Who makes $100,000 a year? According to the U.S. government, air traffic controllers do. The academics who teach architects to design buildings that won’t collapse. And maybe soon, the guy who makes your Triple Layer Nachos some bleary midnight.

Taco Bell’s announcement of a pilot program to raise manager pay to white-collar levels could presage a middle-class life for workers who have struggled in a winner-take-all economy. For Alex Torres, who grinds away as a $15.50-an-hour Taco Bell shift supervisor in Chicago, that salary -- roughly triple his current take -- could mean fulfilling a dream of seeing Rome.

“If I had more money it would allow me to do a lot more,” he said Thursday before running to sprinkle two hard-shell tacos with lettuce and cheddar.

The eye-catching move by the Yum! Brands Inc.-owned chain arrives amid a staffing crisis for all sorts of restaurants thanks to an unemployment rate at a 50-year low and after years of employers’ complaints that tight margins made higher wages impossible.

Applebee’s, IHOP, Panda Express Inc. and Yard House all are paying up to find people to flip burgers, assemble salads and grill chicken. At Applebee’s restaurants in Woburn, Massachusetts, and Springfield, Oregon, a shortage of line cooks means they can earn $19 an hour.

“It’s the tightest labor market I’ve seen in my career by a wide margin,” said Greg Flynn, founder of Flynn Restaurant Group, whose 460 stores make it the biggest Applebee’s franchisee. “We must and we do pay the wages that it takes to fill the positions that we need.”

Critical Cooks
IHOP, owned by Dine Brands Global Inc. along with Applebee’s, and Darden Restaurants Inc.’s Yard House are offering hourly wages of $18 or more. Sit-down breakfast chain Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Inc. has said finding labor is becoming a bigger challenge. Darden, which also owns Olive Garden and Yard House, doesn’t franchise, so those costs weigh directly on the company.

Restaurants are hiking prices to compensate, but more expensive meat along with wage inflation is setting up the stiffest margin pressure in more than five years, according to Telsey Advisory Group. “The backdrop for 2020 food and labor inflation adds an ominous tone as the industry has already leaned on consumers in 2019 with some of its highest menu price inflation in years,” Telsey analyst Bob Derrington said.

But without cooks and managers, there won’t be any business at all. Taco Bell now pays store bosses between $50,000 and $80,000. The $100,000 manager plan is meant to evaluate recruitment and retention in the Northeast and Midwest, Ferril Onyett, senior director of training and human resources, said in an email Friday. The company hasn’t decided how many outlets will participate, she said.

Shares in Yum! have doubled in the past five years and now trade at about $102. Greg Creed, a company veteran who was chief executive officer for a half-decade before retiring Dec. 31, took home $38 million in 2018, the most recent year for which figures are disclosed.

Nonetheless, Pedro Favela, 30, a Taco Bell manager in San Francisco, worried that the experiment might upset the balance between pay and employment.

“There would probably be layoffs,” he said, explaining he didn’t think the restaurants could afford to pay more. Taco Bell offers phantasmagoric variations on Mexican food that appeal to a crowd that’s young, sometimes less than sober and occasionally digging for change. “We have items on the menu for $1,” Favela said.

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