Orange County Living Wage Pioneer: Vimala’s has been championing restaurant workers since 1994


By Keith T. Barber

Chief Editor

The local journalist

Vimala Rajendran, the namesake of Vimala’s Curryblossom Café — a downtown Chapel Hill institution since 2010 — understands that sometimes you have to fight for what you believe in.

It would be fair to say that Rajendran, who started her business 28 years ago at home, is the true living wage pioneer in Orange County.

“I’m part of a national group of restaurateurs who believe that if we pay workers our profits up front, we save money on the other end by not having to hire and train more often,” Rajendran said recently. to the Local Reporter. . “We have more employee retention and we have morale that is cheerful. There’s a line in our mission statement that says we organize the workplace around joy and liberation.

The restaurant’s website features Vimala’s mission statement, which she credits as being a guiding force in her daily life.

“The written creed actually holds me accountable,” said Rajendran, who is from Kerala, India. “It is a string by which I am pulled. I have to respond to my own conscience. There is no compromise… I chose to make this decision as the sole owner of this business. I have chosen not to compromise on any of these principles – the principles of integrity.

Vimala’s mission statement reads in part: “We bring our community together with love, warmth and hospitality over delicious, wholesome food. We prioritize worker, environmental and social justice; accessibility through affordability; and sustainability at all levels. We pay a living wage.

Rajendran pays his restaurant workers between $20 and $25 an hour, which is in the high end of service industry wages. However, Vimala is quick to point out that everything is relative.

“I still think it’s not enough money,” Rajendran said. “That’s the point I want to make. What we call a living wage is only possible because we also take tips.

The minimum wage in the state is currently $7.25 an hour. And restaurant workers — otherwise known as “tipped employees” — are only guaranteed $2.13 an hour, according to the North Carolina Department of Labor website.

Rajendran said when she opened her storefront in 2010, it was decided early on that tips would be split equally among all restaurant employees despite opposition from the NC Restaurant & Lodging Association. [NCRLA] — the professional group that defends the industry. Rajendran said she openly defied state regulations and cease-and-desist letters from the NCRLA demanding she stop sharing tip money among her restaurant staff.

“Our workers, out of democracy, came up with this plan – the founders, the people who were the first team members who helped me start the restaurant – told me they wanted the tips split fairly,” Rajendran recalls. “I was part of the national movement against tipping the minimum wage.”

Since then, industry regulations and state laws have changed to allow tips to be shared among restaurant staff, but one thing has never changed: Rajendran’s dedication to the happiness and well-being of his employees.

For the past seven years, a local non-profit organization – Orange County Living Wage (OCLW) – has certified and promoted county employers who pay their full-time and part-time employees a living wage of at least $15.85 per hour ($14.35 with employer-provided health care), according to the association’s website. Orange County Living Wage has certified over 300 local employers since its inception in 2015, including Vimala’s Curryblossom Café.

Lamont Lilly, a local activist, community organizer and longtime Vimala employee, said paying service industry workers a living wage has taken on greater importance in light of the global pandemic and the the closure of a good number of restaurants in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

“A living wage not only lets you weather the storm, it extends dignity and worth and respects your basic needs in the process,” Lilly said. “At least I can breathe while the economy [storm] Passed through.”

Last month, the inflation rate in the United States hit 8.6% – a 40-year high – according to the US Department of Labor, and the current economic crisis has renewed calls for a living wage in North Carolina .

“A lot of working class [people] and their households don’t even stay afloat,” Lilly observed. “That’s because math doesn’t add up. People are barely holding on and sinking slowly.

“Thanks to the Curryblossom Café in Vimala and my living wage here, as a worker, I am still on my feet, and even preparing to become a first-time homeowner soon,” Lilly continued. “We work hard and stay humble.”

After 28 years in business, Rajendran said the happiness of his employees and the restaurant’s mission remain one and the same.

“To see my colleagues, my team is so proud of their work and when I take their pulse to see how they are doing, they are happy to be here,” she said. “It’s a fulfillment of my mission to have a workplace with joy and liberation.”

Michael A. Bynum