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    Trillium, humbled by pay flap, boosts wages of retail workers

    Esther and JC Tetreault, owners of Trillium Brewing Co., are vastly improving wage levels after being roundly criticized over how — and how much — they pay workers.
    Lane Turner/Globe Staff
    Esther and JC Tetreault, owners of Trillium Brewing Co., are vastly improving wage levels after being roundly criticized over how — and how much — they pay workers.

    This should have been a time to celebrate for JC and Esther Tetreault. The Trillium Brewing Co. founders finally opened their restaurant in Fort Point, a showcase location in a hot neighborhood.

    But the couple behind one of Greater Boston’s buzziest craft beer brands soon learned hard lessons about the hazards of rapid expansion.

    Trillium was pilloried online last month after word got out that two employees saw their base hourly pay cut from $8 an hour to $5, the level for newer retail workers. A third affected employee left before it took effect. The pay cut was one thing. (The Tetreaults said it was a mistake and quickly reinstated their previous pay scale.) Perhaps even more egregious to many consumers: Trillium’s retail workers were paid like bartenders, as tipped employees. It’s not illegal. But to many, it was a surprise. The tap opened up, and the negative comments poured in.

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    Now, the Tetreaults are trying to win back lost fans and show how much they care for their staff. Effective immediately, Trillium’s retail employees will be paid $15 to $18 an hour and can still earn more in tips. That’s a big increase from the $5 or $8 in base pay those 37 workers had been earning. “We need to make sure our team is taken care of,” Esther Tetreault said.

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    Most of the retail employees work at Trillium’s beer hall in Canton, where they often shuttle between the bar and the cash register. In Fort Point, they had earned tips in a nearby shop but customers could not drink beer there until the restaurant opened in October. Now, they can order at the bar. There’s a clear delineation between the bartenders and the retailer workers in the new place. (Bartenders still earn $5 an hour in base pay, although customers obviously understand they should get tips, too.)

    As a result, the Tetreaults will scale back the pace of their expansion plans in Connecticut. They recently bought a farm in North Stonington, with a vision of opening a brewery and event space there. They’ll move more slowly with that project, they say, because of their newfound labor costs.

    They were unprepared for the backlash and have already noticed a drop in sales. The criticism took a toll internally. “There has been a slowdown,” Esther Tetreault said. “Mostly, it’s been a really unfortunate distraction for the whole team.”

    They’re also embarking on other HR changes: more professional development for employees, and a switch to merit-based, quarterly bonuses from annual, tenure-based payouts. Those moves, they say, were in the works for a while.

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    Growing quickly brings risks. Trillium essentially doubled its workforce — the company now has 286 full- and part-time workers, in Boston and Canton — with the Fort Point restaurant opening. (Nearly all of Trillium’s sales still remain in-house.)

    The brouhaha around retail pay has caused some soul searching. The Tetreaults say they need to get better at reacting to criticism. They’ve learned the importance of open lines of communication — of how to best convey what they’re doing and why to their employees and their customers, when they can.

    They say they’ve built Trillium, since its launch in 2013, around a culture that supports its team members, with this increase in pay being one example. But the episode should serve as a sober reminder: Your products are important, but the people behind them are at least as valuable, if not more so.

    Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.