Cupcakes, croissants and hope: Lucy J’s Bakery provides work, job training for homeless

By Published: January 16, 2019 2:42 PM CT

As the radio plays Bob Seger’s “Old time Rock and Roll,” Josh Burgess slides a tray of baguette dough into the oven and explains what inspired him to launch a bakery committed to paying its employees what is commonly known as a “livable” wage.

Burgess and his wife, Tracy, were volunteers at the Dorothy Day House, an organization that gives families a home while they find jobs and housing. For years they saw how difficult it was for people to live off the minimum wage, which is $7.25 per hour.

So, they decided to pay their employees $15 per hour when they started Lucy J's Bakery, following the national Fight for $15 movement, a union-backed initiative to raise the minimum wage.

“It was what needed to be done,” Tracy Burgess said. “If you try to raise a family on minimum wage, it just doesn’t happen.”

Differing from a minimum wage, a livable wage is the lowest income necessary for a person to meet basic needs.

“It means we’ve done some kind of calculation in terms of what people need to live on,” said Jamin Speer, a labor economist at the University of Memphis. “And that’s almost always going to be higher than the minimum wage.”

And unlike the minimum wage, there is no constant, as livable wages vary depending on the situation and factors such as housing and other costs.

“It’s going to differ a lot by location,” Speer said. “But it’s also going to differ a lot by structure.”

For instance, in Memphis, the livable wage for one adult is $10.75 an hour, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s living wage calculator. In San Francisco, it’s $19.63. The living wage in Memphis for one adult with a child is $21.90 an hour; for an adult with two children it is $24.86.

These numbers can be substantially larger than the $15 an hour campaigned for around the country and paid at Lucy J’s, which even Tracy Burgess has alluded to.

“It’s still a very basic budget,” she said. “You’re living in a small apartment or low-income house and buying basic foods. You’re not splurging too often.”

But to the Burgesses, $15 was a step in the right direction, and they were intent on providing it at the bakery. Their business model didn’t pass muster with lenders, however.

As Speer explains, investors look for profits that come back to them. Higher wages can impede this.

“What a company can be saying if they’re going to pay an above-market wage,” Speer said, “is that they’re going to take some of the profits investors want and give them to the workers.”

The couple discovered this when trying to obtain a small business loan.

“Nobody was willing to invest in an hourly business that had that kind of hourly wage,” Tracy Burgess said. “Nobody ever told us no, outright. They would say it’s not for me, but go speak to so and so.”

Finally, a potential investor asked the Burgesses if they had considered operating as a nonprofit.

“We pitched it to an anonymous donor,” she said, “who came up with the start-up capital.”

On Feb. 5, 2018, they opened Lucy J’s, a kiosk in Crosstown Concourse. By Sept. 1, they had a full bakery in the building.

And while $15 might not always measure up to MIT’s livable wage calculations, it can still make a difference. Daria Meeks is an employee of Lucy J’s, and she can testify to this.

In 2014, she worked at McDonald’s and was raising a 9-year-old daughter. She lived in a hotel, but didn’t have a car. Instead, she made a 2 1/2-hour hike to work each day -- while pregnant.

When the hotel became too expensive, Meeks stayed at friends’ houses. But there was a level of uncertainty to it.

“It was uncomfortable,” she said. “You might have somewhere to stay today, but you might not have somewhere to stay tomorrow.”

She was referred to the Dorothy Day House, which took her family in. Within 24 hours of her arrival she gave birth to a son. Meeks stayed until March 2015, when the organization found her a job and apartment.

But her problems weren’t solved. She was working at Krystal, making $7.95 an hour and paying $600 a month for rent. At this point, she also had a third child.

“I had two in diapers,” she said. “And there isn’t too much you can do when your check is $500 and your rent is $600.”

Meeks found herself scrounging. Her kids rarely got toys, and birthdays lacked fanfare.

“I couldn’t afford birthday parties or anything like that,” she said. “My sister would get them a gift and make it seem like it was from me. But I wasn’t comfortable with that because I wanted to do it myself.”

Still, she managed.

“Just keep pushing, is all I kept telling myself,” she said. “Just keep pushing.”

In July 2017 she was approached by the Burgesses, whom she met at the Dorothy Day House. They said they were opening a bakery and asked if she’d be interested in working there. The answer wasn’t hard.

Now Meeks’ quality of life has improved. And so have her children’s.

“It’s pretty exciting,” she said. “My 2-year-old, she has little dolls and blocks. And they can have birthday parties.”

Lucy J’s Bakery is not the only organization in Memphis paying higher wages. In March, Shelby County Schools announced it would be raising its wage to $15 an hour. And in May, the Memphis City Council passed a resolution stating all full-time employees would make at least $15.50. Shelby County government has extended $15-an-hour wages to part-time workers, too, via a memorandum of understanding.

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Similarly, on a national level, Amazon recently started doling out $15 an hour, and Target raised its minimum wage to $12, with the intention of hitting $15 by 2020.

Moves like this give steam to the Fight for $15 movement, and hope to those looking for higher wages. But there is concern that raising the minimum wage this much could have a negative effect on many small businesses, which, unlike Lucy J’s, are not nonprofits.

“Most small businesses -- bakeries, restaurants, bookshops -- these are usually businesses that are not making huge profits, they’re just kind of making it,” Speer said. “I think it would be hard for most of them to take.”

But for Tracy Burgess, Meeks’ story is an example of what a living wage can do, and she encourages businesses to explore similar routes.

“I challenge businesses to really look at their bottom line and see what they can do,” she said, “to help employees have the income they need.”


Lucy J's Bakery Dorothy Day House Tracy Burgess Josh Burgess

John Klyce

John Klyce is a freelance writer for The Daily Memphian

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