Tuesday, May 30, 2023

What do the people making your food think about the cost of living in Wilmington?

The life of a service industry worker is not always what it seems (Port City Daily photo/FILE)
The life of a service industry worker is not always what it seems (Port City Daily photo/FILE)

Editor’s note: This is part four of a multi-part look at the cost of living in Wilmington and its effect on the people who work here. 

WILMINGTON — Kevin Wine wakes up around 7:30 a.m. to get ready for work as a cook. He sharpens the knives he needs for the day, then heads out the door and make the drive from Wilmington to Leland where he picks up a co-worker, then, he makes the trek to Ocean Isle for a full day’s worth of work.

Wine has worked for the same restaurant for four years.  Although he lives in Wilmington, he has made the choice to work in Ocean Isle because finding a job in Wilmington that pays more than minimum wage is nearly impossible, he said.

If the restaurant closes at 10 p.m., he’s lucky to get out by 11 p.m. and then make the same drive that started more than 12 hours earlier – just to wake up and do it all again.

Wine’s day is not atypical for the life of a service industry worker – from bartenders to chefs, long hours in fast paced environments comes with the territory, but the drive alone, he said, costs him $10 in gas.

“It is kind of hard down here because they think everyone is just starting out. I have a lot of experience, I can pretty much write a menu … but if I go into a place down here, they are just not willing to pay. If you can get $10 an hour in a kitchen in Wilmington you’re lucky,” Wine said.

In Wilmington, tourism and the service industry drive the economy; food service employees and retail workers made up 34,709 of the total 121,819 workers in 2016 according to the N.C. Department of Commerce, but the average weekly wage for food service workers was only $327.

After four years of service at the same restaurant, Wine said his wages were not keeping up with the increased cost of living, from gas prices to rent increases. For Wine, everything else seemed to be rising – except his pay.

“I never really got any raises, four years working somewhere I got a total of a $1.50 raise,” he said.

Not what he had planned

Working in a restaurant was not always the plan for Wine, in fact, he went to school for computer engineering.

Wine moved to Wilmington about 10 years ago, halfway through high school, after his father relocated his family from Charlotte. He attended New Hanover High School, where he decided he wanted to get into technology, even working for the school servicing computers during his senior year.

He then headed off to tech school to pursue a career in the industry, but soon found out he was unable to find a job in Wilmington in his area of expertise. So, Wine followed in his brother’s footsteps and made the shift into the restaurant industry.

“I went to Cape Fear Community College for computer engineering, and then I just couldn’t find a job … it was kind of disparaging, so I started getting into kitchens, it was what my brother had always done and I saw what pride he had in his work, that kind of inspired me to go the kitchen route,” he said.

After working for several restaurants in the area, Wine found a better paying option in Brunswick County and managed to stay on during the off season, helping around the restaurant with other things that needed to get done.

“During the winter, sometimes you can pick up extra hours doing maintenance or random stuff the restaurant needed to get done in the summer but couldn’t because we were so busy. So, I stayed on for some of the winters,” Wine said.

Wine was able to help offset the cost of travel by carpooling with other employees and working long hours. During the busy season, Wine said he would get less than a week’s worth of days off, just to make ends meet.

Gas prices in Wilmington have increased this week after Hurricane Harvey devastated Texas (Port City Daily photo/MICHAEL PRAATS)
Gas prices in Wilmington (Port City Daily photo / MICHAEL PRAATS)

“It’s 10 bucks a day for me to get to work, its $5 there and $5 back, luckily, we have some people that live down here so we try to carpool to get rid of that expense as much as possible. With gas being almost $3 at some gas stations forget getting down there and back every day for short shifts – I am always working 12 or 14 hour shifts every shift with literally three days off a month,” he said.

Living in Wilmington

Wine shares an apartment with two other people just to be able to afford living in Wilmington he said, fortunately for him, his roommate is also his friend of many years.

“Its myself, my best friend and his girlfriend. We have a three bedroom place, so we split rent three ways, it’s about $500 a person … for us renting is a safe bet,” he said.

When it comes to cost of living in Wilmington, a full-time job at a restaurant, even at $10 an hour is not enough to live in the area, Wine said.

“If you’re only working 40 hours a week that’s not enough to live in Wilmington,” he said.

Wine says he is also fortunate to have family in the area that he can rely on if things get tough, something not everyone can say they have.

There is another potential negative consequence to the issues Wine addressed: If the cost of living continues to increase to the point where more and more service industry workers are forced out of the area, restaurants could inevitably struggle to find reliable labor.

For the residents of Wilmington who are not living paycheck to paycheck and who might not be worried about how they will pay for new tires or an oil change, Wine said he wants them to remember that, without service industry employees, they wont be able to go to their favorite restaurant.

“It’s people like us that are doing it. You can’t get someone who makes $1 million a year to cook your burger, it’s not going to happen … for me cooking isn’t something I think is below any other profession, we have a passion to do that. It brings you joy to eat, and it brings me joy to cook you the food and have pride in it,” Wine said.

An endless cycle

For Wine, working more than 40 hours per week is just something he has to do, and although he has spent a decade in Wilmington, he expects to move out of Wilmington in hopes of finding a better job with better pay.

“I like Wilmington a lot, for me Wilmington is a place I want to be, I love this town … however, in the near future I will probably be down in Charlotte, just because of the job opportunities. The reason I work in Ocean Isle is because a lot of the places in Wilmington can afford to pay freshmen in college minimum wage. They don’t really consider that people live here, people have to make a living,” Wine said.

Wine also attributes the low wages in Wilmington to the high number of college students in the area willing to work for minimum wage.

Moving is not always a practical option for people living in Wilmington. The cost of moving alone is expensive; when coupled with security deposits, the ability of someone who is living paycheck to paycheck being able to afford a move is difficult.

Others have pointed out the cost of living’s relationship to traffic. When workers are forced to find jobs an hour away, traffic will increase, which has been a consistent concern facing residents and city leaders.

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Michael Praats can be contacted at Michael.p@localvoicemedia.com

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