Local restaurant chain fulfills 3-year wage hike promise

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DENVER -- Beginning next month , the minimum wage in Colorado for tipped employees will climb from $7.18 to $8.08 per hour, but a 24-year-old Denver institution will beat that and begin paying tipped employees $15 per hour.

Paychecks have been steadily rising for the past three years at the local burrito chain Illegal Pete's and it's a trend that management hopes will not only keep employees happy, but will pump money back into the Colorado economy as well.

"This is my hometown and I'm proud to see the growth and what it's become. It's just become a really special place that a lot of people are having to think about leaving because it's getting too expensive," said Pete Turner, president and founder of Illegal Pete's.

But those skyrocketing Denver prices won't affect Illegal Pete's employees as much thanks to the pay increase.

"When Pete told me, I started crying because it was such a relief and such a breath of fresh air to start the new year and know I won't be living paycheck-to-paycheck," employee Maegan Harmon told FOX31.

Turner said the $3 million investment in pay raises to 450 employees is an example of how the fast casual restaurant industry could change working America as a whole.

"One in ten people in America work in the restaurant industry -- that's actually gone up from 14 million to 15 million. That's a lot of people." he said. "My question is 'Can we replace some of the manufacturing jobs that we've lost over the past 40 years -- some of the solid, middle class jobs that has sustained this country and made this country really strong?'"

With a starting pay rate of roughly $47,000, Turner predicts those pay raises will actually pay for themselves.

"We think investing back in our employees... that affects our customers because hopefully, they're getting better service."

Among those who didn't take a raise was Turner himself.

"It just felt really nice to be able to say that since then we heard, anecdotally, 'I quit this (second) job and now I'm working on this house or now I can go back to school," he said, adding, "It's important for us to develop our people and pay them accordingly and show them appreciation."

Those larger paychecks won't just keep existing employees on board. It makes Illegal Pete's a career destination, according to Harmon.

"My friend actually just lost her job and I was like, 'Come on over. We have a lot of fun and it's pretty great!"

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