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Serving More Than Food: Restaurant Co-ops Put Economic Justice on the Table

Co-ops are providing high-quality jobs largely unavailable in an industry notorious for its low wages and exploitation.

The children of participants in Oakland Bloom's incubator program at a neighborhood "Small Business Saturday" event selling items prepared by the chefs in December 2021.

Food service is not an industry that most would associate as a beacon of social or economic justice. In fact, the restaurant industry is notorious for providing paltry wages, for engaging in shocking levels of wage theft, and for generally being comprised of toxic work environments marked by sexual harassment and human trafficking.

In the face of horrendous work environments and staggering levels of worker exploitation, many restaurant workers and their advocates are advancing alternative models of management and ownership geared toward breaking the cycles of abuse and disempowerment that define much of the industry.

One of the most interesting models being explored is the worker cooperative: businesses that are owned and run collectively by the workers themselves. Although worker co-ops exist in a wide range of industries in the U.S. — from specialized glass manufacturing to landscaping and more — cooperative restaurants are one of the most common forms of businesses to adopt the co-op model. This is because there is a relatively low barrier to entry to starting a restaurant or a café ­­– they tend to be entrepreneurs’ first toehold in the economy.

“Being an owner of a business is a great feeling because I feel like it’s mine, that I have my name attached to something and I can impact something that’s bigger than myself — it’s empowering,” Malik Cole, a worker-owner at Red Emma’s, a cooperative restaurant, bookstore and community events space in Baltimore, Maryland, told Truthout. “It’s not just one person that’s running everything — it’s all the worker-owners coming together.”

Red Emma’s began as a radical bookstore and events space in 2004 but was expanded into a cooperative cafe in 2013 when the workers decided they wanted the space to become something more expansive. Since then, it has become a beacon of the community, serving its famous vegan mac ‘n cheese, stocking anarchist literature, opening its space to events like workplace organizing trainings and poetry open mics, and, of course, providing high-quality job opportunities that are otherwise largely not available in an industry dominated by low wages and exploitation.

“I have experience working in regular capitalist-type restaurants, so I know that restaurant culture can be very toxic — they usually take advantage of people and are not very fair to workers,” Cole told Truthout. “But at Red Emma’s, we try to do our best to make it so everyone has a voice and feels like they can put their input into the restaurant.”

Red Emma’s was co-founded by Kate Khatib, who is also the co-executive director of the Seed Commons Network, a national network of locally rooted, non-extractive loan funds supporting local cooperative businesses, as well as a co-founder and member of the staff collective at the Baltimore Roundtable for Economic Democracy, or BRED, which is a platform that connects investments to local cooperative development.

Ken Brown, aka Analysis the Poet, a member of Red Emma’s books team.
Ken Brown, aka Analysis the Poet, a member of Red Emma’s books team.

There are a number of funds like the Seed Commons and BRED around the U.S. that help provide capital to people interested in starting worker cooperatives. Many also focus on providing funding to co-op businesses working with marginalized communities that have traditionally been left out of the formal economy.

“Starting a restaurant takes a lot of capital,” Khatib told Truthout. “So with Red Emma’s, rather than trying to do something by myself, I was really excited about working with a group of people to try and create a cafe that had a real community spirit behind it.”

According to Khatib, Red Emma’s began as a cafe with the intention to create a business that could bring in enough revenue to support an organizing space with goals that went further than simply serving food. However, over time, their understanding of what the restaurant could be began to expand.

“We then formalized into becoming a real worker co-op that was trying to create sustainable, living-wage jobs with dignity in an industry that doesn’t really afford us that,” Khatib said. “Especially as women and people of color and people from traditionally marginalized identity groups.”

Worker co-ops like Red Emma’s have taken the conscious decision to flip the script when it comes to business as usual in the restaurant industry.

“As part of Red Emma’s, I was able to develop all different kinds of skill sets around food, restaurant management, and the business aspects of running a restaurant that I would never have gotten access to in any of my previous jobs where I was always relegated to just taking orders,” Khatib told Truthout. “But Red Emma’s gave us a chance to work together to learn all of those different pieces. And then as we started to get good at it, we started to realize that we had a real responsibility to provide that same opportunity for other people.”

Red Emma’s is not alone in this — one of the biggest advantages of worker cooperatives is that they encourage their members to build a wider variety of skills than typical jobs tend to.

Worker members on break in Red Emma’s kitchen (Left to Right: Pam Montanez, Najee Haynes-Follins, and Malik Cole).
Worker members on break in Red Emma’s kitchen (Left to Right: Pam Montanez, Najee Haynes-Follins and Malik Cole).

“Workers may come into a restaurant with certain skills, but then they’re really building other skills, like small business skills, for example, when they work in a co-op,” Melissa Hoover, founding executive director of the Democracy at Work Institute, told Truthout. “That gives them an enormous amount of flexibility and capacity to move on in the restaurant industry, maybe to move into management leadership, but also to do other kinds of work.”

According to Hoover, there’s no real incentive in regular restaurants for owners to encourage their workers to broaden their skills or share information about running and managing the business side of things. “Whereas in a co-op, what we tend to consider as certain professional class skills, like management, for example, are made accessible to everyone — they have to, in order for it to run effectively,” Hoover said.

But cooperative workplaces don’t stop at skill-building; they also tend to engender a broader atmosphere of worker empowerment animated by democratic values and solidarity.

“Being in the collective gives a sense of agency to shape what we want the restaurant industry to be,” Niño Serrano, a worker-owner and chef at Understory, a cooperative restaurant in Oakland, California, told Truthout. “Struggling it out with your collective, being transparent and making decisions that don’t necessarily benefit just one person, but the whole group.”

After leaving his home in the Philippines to find food service work in California, Serrano quickly realized that there was something seriously wrong with the company that hired him. He was working 18-hour days while only getting paid for 8, and on top of that, the company that hired him had made all sorts of promises which they did not keep — including a promise to provide him with a work permit.

Eventually, Serrano was able to get help through a Filipino community center, which assisted him in filing a wage theft and human trafficking case against his employer. Now, as a worker-owner at Understory, helping to organize and empower undocumented communities has become a key part of his life.

“Of course, we are still living in a capitalist world, but at Understory, we don’t operate with scarcity — we operate in terms of love and taking care of our community,” Serrano said.

One of the ways this shows up at Understory is the menu. In addition to selling food on a sliding scale, the co-op also provides food free of cost if somebody is in need, no questions asked.

“Despite the different hardships that I went through in being here, things are much brighter now,” Serrano told Truthout. “And I want to be able to instill this hope for others who might be experiencing the same thing.”

One of Serrano’s favorite dishes to make is adobo, a dish preparation that is quite simple to cook but very nutritious. “It brings back memories from back home — it reminds me of my mom,” Serrano said.

Understory is a part of a larger project called Oakland Bloom, which is a nonprofit that works toward developing cooperative food businesses with the aim of providing pathways toward economic equity for poor and working-class immigrant, refugee and BIPOC chefs. In addition to launching Understory, Oakland Bloom’s flagship program Open Test Kitchen offers a year-long food business incubator and training program aimed at giving immigrant, refugee and BIPOC chefs opportunities to build and develop their skills and experiences in commercial food service settings.

“At Oakland Bloom, people care about one another — they show care and people come first,” Sanela Mlivo, a member of the Open Test Kitchen’s 2019-2021 cohort, told Truthout. “It’s not so much about materialism — it’s more about love for one another, which is something I’d never experienced in the United States in a business environment.”

Sanela poses at her first pop-up at the newly opened kitchen space and restaurant.
Sanela poses at her first pop-up at the newly opened kitchen space and restaurant.

Mlivo grew up on a large farm in central Bosnia. Her family raised animals, grew their own vegetables and smoked their own meat. In fact, they produced pretty much everything except for salt, oil and flour.

“My love for food was ingrained there,” Mlivo said. “And working in some restaurants here, everything is canned, it’s not fresh. But that’s one thing I love about Oakland Bloom — they try to make everything from scratch, which is a very healthy way to do business.”

Mlivo and her family lost their farm in the Bosnian War and she ended up settling in the United States as a refugee in 1998. She worked a number of jobs to make ends meet, from serving in restaurants to delivering for DoorDash, but was always in poverty. She eventually met somebody who introduced her to Oakland Bloom, and that’s when her life began to transform.

“Oakland Bloom felt like a family, a community who’s there for every need. They taught me all about portioning, about how to serve different communities, different audiences, they taught us how to get our food permits — they taught us everything about small businesses, and they helped us with catering opportunities,” Mlivo told Truthout. “Capitalism is a really hard, harsh environment to live in. I feel like there should be more opportunities out there for people who don’t have capital, who are living in poverty, for them to have a chance at doing something that they love doing.”

One of Mlivo’s favorite dishes to make is ćevapi — beef and lamb sausages that come in homemade pita bread. “They’re served with homemade sauce too, which is called ajvar — a sauce made out of bell peppers and eggplant,” Mlivo said. “And then we chop onions and maybe a little side of cabbage salad and sour cream. That’s everyone’s favorite back home.”

Oakland Bloom’s Open Test Kitchen program is not just designed to create platforms where chefs from traditionally marginalized communities can express their own food heritages, it’s also designed to connect chefs with a wide variety of opportunities within the food industry. Most recently, for example, Oakland Bloom secured Mlivo and other chefs a table at the San Francisco Ferry Building Marketplace where she made traditional Balkan sauces like ajvar and chocolate coconut truffle holiday treats. Mlivo also does regular pop-ups at Understory, where she often makes ćevapi with vegan options as well.

“Our economic systems are structured in ways that by default can be very exclusionary and extractive,” Diana Wu, a board member of Oakland Bloom, told Truthout. “So, our starting point is: How do we enable people to pursue the visions that they’ve articulated for themselves? How do we create structures that are livable for people in different situations or who might have different needs? These questions shape how we work with folks in the cohort and build deeper relationships with people through that program.”

According to Wu, the Open Test Kitchen program is comprised almost exclusively of women of color, many of them single mothers. In an industry already hit hard by COVID, this demographic is certainly disproportionately impacted — especially within traditional, capitalist businesses that put profits over people. But at Oakland Bloom, things work differently.

“COVID has produced many questions of mobility and caretaking needs, and we aim to support child care as needed to help enable space for folks,” Wu said. “But also, this is a pretty child-friendly space. It’s not uncommon to have kids joining in with their parents as well.”

Oakland Bloom also extended their last cohort’s program length from one to two years because of the pandemic. “That’s not typical, but we doubled down support with that cohort in light of the onset of COVID and shelter in place,” Wu explained.

Additionally, Oakland Bloom has launched programs that are specifically tailored to providing work to their chefs during the pandemic in ways that help support community needs. The Pay It Forward program connects chefs to opportunities to cook homestyle meals donated to local mutual aid and distribution efforts aimed at feeding unsheltered people in Oakland. In 2020, they also partnered with Gill Tract Farms to provide Oakland Bloom chefs with community-supported agriculture produce boxes as part of a community-based relief effort. Oakland Bloom has also worked to connect chefs with legal, housing and mental health services in emergencies — due to COVID, but also more generally as well.

Oakland Bloom chefs Sanela and Pa Wah at the grill during their collaboration pop-up. Sanela grills turmeric chicken skewer and Pa Wah sautés Burmese-style Pad Kra Pao (a spicy pork and basil stir-fry).
Oakland Bloom chefs Sanela and Pa Wah at the grill during their collaboration pop-up. Sanela grills turmeric chicken skewers and Pa Wah sautés Burmese-style Pad Kra Pao (a spicy pork and basil stir-fry).

Red Emma’s has also taken extra steps to support worker-owners during the pandemic. For example, it used a portion of the co-op’s COVID Economic Injury Disaster Loans and Paycheck Protection Program loans to raise wages across the board, add dental and vision care, and provide paid vacation for all worker-owners. Red Emma’s also coordinated weekly grocery deliveries to its own worker-owners, using supplies left in the store, when the restaurant was closed due to lockdown in March 2020.

And the sense of worker solidarity is not limited to just Red Emma’s itself — worker-owners also focus their efforts on helping the broader cooperative community in Baltimore.

“In the early pandemic when we couldn’t be open as a restaurant, we used our building and our online ordering system to create a general store that sold prepared foods and packaged items from six cooperative food businesses,” Khatib told Truthout. “That way, everyone could continue to sell products while they were creating their own infrastructure to take online orders or pivot in different ways.”

Red Emma’s and Oakland Bloom’s Understory are just two of many worker cooperative restaurants in the U.S. From Black Star, a cooperatively owned and self-managed brewpub in Austin, Texas; to Casa Nuevo, a Mexican-style co-op restaurant in Athens, Ohio; to the Cheese Board Collective in Berkeley, a worker-owned pizzeria and cheese counter that is part of the Arizmendi bakery network in the San Francisco Bay area, and many, many others.

“When you shift the focus from maximizing profit for a single owner or an outside investor to maximizing benefit for the people who work in the restaurant, it really helps you think creatively about all the ways you can benefit your workers,” Melissa Hoover told Truthout. “The restaurant industry is clearly a broken industry, and co-ops alone aren’t going to fix it, but the advantage that a co-op has are its built-in values, principles and relationships — and when it leverages those, they can have a very strong impact.”

Note: Niño Serrano’s contribution was translated from Tagalog by Understory co-worker/owner Jenabi Pareja. This article has been updated to reflect that Red Emma’s did not formalize into a workers cooperative until 2013.

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