It’s noon, I’m at work, and I have two options for lunch: brave the depths of the office fridge to retrieve last night’s leftovers, or walk down the street to grab something fresh.
It’s not a hard choice. Within 30 seconds, I’m walking happily down the street, my lunch doomed to another day in the fridge.
But deciding where to eat isn’t so simple.
There’s so much more to picking a restaurant than just Mexican vs. salad vs. burger, and fast food vs. sit-down. If I want to spend my money somewhere that makes both my mind and my stomach happy, I have to look for places that aren’t just making tasty food, but are also doing right by their workers.
I want to spend my lunch money at a restaurant with a great wage and benefit policy, because over half of all people nation-wide receiving the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour are working in food and dining.
To make matters worse, the majority of fast food workers aren’t teenagers saving up cash for college or clothes. These workers are adults, who are responsible for bringing in more than half of their family’s weekly income.
According to MIT’s Living Wage project, the minimum wage can’t cover basic needs for most American families, forcing many adults to work multiple jobs and/or get government help so they can afford food, clothing, housing and medical care for themselves and their families.
So higher salaries help families survive. However, they also reduce employee turnover and save businesses lots of money.
When I grab lunch at a restaurant that goes above and beyond the minimum, I’m helping the workers, the businesses, and society. Plus, my food is delivered with a smile—and you can’t put a price tag on happiness.
For my burrito:
It’s not surprising that the aproned workers scooping out steak and salsa usually seem genuinely cheery. Co-CEO Monty Moran said average wages are $9 an hour, and “crew members,” as the burrito bandits are called, also get benefits, including insurance, a 401(k) plan, and free food.
Plus their futures are bright. 98% of Chipotle managers start as crew.
Knowing that my lunch was crafted by someone with lots of opportunity for advancement and a good starting salary makes it taste even better.
At this New England chain, no one makes less than $9 an hour. John Pepper, one of Boloco’s co-founders, said that while initially their goal “was to pay as little as [they] could get away with and have people still show up and be reasonably productive,” the company realized this approach was actually holding them back.
In 2002, Boloco raised its lowest wage to $8, while the federal minimum wage was $5.15. According to the New York Times, it also started giving foreign employees English classes, helping workers pay for the price of their commute, and contributing to 401(k)s for employees.
Mediterranean chicken bowl? $8.99. Tropi-kale smoothie? $5.49. Eating somewhere good for my health and my conscience? Priceless.
For my burger:
As if I needed another reason to crave a Double Double.
According to In-N-Out’s site, all associates start out earning at least $10.50. They also get great benefits, including “flexible schedules to accommodate school and other activities, paid vacations, free meals, comprehensive training, and a 401(k) plan.”
Like Chipotle, In-N-Out has an awesome promotion program—virtually all of their managers are former associates!
While customers drool over Shake Shack’s delish beef creations, its employees celebrate the restaurant’s great policies. Starting pay is $9.50 an hour, but typically workers make $10.70 due to Shack Bucks, a program that gives them a monthly percentage of the company’s top-line sales.
They also get health, vision, dental, disability and retirement, and benefits, along with paid time off.
For my grab-and-go-entrée:
Cookie butter, granola, and $13.29 an hour, oh my.
Trader Joe’s also offers medical, dental, and vision coverage, paid vacation time, a retirement plan, and 10 percent off of everything in the store.
One of the FAQs on the Trader Joe’s site is actually, “Why is everyone so happy and positive here? Do they put something in the water?” I couldn’t make this stuff up.
The hot foods bar and organic berries at this gourmet grocery are legendary, but the way they treat their workers is just as worthy of hype. Average salaries are $16 to $17 an hour, said company spokesman Michael Sinatra.
The majority of “team members” also get stock options and benefits, including “Team Member Emergency Funds” (for when disasters such as Hurricane Katrina occur) and a store discount of up to 30 percent.
According to Yahoo Finance, co-CEO Walter Robb is proud of Whole Foods’ policies, which reduce turnover. He wishes the company could pay its workers even more.
For my coffee and muffin:
Earlier this year, Starbucks made (foam) waves with its College Achievement Plan, through which the coffee giant is paying for college degrees for thousands of its employees.
Also cool: Howard Schultz, Starbucks CEO, is a strong advocate of raising the minimum wage. Employees already start at $11.50 an hour and also get a custom-tailored mix of benefits in the “Your Special Blend” program, which includes “comprehensive health coverage, a highly competitive 401(k) program with company match, and a stock equity reward program.”
There may be no such thing as a free lunch (unless I work at Chipotle) but there’s definitely a “feel-good” lunch. These seven places will definitely be my go-tos, the next time I’m craving a great meal with a side of societal progress.
Aja Frost is a student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and a regular contributor to Her Campus, The Prospect, and her college newspaper. Her work has been featured on xoJane and The Huffington Post. The only thing she loves more than writing is dessert. Follow her on Twitter @ajavuu.