and stiffened expectations of managers, who are exempt from overtime provisions. But the pay at Curate is generous by industry standards: The restaurant provides a living wage, which means the lowest-paid staff member receives $11.30 an hour, plus a shift meal and paid vacation.

While she's very quick to say Asheville probably isn't precisely comparable to Charleston because of the mountain town's lower rents, purchase prices and customer volume, Button thinks the restaurant industry is moving away from labor abuses.

"I do think the direction is going to be to pay your staff a living wage," she says. "But it's a never-ending challenge. Ultimately, customers are going to have to pay more for their food so restaurants can pay their staffs. That's what's going to need to change. Diners should feel good about going to a place, knowing the people there are happier."