Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Guest Blog: Hardships & Hopes at Radish & Rye

Dusty & Julia James


Editor’s Note: Yesterday, Julia James, co-owner of Radish & Rye Food Hub in Harrisburg, posted the following blog entry. We asked if we could reprint it as we thought our readers would be interested in the profound challenges facing a local small business as it tries to adapt to an uncertain, rapidly changing economic landscape … told first-person, in Julia’s own heartfelt words.


Friends, it has been something of a rollercoaster around here the past week.

As you may have seen, since we’re putting it in yellow everywhere we can think to put it, we’re reducing our hours starting November 1st.

Last week we learned that three of our full-time retail staffers are moving on. This accounts for approximately 50% of our retail staffing hours.

This also, of course, is one of the headlines all around the country. It’s hard for us to know how related our losses are to the Great Resignation. Of our three departing staffers, one is a somewhat-recent transplant who was unable to find a local permanent housing solution that met their needs and so is moving out of state; one is an area native who found interests and housing far enough away as to make the commute impractical; one has accepted a position better aligned with their long-term career goals.

What we do know is that this takes us from being a little over-staffed to being yet another small business struggling with staffing shortages. Individually, I completely understand why each of these three people is leaving and respect and understand their decisions. From where I sit, as someone who cares about these people, they look like the right moves for the individuals. And for me – getting all three at once – pretty devastating. Take my breath away, take the wind out of my sails, pull the rug out from under me, punch me in the gut devastating.

As I got notice from each employee, I did a lot of playing with schedules and seeing what we could cover. We were a little over-staffed at the start of last week. Down one, okay, a hair tighter than we’re used to, but probably no problem; maybe a right-sizing if the rest of the staff is fully trained. Down two, okay, we need to hire and train someone, which is going to take some attention from the other work to be done; getting a little tricky here. Down three, okay, to make this work we probably do need three additional people because it’s probably going to take a few weeks of two people to train three people and we don’t have two people to spare, and….this maybe just doesn’t work.

More playing with schedules. Hiring two people would mean we could cover all the hours we were open, but for at least a few weeks, maybe more, I’d need to work pretty much all of those hours at the store on the floor, either actually working working, or working and training simultaneously.

I’ve got 19 months of working what I think is an average of 80 hour weeks under my belt – some weeks a little less, some weeks a little more. That’s if you don’t count as work the time Dusty and I spend on the patio talking about work, which I definitely don’t count but is where some of our most valuable ideas come from. Anyway, I thought things were starting to ease up a little bit – the team was strong enough that I didn’t need to be on the floor very many hours a week, which freed up enough admin time that I stood a decent shot of getting everything that absolutely had to be done in time to leave by 5 or 6 most days. It was looking like maybe 60 hour weeks were going to be a real thing!

And then…

Here’s the deal – I can’t keep doing 80+ hour weeks, and I don’t want Dusty to, and I don’t want to stretch our remaining staff so thin or ask so much of them that the job stops being fun for them and they burn out and leave. I don’t want to bring on new staff if we don’t have the bandwidth to train and support them.

So we’re lopping off Tuesdays, and losing weekday mornings.

We’re hiring, of course, and raising starting pay for full-timers to $14/hour in hopes of being more likely to attract folks for whom Radish & Rye might be part of their longer-term goals.

Both the reduction in hours and the increase in starting pay are really scary to me.

As far as I can tell, the difference in pay wouldn’t have made a difference to any of our three departing staff. I think in all three cases it was about dreams and logistics more than about anything we might ever have to offer. But I don’t think, in recent rounds of hiring, that we have always been attracting applicants who want to invest in Radish & Rye long-term. We had one applicant who threatened to launch a social media smear campaign if we didn’t offer them an interview. That’s a hard and obvious no – I don’t negotiate with terrorists – but we do need folks who aren’t just non-psychopaths, but who are attracted to the specific job. I don’t think our business (or at least not my sanity) can survive industry average turnover rates.

I’m not sure how much of an effect this change in starting pay will have on total average wages paid, as it’ll likely mean that new incoming staff don’t get their first raises as quickly as they have in the past. But it’ll look more attractive to start and make a difference certainly for the first month or two.

But it’s also not like we’ve been holding out on our current staff and there’s all this money available that we’re hoarding for ourselves. Dusty and I are paid a higher theoretical hourly wage than many (not all) of our employees, but since we’re salaried and work, you know, a lot of hours, our effective hourly rate is a lot lower than any of our employees. We also own the building that R&R is in, which luckily is able to just about carry itself without R&R paying rent – which is good, because R&R is not paying rent. (A thing I don’t love to think about is that the appraised monthly rental value for the space is just about exactly one month’s salary for one of us, which means that another way to look at it is that one of us is working for free.)

Anyway, I lay all this out there not because I’m upset with how much (little) we’re making – I’m honestly not. I know we would make more money as individuals if we both got “real” jobs and rented that storefront to someone else for some other business, but I also know that we’ve spent the last decade+ making life decisions that would mean we never felt like we had to do that. And I’m much happier this way. I think. Most of the time.

Anyway, I lay all this out there because sometimes people complain about our prices being too high and sometimes people complain that our wages are too low– and once, in one astonishing breath, a customer complained about both simultaneously – and I am really feeling the pressures of both sides of this economic equation and I’ve got to tell you, I do not have much wiggle room. And I’ve got to tell you, if you are unhappy with both our prices and our wages, please please please take your business to Amazon. Maybe do yourself a favor and try not to think about what the folks manufacturing those goods are being paid.

My Facebook feed is full of rants and memes about the labor shortage, about how if your business can’t keep people it’s because you’re not paying them enough or because you’re treating them poorly and either way you probably don’t deserve to be in business. It’s full of gloating about the fall of the exploitive capitalists. It punches me in the gut all over again every time I scroll through.

If someone wants to call me a capitalist, that’s fine, I’ll take it, and I won’t even feel dirty. I’ve made investments and own, yes, capital (mostly in the form of scads of refrigerators and also some ovens), and I own more of these things than I can fully make use of by myself at any given time, and so I employ people. I pay them. Together, we create value for our community. I think. I hope.

I don’t know if we “deserve” to be in business. I’m not much for thinking I “deserve” anything. Things are hard right now. For all of us.

So we’ll scale back for a minute. Retrench and reconsolidate. Get that firm footing we thought, in the pre-pandemic days, we’d be starting out with, but that has, in this upside-down pandemic world and with a tumultuous run-up to the actual opening, felt all too elusive. We’ll just cut some hours for a minute.

But, ohhhh. That hurts, too.

One of the biggest reasons for wanting the store was so we could offer more convenient hours than we could at the market. And, I mean, I think even the hours we have left are more convenient than we were able to offer at the market – later in the evening, and a whole additional weekend day (Sundays!). We know from sales numbers that there are not a ton of people taking advantage of Tuesdays or weekday mornings, at least relative to other days and times. (We do know there are quite a few of you utilizing those times – and if this is you, I’m so sorry. I hope you’ll be able to find other times to visit us!)

Giving up those hours, even if it’s for the long-term strength of the business, just feels like a failure. Like a loss. And I’m kind of mourning that loss. It sort of feels like processing a breakup.

At first, after going over the schedule over and over and realizing there was no way to do it and maintain my sanity and adequately support incoming newbies, I felt devastated. Like everything I’d been working for was being ripped out from under me.

But then, after a little while sobbing on the couch and wondering if I had any ice cream in the freezer (no 😥), I started thinking about it as a growth opportunity. With the reduced hours, rather than focusing on hiring just to fill as many hours as possible, we can make fewer hires, but offer a higher starting wage. We think this is meaningful, enjoyable, career-worthy work – maybe this’ll help us attract and retain folks who feel the same way. Maybe having the bandwidth to more fully train and support these folks will increase their engagement, investment, and enjoyment. And maybe, just maybe, it’ll give Dusty and me enough room to take a full day off — for real off — as often as once a week!

In other words — is this the worst thing ever or the best thing ever?

That’s pretty much how I’ve felt about every breakup of my life, and Dusty and I broke up (and got back together) approximately a bajillion times before it finally stuck and we got married. Our marriage and life together don’t look much like we envisioned in the early days of our relationship, and I think the periods of separation afforded us both significant growth.

This analogy is a little bit of a stretch because R&R isn’t really going anywhere (not that Dusty and I really went anywhere during our breakups), but I am trying to remind myself that I have proof that a bumpy path doesn’t mean a failed journey, and even that sometimes my original planned destination isn’t the best place to wind up. In other words, I’m already spending a lot of time in the “acceptance” part of the grieving process.

I’m also so heartened by the response our current job postings have garnered. We got nothing, zero applications, for like the first 24+ hours that the ads were up, which was scary. But now they are rolling in and we’ve already scheduled some interviews. I’m pretty excited about some of the candidates in queue, and look forward to hopefully introducing you to one or two of them in the not-too-distant future.

I’m also really grateful for our existing and remaining staff – for their strength, for their adaptability in agreeing to new schedules, for the hard work they do every day, and for generally and genuinely being delightful co-workers.

And I’m also also really grateful for our community, for you. I don’t want to keep putting in 80 hour weeks, but I do really really want to keep doing this work. I love my job, and while the biggest downside to that is how deeply it aches when I see a threat to it, I sure wouldn’t trade it for the world. Just, like, a few hours of it for just, like, a little bit of the world.

Thanks for being here with us on yet another leg of our journey. As always, I can’t wait to see where we go. 😊


For more information on Radish & Rye, visit their website.

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