[image-1]Steve Palmer of the Indigo Road Restaurant Group (O-Ku, Indaco, Macintosh, Oak) will do almost anything to keep good people, including launching a program to help them become homeowners.

Back when Palmer was a waiter at Magnolias around 1990, he used to be able to walk to work.

“It was one of the charms of working in Charleston,” he recalls.

Those days are long gone, as rising prices on the peninsula have driven hospitality workers farther and farther out. In fact, a recent College of Charleston study shows that only a bit more than 20 percent of hospitality workers who work in Charleston, live on the peninsula.

One chef, Darling Oyster Bar’s Joe DiMaio, says he regularly gives rides home to dishwashers, line cooks and others who wouldn’t be able to afford working at the restaurant without his rides.

According to the Hospitality Workforce Parking study, hospitality employees — which includes those in the restaurant industry — commute to work and almost a third spend more than $100 a month on parking.

“They are already coming from modest means, and they’re making anywhere from $9.50 to $10.50 an hour. They couldn’t afford a car payment, much less a home payment,” DiMaio says.

Charleston City Council’s Mike Seekings, whose Eighth District includes the peninsula’s business-heavy tip, has been watching this for a while.

“My sense is that this is a particular issue for Charleston because of the number of tourists and the requirement to service those tourists, but I think every city struggles with it,” Seekings says. “Charleston geographically is small. We have lots of people coming, the dirt is expensive, and when you build on top of that dirt, that’s also expensive. It becomes a real conundrum.”

Although the city has responded with requirements that developers include a certain percentage of affordable housing in new developments, Seekings points out that those requirements sunset, effectively just “kicking the can down the road” and not solving the long-term problem for hospitality workers.

Palmer admits that the nascent loan program isn’t fully baked yet, but he envisions a pot of money from which tenured employees can draw for home loans.

The idea came during a conversation with Kimball Brienza, managing partner of O-Ku Sushi.

[image-2]”It kind of started as half giving him a hard time, half serious conversation where I said, ‘You really need to buy a house. You’re making good money.’ He said, ‘Yeah, I think my mortgage would be about the same as my rent and I have good credit, but I’m not making enough to come up with down payment,’ so I said, ‘Well look, we’ll loan you the money.’ And now, he owns a home. I paused in that moment and I said, ‘You know, why couldn’t we do this for our whole company?'” Palmer says.

For Brienza, 35, the offer to match what he’d saved made all the difference.

“Honestly, that guy has been like a savior to me in so many ways,” Brienza says. “I think I would be still in the same place. I wouldn’t be thinking about it if he hadn’t first encouraged me to buy, and then he kept coming at me, asking ‘Did you look, did you talk to a bank?’ He’s really helped usher the whole thing because he pushed me.”

Brienza bought a house on John’s Island and plans to pay the loan back within a year.

For Palmer, the program, started on a whim, makes good business sense.

“I believe like anything in life you get back what you give,” Palmer says. “Am I going to wind up with somebody who won’t pay the loan back? Maybe, but I’m not going to let one unfortunate situation ruin it. You get back from the universe what you give out. It’s a matter of trust. If you trust other people, then they will trust you. That seems like the way my life has worked, anyway.”

But Palmer is no pushover. He told a panel at BevCon 2017, the industry conference for beverage professionals, that this program and others at Indigo Road, like its new 401K program, is part of its retention strategy. The restaurant group struggles along with all the others in Charleston to find and keep good people in a dwindling pool.

Palmer says his impulsive offer will become a full-fledged program with rules. Working with Indigo Road’s head of human resources and its head bookkeeper, he is putting parameters in place for future loans.

“We’ll be putting some structure in,” Palmer says. “Probably it will be dependent on time with the company, and there needs to be some sort of agreement with a loan schedule, and what to do if the person leaves the company. It definitely needs to be a reward for long-term employees, not necessarily senior in pay or responsibilities, but just people who have been with us a long time.”

He says he hasn’t thought the whole program through yet but envisions a pot of money — maybe $50,000 — that qualified employees can borrow from.

“So, maybe we say, ‘Hey I’m willing to loan you up to $10,000′ which means the pot has essentially five loans available and, as they get paid back, the money gets loaned out again. I mean, I don’t have unlimited money, and it’s probably going to come from my own pocket,” Palmer says.

The loans will be interest-free.

“I don’t want to make money off of them, I just want to provide them with an opportunity,” he says.

The program would depend on how well Indigo Road is doing as a whole.

“This obviously has to be balanced with business and tempered with the success of the restaurants, because that’s what fuels everything,” Palmer says.

The program will probably mostly affect Charleston employees since that’s where Indigo Road started and that’s where its most tenured employees reside, but it will be company-wide, and he hopes other restaurant groups follow suit.

“I don’t come up with these ideas to be a role model,” Palmer says. “But, like any good thing, I hope others hear about it and say maybe we could do this too.”

Seekings is enthusiastic about the program.

“It will take this kind of creative thinking from both business and government. There are lots of issues and one is employee retention because it’s expensive to live here,” Seekings says. “Any way you can help people get a leg up on long-term housing solutions, I applaud that.”

Brienza says the loan makes him even more loyal to Indigo Road.

“In our industry, everybody talks about it, saying they should have bought a long time ago. But if anyone is like me and doesn’t have a lot of assistance from family or whatever, it’s hard to save that kind of money with rent and bills,” he says. “I will be, like, forever grateful. Forever grateful.”

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