Anton’s Taproom and Restaurant on Kansas City’s Main Street was where I accidentally found myself two days after Christmas. The Amtrak train that was supposed to take me from Albuquerque to Chicago was terminated at the Kansas City train station by an eastbound derailment. Rather than take an eight-hour bus ride to Chicago (Amtrak’s only option), I decided to enjoy the City of Fountains instead.

I worked up an appetite strolling the galleries of the outstanding Nelson-Atkins Art Museum and, later, searching for my grandfather’s name at the National World War I Museum. I had picked Anton’s for its website’s assertion that it had 75 beer taps and a zealous commitment to sustainability. The copy read: “Anton’s offerings are pork and poultry raised hormone free, without antibiotics and certified organic grass fed beef. All from farms that care about and practice the humane treatment of animals[sic].”

While I occasionally find an association between mediocre food and suspect syntax, I let this pitch pass given that it was Monday night, and no other open restaurant claimed a higher food consciousness. Besides, I found Anton’s filled with young, hip couples and families who mirrored its fit and friendly staff, all of whom were set tableau-like against the restaurant’s rustic brick walls. Give me brews and bricks, and I’m likely to let a lot of stuff slide. That is, until I discovered Kenneth.

Over the course of my meal, I had noticed an older Black man handling waist-high containers at the perimeter of the bar and dining area. He was partially stooped, moving slowly and deliberately, lifting and resettling the bins noiselessly. While the wait staff would occasionally slump in the shadows to check their cell phones, he would maintain constant motion, never stopping to talk to anyone. Finally, my curiosity got the better of me, and I said, “You look like the hardest working guy here!” to which he smiled and replied, “I’m just moving the compost outside. We can’t keep it in here for very long.” With some encouragement from me, he paused at my table for a few minutes to explain his job. It consisted of collecting the restaurant’s compostable food scraps, glass and plastic containers, and non-recyclable waste.

We introduced ourselves, and he told me his name was Kenneth. When I asked him where all this material ended up, he pointed outside and said, “across the parking lot and up a hill.” Kenneth then became animated when he explained how he got it there. “I carry each bin the whole way.” I must have registered some shock at the amount of work involved, especially seeing how many empty wine and liquor bottles were generated. But he told me, with considerable pride, “I learned that if I put it in small bins and make more trips, they’re not so heavy.” Even my limited command of physics told me this was not a solution. Barely able to contain my incredulity, I asked, “Won’t the restaurant give you a cart with wheels?” He lowered his eyes and shook his head. “Not likely.”

Kenneth currently lives at the City Union Mission, a Kansas City homeless facility. He was working this job because he wanted to buy a house, “on the Eastside, because places are cheaper there.” Kenneth, whom I judged to be in his late fifties, volunteered that he worked four nights a week at Anton’s and made $11.15 per hour, which, even with “free” room and board at the Mission, meant a very long stretch before he could afford such a purchase. He remained optimistic, however, since he was hoping to get a raise to $12 per hour.

When it comes to pay, simply put, low-wage workers like Kenneth are hamstrung by living in Missouri. In 2017, Kansas City passed a referendum by an overwhelming 68 percent of the voters that would have raised the city’s minimum wage to $15 per hour in 2022 (St. Louis also passed a similar measure). But fearing that the poisonous cloud of socialism would force the state’s suffocating businesses to flee for safety to Texas, Missouri’s Republican-controlled legislature passed a pre-emption law that barred cities from independently raising the minimum wage.

While Kansas City valiantly tried to break free of the state-imposed straight jacket (e.g., requiring government and non-profit organizations that receive city funds to pay more than the Missouri minimum wage), there is little it can do to help Kenneth and others who work in the for-profit world. The city established a “Living Wage Registry” which is a voluntary program that gives those businesses that subscribe to its conditions an emblem that reads, “Our business voluntarily pays our employees a living wage.” One of the conditions is that the registrant must pay employees at least $13.75 in 2021 and $15.00 in 2022. However, a none-too-robust subscription rate of 27 Kansas City businesses (presumably out of thousands of eligible businesses) and an anemic monitoring process have not made the program a raving success.

A case in point is Anton’s which has been in the registry since its inception in 2018. Why then would Kenneth only be making $11.15 when he should have been making $13.75 in December, and $15.00 now? (Over the course of researching this article, I made four separate attempts to speak to either the owner or a management-level person at Anton’s Taproom. No one responded to me.).

The driving force behind Anton’s is Anton Kotar. He invested over decade ago in this part of Kansas City when many of Main Street’s storefronts were covered in plywood. His commitment to sustainability and local sourcing has earned him the title in some quarters as the “hero of Kansas City.” On the surface, based on the amount of grass-fed beef and antibiotic-free offerings on the menu, as well as the aquaponics facility he installed in the restaurant’s basement, Anton’s Taproom certainly appears to be a green machine.

But just as there are gaps in the restaurant’s claims for wage justice, there are inconsistencies in its sustainability contentions. In March of 2021, an animal slaughter facility owned by Mr. Kotar in Jackson, Missouri, and apparently the major source of supply for his restaurant, had its USDA inspection suspended due to the inhumane treatment of animals. A USDA letter dated March 11, 2021, referred to an incident of an “egregious nature”—described in graphic detail by the inspector on duty—that resulted in the plant’s immediate closure. Given that Anton’s website states that the farms he purchases livestock from “practice the humane treatment of animals,” are we to presume that he has granted himself an exemption for his own slaughter business? Or, perhaps, the slaughter facility misunderstood the meaning of “practice,” as in “we thought we were only practicing killing animals.” Try explaining that to the cows!

Mr. Kotar is also known for championing a change in a state regulation that restricts the activity of convicted felons who work in establishments that sell liquor or lottery tickets. He freely admits that hiring those who’ve served time would ease some of his labor shortage problems. But in the course of praising the 25 or more ex-felons he’s hired, Mr. Kotar notes that they are among the hardest workers he has because “they don’t want to go back to where they came from.” He has described how this semi-captive workforce is willing to scrub pots and pans into the wee hours, and then, in some cases, walk home at 2:00 in the morning.

As much as society’s prevailing sentiment toward ex-felons is to give them a second chance (Florida’s recent action to remove voting prohibitions on ex-felons, and Alaska’s to end the life-time ban on food stamp eligibility for its ex-felons were both a very long time coming), the idea raises interesting ethical and moral questions. For instance, at what point does the “opportunity” that society affords the former felon benefit the employer more than him? In other words, at one point does a restaurant’s use of cheap, hard-working, low-skilled older men and women who are desperate to stay out of prison constitute exploitation? In Anton’s case, not only is he reaping economic benefits, one can also assume, based on the media attention he’s received, that he is making considerable public relations hay from his dubious charitable gestures.

Food and farming establishments have a long and ugly history of labor abuse. From the landed gentry to large corporate operations to the hard-driving entrepreneurial class, the noblesse-oblige card is often played to camouflage poor working conditions and low wages. By “granting” our toughest jobs to the hungry, the hurting, and the hunted, we are presumably giving them a chance to work their way free of the Inferno’s fiery rings at the same that their employers are paving their own path into Paradise. Or, instead, are we simply constructing better optics for businesses to lard up their bottom lines? The games we play beneath the umbrella of piety could be suspended if Congress, legislatures, and businesses of all sizes would embrace the $15 minimum wage for all workers, regardless of their histories.

As I left Anton’s that night, I unwittingly found myself walking about ten strides behind Kenneth as he was carrying a full bin of waste across the nearly empty, poorly lit parking lot. He was shuffling his feet and taking small steps as any older person would who was carrying some heavy weight. His pace slowed as he ascended the rise at the lot’s end, where, even in the dim light, I could tell he was exerting himself even more to reach the point where the larger waste receptacles were stored.

Humility and contrition are what Kenneth displays because he knows that’s what society expects. Restaurants and other employers will often exploit those expectations in a manner that harkens back to nineteenth century notions of workhouse justice. But just as today’s demands for a sustainable food system require the humane treatment of animals—an area where Anton’s has not walked it like it talks it—so, too, do our demands for the humane and just treatment of workers. Any business that doesn’t pay it workers at least $15 per hour shouldn’t be in business. And any business that doesn’t give its workers the equipment they need to do their job safely and with dignity should be cited for inhumane treatment. So, for God’s sake, give Kenneth $15 and a set of wheels!