Baby Greens Is Closing
Kale and well-met to ATX’s only fast-food drive-thru salad joint
By Melanie Haupt and A. Richmond,
4:50PM, Mon. Oct. 3, 2022
Baby Greens owner Sharon Mays announced on Instagram today that she is shuttering her six-year-old (or almost 20-year-old depending on when you start counting) drive-through salad concept, Baby Greens, on Friday, October 7.
Mays explained that she and two employees had been running the restaurant on their own. One of her employees informed her last week that he was leaving Austin because it is too expensive for him to live here.
“In the last 2.5 years, I have lost more employees due to the lack of affordable housing and living in our fair city than almost any other reason,” Mays said. “But that’s a fireside chat for another time.”
Mays will still be offering catering services via Baby Greens through the end of the year. “Please make sure you get out there and support your local restaurants,” she said, exhorting Austinites to prioritize dining at local restaurants for the rest of the year.
Baby Greens originally opened in January 2004 at the corner of South First and Oltorf in a former burger joint (that space is now occupied by El Tacorrido). Mays shuttered Baby Greens in 2009 and the brand went dormant until 2016, when she reopened the concept on Anderson Lane.
The menu at Baby Greens centered veggies, whether in Big Salad form or wraps. Diners could choose from an assortment of seven bases, opt for a salad or a wrap, then add a protein, like chicken, tofu, or walnuts. Choose a housemade dressing and you’re ready to roll. (MH’s salad of choice was the Asian with chicken and extra spicy peanut dressing.)
Mays called at 3:30, after covering her cashier’s lunch shift, to get more into the specifics of why she’s closing Baby Greens. She said everything was “kind of okay” until last year, when her staff started leaving because they couldn’t afford to stay in Austin.
“That has been one of the hardest parts about it. Most of our employees enjoy their time here. It’s very shocking when they have to leave because of affordability. And just last week, I was going over the idea that I’m closing my business because I’m losing employees. And that I’m turning down business because I don’t have enough employees. We’re not special in terms of hiring and holding on to employees post-pandemic. I’m probably pretty biased, but I think it’s a pretty good gig! There are no deep fryers, we’re drive-thru only. The starting pay is $17 an hour, so we're paying more than I think any fast food restaurant, for non-managerial positions. We never had to work about customers coming indoors making contact with staff. I probably annoyed them with my constant reminders about safety protocols with covid!”
Baby Greens also had to refuse business due to being understaffed. “I was supposed to serve lunch at UT once a week, but had to turn it down. By the time we got ready to launch, I had only two employees, and even though they are great and it’s just lunch, I had to say no. Then we had our catering biz start to pick up. There are jobs we can now not do because we don’t have employees. My rent really didn’t go up, but my property taxes did. Even our location at 183, there’s a great space, and it was my plan to put in outside seating. I haven’t done that yet because I don't have the employees to service something other than drive thru or online orders. I'm doing this kind of Goldilocks game where we need to be busy, but not too much, and we can’t be slow, because we need to pay our bills.”
Mays said she gets to work at 6am, 5 hours before her employees do, to knock out a large chunk of the prep before they open.
“I’ve been taking the biggest hit. I work 5-6 hours more each shift than my employees. I’ve been working 12-14 hour days since the pandemic hit. Looking at the landscape, I don’t want to feel that an employee can never call out. I don’t want to pressure anyone like that.” So she’s closing up shop.
Mays continued, “I feel it’s the perfect fallout of the restaurant industry, with all the things that the pandemic brought. That plus restaurant owners not treating their employees well - I didn’t come up in the restaurant industry, and didn’t know that's what this industry was known for until I heard it from other women! I used to work in the music industry, and think it's worse in the restaurant industry! I don’t blame people for not wanting to work in a toxic environment. I think this pandemic has made business leaders and owners want to step back and take a look at what these crappy previous behaviors have brought, plus the unaffordability of living in Austin. My employee is leaving because he can’t afford to buy a home here. He went to visit family in Texarkana and found he could buy a house for $80k - I can’t compete with that! One of my employees, when the market exploded, sold her house and moved to Bastrop. What am I supposed to say? No, please stay?”
A member of the Austin and Travis County Food Policy Board, Mays advises city council on all things related to food access. And she had this conversation a few months ago, when city hall raised their wages for employees. “Now, we (business owners) have to be able to compete with this wage too. I agree, people need to be paid more money, But, that is not the solution to the lack of affordability in Austin We are not going to raise wages and get out of this. We are losing not only the middle class, but people who are starting out. Where does a 20-something live in Austin, Texas? Where do they have a life? My employee lived with his parents, and where else would he be if not there? I don't know when it’s going to change. It’s a bizarre position to be in. I created Baby Greens to be a franchise in 2007. I could sell a franchise tomorrow. But if I’m the only person up here, I can’t even get to that level. I’m working to the point of pain every day. It doesn't work, not like this. It’s really heartbreaking on a lot of levels. When the city shut down in March 2020, I said, ‘We're not closing. We are drive-thru only. I think we can make it.’ And to have survived that - we almost beat covid. We had our first covid case in November 2021. We got thru all of 2020 with no covid. We almost made it. I’m not a person who backs down from a fight. It’d be one thing if people hated my food! I wish it was because we were bad, or if it was a crazy Idea that didn’t work, but that’s not it. We pay $17 an hour. It’s the fallout we are in from this pandemic and how it has affected the labor force and the restaurant industry.”
“It’s difficult for people who want to be in this industry. My employees want to be here, but at the end of the day, we all have bills to pay. We don’t even need especially skilled people that are like a needle in a haystack to find. We are hitting critical mass and this is all over the place, but especially in fast food. And everyone is frantic and frenzied because they are all short staffed.”
“If I knew that in six months we’d be doing better, but I can’t. I don’t know how much longer we are on this path. I don’t know what will turn this industry around. I want to honor my customers, my employees, my company, and even myself. So let's go out on a high note.”