Somewhere between casual and fine dining, Blue Plate Restaurant Company has carved out a niche for itself as a “second kitchen” for patrons in several neighborhoods throughout the Twin Cities. The food is fresh and made from scratch in-house. Menus vary and are often revitalized with new items offered alongside the mainstays customers expect. Each of its eight restaurants was designed with a unique look and feel that is tailored to its location.
Owners Stephanie Shimp and David Burley have managed to keep their restaurants relevant by frequently tweaking Blue Plate’s business model to meet the changing desires of consumers. “We don’t sit on our hands; we are always in an evolutionary state,” Shimp said. “Not change for the sake of change, but improvement and innovation.”
After more than two decades, Shimp and Burley’s enterprise has grown into a successful $30 million operation. But it hasn’t been easy. The pair have navigated their fair share of restaurant industry challenges over the past two decades. Among those trials: a state-mandated wage increase and the worst shortage of labor in recent history.
Serving Up Controversy
As Minnesota increased its minimum hourly wage to $8 in 2014, Shimp and Burley made a plan to offset some of the expense by passing along a portion of the credit card swipe fee—about 2 percent of the tipped portion of the bill—to servers. The practice became legal in most states a year earlier and many national and local players had already implemented it.
At the time, it seemed like a logical business solution for Blue Plate. “It’s not something we were inventing,” Shimp said. Others in the hospitality industry appeared to make it work by encouraging customers to tip with cash. “For instance, I can pay for my haircut service with a credit card, but I can’t leave a tip on the credit card; that’s the same principle,” she added.
Though Shimp, Burley and their executive team and advisors talked through the changes with some of the staff, others were left out or disgruntled. A few team members believed Blue Plate was gouging servers’ wages to make up for what they considered a cost of doing business. Those employees took their concerns to the media.
Shimp and Burley never expected the policy change to be quite so controversial, but they quickly realized otherwise as news stories emerged and social media feeds filled with negative comments about their restaurants. Other local restaurateurs and even celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern took to Twitter to bash Blue Plate’s practices.
There were also personal attacks and email death threats. “‘I hope your house burns down, I hope your kids are in it,’” Burley said. “It was quite awful,” Shimp said. “Excruciating,” Burley added. “We became the poster child for all things evil. We were on the home page of 30 or 40 union websites across the country with a target on our backs.”
A Slice of Humble Pie
Less than two weeks after launching the policy, Blue Plate decided to reverse it, resumed paying credit card fees on servers’ tips and increased the minimum wage for non-tipped employees to $9.69. The decision was based on feedback from staff and community members, and supporters praised Shimp and Burley for doing the right thing. Some social media commenters wondered if it was too little, too late.
The perception that the owners of Blue Plate were disingenuous and unconcerned about the well-being of staff was the most difficult for Shimp and Burley to swallow. “We’ve really prided ourselves on taking care of our employees and being really trustworthy and honest,” Burley said. “We don’t do anything even slightly deceitful.”
Neither Shimp nor Burley is a stranger to hard work or the demands of the restaurant industry. They both began their careers as servers, saving tips and selling a car to launch their first business, the Highland Grill in St. Paul in their 20s. “I was the cook and Steph was the server. We both split dishwashing assignments,” Burley said. “We have a lot of empathy for our employees—both of us have done pretty much every job in the house.”
In addition to a deep appreciation for staff, Blue Plate offers generous benefits such as health insurance, free yoga (with or without a pint of beer), a 401(k) plan with a match and meal benefits that include friends and family discounts. The company also honors employees who have given a decade of service with a Rolex watch. “Consider that restaurant years are like dog years,” Burley said. “If you can stick around for 10 years, you’ve essentially given us a lifetime—what better way to recognize that?”
After the Storm
Blue Plate endured the storm of last year’s credit card fee controversy and social media attacks, and Shimp and Burley acknowledged that it was quite a learning experience. Shimp said she would be more transparent as they consider strategic changes in the future. “I’d increase the level of communication with our staff, town hall meetings, more input, create greater awareness to help people understand what our intentions are.” For Burley, “The importance of our people has really come to the fore—the development, the training, the reinvesting in our team.”
Beyond transparency and training, the two seem to have a greater understanding of their role as leaders of the organization and the importance of engaging and inspiring their staff. They don’t expect their employees to stay with them forever and hope they will continue to contribute to the community even beyond Blue Plate. “We’ve had many, many employees over the years leave and do what we did, and we celebrate when they do,” Burley said. “Many restaurateurs around town that worked alongside us, worked for us, they take a little bit with them and that’s awesome—that’s what we did.”
Blue Plate continues to navigate Minnesota’s shortage of chefs and restaurant workers. “We haven’t solved that yet,” said Burley. “It’s still a work in process.” They will continue to consider salary and benefits, and they are open to exploring new restaurant concepts that don’t rely so heavily on labor. Additionally, Shimp is working with local colleges to develop an internship program, which they hope to launch in the next two years.
About the author: A strategic storyteller and an inspired graphic designer, Chris Olsen has devoted her career to connecting individuals and organizations using the power of words, images and experiences.