Thanks to tips, this Raleigh cafe has kept all employees through COVID-19 pandemic

You'll find a line sometimes outside Union Special at the Gateway Shopping Center. People stop by for salads and savory sandwiches.

Customers are not only getting bread, but also giving dough.

Thanks to the community's generosity through sales and tips, owner Andrew Ullom said his staff is bringing home about the same paycheck as before the COVID crisis while working less hours.

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Employees went from making $15 an hour up to $19.

"We've had a really great response from the community," he said.

Here's how it happened:

When the health crisis hit, Union Special had to cut store hours and move to online ordering. Ullom included a feature where customers could add a little extra.

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The tip jar is virtual, but it's definitely working in a real way.

Ullom is taking that pot of generosity and splitting the money across the board. Everyone from servers to dishwashers and bakers are getting a cut.

All 15 employees have stayed on the books throughout the pandemic.
"We are extremely lucky to be in the position that we're in," said Ullom.

That's not to say it's all been easy. Wholesale evaporated and that accounted for roughly a third of revenue, at a time the business was just getting off the ground.

"This is way harder than opening a restaurant, which is what we did 8 months ago," said Ullom.

But he's happy be sustaining a workforce and hoping his place remains a staple.

"I want to be able to pay my mortgage. I want to be able to make sure there's food on the table and I want the same for the people that work here," said Ullom. "I think that we're really, really, really lucky in the respect that we can continue to do that and I'm really hopeful for the future that restaurants will bounce back."

The takeaway - giving an extra dollar or two when you order food can go a long way. Small business owners are stretching those funds to save their staff.
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