Particularly for younger consumers, including millennials, purchasing decisions are about more than cheap prices. Shoppers are buying based on a company's values, which can include domestic manufacturing, environmentalism and ethically sourced raw materials, ranging from cocoa to cotton fibers.
Call it feel-good capitalism. And Mexican food chain Chipotle has been especially effective at crafting its messaging.
Chipotle's animated shorts, which feature a cartoon farmer fighting pushing back against industrialized farming, has millions of YouTube views. And last week, the Denver-based company launched a series of curated original essays that will be printed on take-out bags and cups. Writers will include Toni Morrison and Michael Lewis.
Such marketing may be most effective with millennials, sometimes known as Generation Y, who admire companies with integrity and profits. "They're most in tune among the chains that I cover in terms of reaching Generation Y," said Stephen Anderson, a restaurant analyst for research firm Miller Tabak & Co.
But what about the wages of employees, who run the more than 1,500 Chipotle restaurants?
During an investor call with Wall Street analysts in January, Chipotle co-CEO Monty Moran said average wages are at $9 an hour, and that a move to $10 would have an effect, "but not too significant." That wage range already is higher than $7.25, the current, hourly federal minimum wage. Recent efforts to raise the federal minimum to $10.10 an hour have been stymied.
A Chipotle spokesman declined to offer further wage details beyond the investor call.
Restaurant analyst Anderson said a wage increase to the $10 to $12 level would likely start to have a ripple effect on Chipotle's business. Over time, Chipotle may consider self-service kiosks to offset labor costs, he said.
Other businesses, big and small, which object to wage increases, say higher pay will mean higher prices, and less work for fewer workers.
"When you're talking about a $10 and $15 minimum wage, that has the potential to increase our labor costs 10 to 20 percent," says Don Davey, a representative for Firehouse Subs. The Jacksonville, Florida-based chain, which includes 760 locations in 41 states, operates a foundation to support first responders.
And higher prices and less work drags down the economy and hurts the very people higher wages were designed to lift, some argue.
"Raising the minimum wage will only hurt those it was intended to help and will lead to higher prices for consumers, less sales for franchisees and ultimately lost jobs," Steve Caldeira, president and chief executive of the International Franchise Association told CNBC last week.
Minimum wage increases are opposed by the large industry lobbying groups, including the National Retail Federation and the National Restaurant Association.
Wages and more broadly the income equity debate have no easy answers for small and larger employers.
Last week, Chipotle shareholders voted overwhelmingly to reject the way it compensates senior executives, though the vote was advisory and nonbinding. Chipotle's two co-chief executives each earned more than $24 million in total compensation last year.
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