"Americans are extremely hard-working, and if an employer is looking out for their best interest, they'll show up in a hurricane," Glasmeier says. There's also the productivity effect—"Presumably, as people get paid more money, they do a better job," she explains.

Dallas doesn't have its own minimum wage—the federal minimum, set to increase to $7.25 later this month, is the only wage floor applied here—but since the 1990s, when the concept of a "living wage" became a point of social activism, several cities around the country have experimented with setting their own city- or county-wide wage floors. One of the faults in the federal minimum wage, according to Glasmeier, is its definition of a poverty threshold, which is little more than "a very basic food budget." There's nothing extra for driving to work, paying rent, seeing a doctor or paying for child care.

A living wage, on the other hand, is designed to help people live above that threshold, not on it. "The intent is that the person can...live without fear of economic insecurity," Glasmeier explains. "That's really what it's about."

Barista Barley has found his niche at It’s a Grind, where he receives a living wage, full health benefits, reliable full-time hours—and respect.
Hal Samples/Roderick Pena
Barista Barley has found his niche at It’s a Grind, where he receives a living wage, full health benefits, reliable full-time hours—and respect.

Location Info

Map

It's A Grind

2901 Indiana Blvd.
Dallas, TX 75226

Category: Coffee Shops

Region: Downtown & Deep Ellum

But paying a living wage doesn't equal economic prosperity. Glasmeier admits that many service-industry workers, living wage or not, may still not be able to afford a new car, a house or even health insurance (which is part of why the Demeter Project seeks to include at least one of those in its compensation package). Critics of a living wage often cite the additional personnel costs; indeed, even the fear of increasing costs can be enough to dissuade managers from taking the leap.

Flowers says that after two years of research, he couldn't find a single business, large or small, that was doing what he wanted to do. "It goes back to just financial feasibility," he says with a shrug. "We've spent $600,000 on building this store. When you think about pumping another $600,000 into it [for operating costs]...That's huge."

The Demeter Project, he admits, is blessed to have the financial backing of its two investors—himself and Simmons Connelly—both of whom have committed to paying for It's a Grind's operating costs for the first two years. "A lot of people would like to do this—you know, be able to pay people what they're worth. Since we've got the financial ability to do it, we're going to do it," Flowers says.

Other critics fear that paying employees more would result in job cuts or higher costs for consumers, but several studies rebut those claims. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, Center for Labor Research and Education, reported in 2007 that an increase in the minimum wage paid by big-box stores like Walmart from $7-$8 to $10 an hour "would greatly boost the well-being of its low-income workers with little financial impact on most shoppers."

But absent a government-mandated living wage, Glasmeier feels the responsibility for ethical compensation will fall to small businesses like It's a Grind. Not only will a coffee shop that is founded on respect and decent pay attract employees instilled with loyalty for their job, she says, but "People who believe in the ethic of living wages will come and buy their coffee there!"

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It's a Grind has its own energy spikes. Sleepy dawns give way to morning rush hours, late afternoons and evenings ebb and flow between slow and go. Much depends on the caffeinated needs of their customer base—neighbors, students, writers, medical personnel and business types, looking for cups of edgy persistence, a pause from their day or an Internet connection.

"It's not your typical coffee shop. It's real private and professional, but it's also very relaxing. The pace is just a different pace here," says Deep Ellum developer Barry Annino, taking a quick sip of coffee. "You have a tendency while you're in here to look out the window. The people here are relaxed."

Open mic nights and live music events spice things up. So too did Debra Bales, a walking reservoir of frenetic energy.

Bales has big, blue eyes, a nervous-seeming smile, and a rapid gait that conveys a boundless energy that belies her 47 years. At a slow moment on a weekday afternoon in April, Bales sits at a wooden table, her hands dancing restlessly across the tabletop while she speaks.

Nothing Bales has done follows a coherent trajectory, and her story does the same, leaping between distant events and recent feelings—redemption, constancy, peace. She can name the date she finished training and started work at It's a Grind—November 16, 2008—because she says she's been changed by the experience of getting a second chance and becoming, as she repeats over and over, "a normal person."

"I was married and lived a normal life for a long time," Bales says, choosing her words carefully. But then, about 10 years ago, "I guess I went to the other side of the tracks." One night she went out dancing with a Cuban man and realized her life was, as she puts it now, "boring." She felt she was doing the lion's share of raising her two boys, and she wanted her husband to "step up." What she also wanted was freedom, and a change of pace from the grind of soccer practice and cooking dinner and being a stereotypical good wife and mother. What she got was money from a divorce settlement and the craziest three years of her life.

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