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The Restaurant Owners Fighting Systems That Allow Abuse to Persist

For young business owners, the co-op structure makes restaurants healthier places to work

First-time visitors to 1149 South Ninth Street have been a bit confused of late: Depending on the day and time, the space might house a pop-up brunch or an art show, straddling definitions of a restaurant, events space, and art gallery. It’s actually all of those things, in what once was the home of El Compadre, the sibling restaurant to famous Philadelphia Mexican restaurant South Philly Barbacoa. But most crucially, 1149 is a worker-owned cooperative, and it’s precisely this ownership model that allows the space to be a restaurant, gallery, community space, and more.

The co-op at 1149 is focused on food and social justice. Ailbhe Pascal, founder of Fikira Bakery, and Jena Harris, the creator of catering company Food Everyone Deserves, started the co-op after working together for a few years. “Both of us, having aligned missions, found collaborating exciting and fruitful,” explains Pascal. “I had worked in some co-ops before and [was] curious: What would it look like if we became a co-op?”

Restaurant employees and other food professionals have considered the co-op life, too. Bay Area bakery Arizmendi has been operating as one for more than 20 years. In Austin, Black Star became the first cooperatively owned brewpub in 2006. That same year, Blue Scorcher opened as a cooperative bakery in Astoria, Oregon. But the co-op model feels newly relevant to young people working in the industry as a way to combat traditional structures that have often allowed abuse to persist. Their notion is that the cooperative structure makes restaurants healthier places to work.

Melissa Hoover, executive director for nonprofit cooperative advocacy group Democracy at Work Institute, says that while co-ops exist across industries, they’re most prevalent in those that rely on teamwork, and those with “a values driver” of some kind. “If they want to do ethical or sustainable farming; if they want to work on renewable energy; if they care for children or elders,” she says. “If there’s something that says we should do this in a humane or human-centered way, they often come to cooperatives because it enacts their values across the board and it dovetails with the work they’re trying to do.” Both factors can be true of restaurant work.

In Philadelphia, 1149 “proactively includes and involves” people of color, people with disabilities, immigrants, women, and queer and trans people, and the cooperative ownership model grew from this mission. “For me, co-ops came out of brown people needing to cooperate to survive,” Pascal says. “It’s not like, to be accessible to people of color, we then created this thing. It’s actually from experiences of necessity.”

Historically, co-ops have provided a path to business ownership for groups of people who wouldn’t otherwise have one, such as women and people of color, according to Hoover. In the hospitality industry, where the boys’ club atmosphere hasn’t yet dissipated, it’s a challenge for these groups to accrue the capital necessary to open a restaurant. Sometimes, a restaurant will become worker-owned after its owners die or move on from the restaurant. But the founders and members of 1149 chose this model for themselves, and they wouldn’t have it any other way.

For Kenisha Sutherland, a 1149 member and employee, a restaurant co-op provides flexibility. Sutherland rents one of the building’s spaces to host pop-up weekend brunches as Chef ThugLife. She says the co-op provides stability, as well as a professional stage for her cooking. “It’s a safety net to know that everything is shared, even when it comes down to paying your rent or something like that,” she says. “I want to have a location so when I’m talking to folks, I can be like, ‘You can find me at [1149],’ instead of, ‘I can come to your house and cook.’ It gives me the feeling of professionalism to be able to say, ‘Yes, I have a space.’”

For Pascal, a restaurant co-op makes restaurant work sustainable. “I don’t need a whole restaurant all seven days, all of those hours. That’s not humanly possible, that’s not what I want,” they say. “And if you sign yourself up to be the head chef at a restaurant, I guarantee you are going to be disabled and exhausted three years later.” But in a cooperative community, Pascal can work the hours that make sense for them alongside a group that has an equal stake in making the business succeed.

It’s an idea that resonates with Marco Zappia, a Minneapolis beverage director and 2018 Eater Young Gun semifinalist. In the fall, Zappia helped open Colita, his second restaurant as beverage director. He hopes to one day open “a bartender-owned, bartender-run cooperative,” and in the meantime, he’s doing what he can to apply the values of a cooperative — the notion that their work and dedication matters just as much as his — to the bars at Colita and Martina. “We now have 20 bartenders and 200 employees between both locations, and we want to create a culture that’s built off empathy and vulnerability,” he says.

Zappia eliminated the hierarchical brigade system traditional in French cuisine. “With this next generation of bartenders and individuals coming in, it doesn’t necessarily make the most sense and we wanted to try to create something a little different,” he says. He opted for a more democratic structure that prides itself on transparency when it comes to finances and scheduling. The entire team talks about bar profits and losses, a practice he believes gives everyone a greater understanding of their role in the bar’s success. The team also has open discussions on how to schedule shifts to avoid burnout. “It’s been really, really wonderful,” he says.

Zappia’s eventual goal of a bartender-owned cooperative would codify the values Zappia already prioritizes at Colita and Martina. And like Pascal, he sees it as a route to longevity in a notoriously strenuous line of work. “Can you really bartend five nights a week and be happy and healthy? Probably not,” he says. Bartenders consult, which to Zappia feels a bit like “selling your soul,” or they become brand ambassadors with a “pay-to-play mentality.” (Zappia famously mixed brands of alcohol in his cocktails at Martina to eliminate brands from the menu.) A co-op, on the other hand, would offer the opportunity to create new projects as a group. “Let’s start writing business plans and build these side hustles for all of us to work on,” he says. “It might seem intimidating as an individual but when you have the collective mentality of ‘Alright, let’s work on this project and see how far we can take it,’ it’s much easier to achieve tangible growth quickly and sustainably versus drowning as a sole entrepreneur.”

Younger people have always led the way on worker co-ops, as Hoover sees it, and she sees co-ops spiking in popularity in generational waves. “One generation starts a co-op and then they age in place, and then younger people come in and they start it all over again,” she says. And although the food businesses that come to mind when one thinks of co-ops tend to be bakeries and community cafes, she believes it can be a viable model for all kinds of restaurants. “Co-ops are not all collective and consensus. People in the restaurant industry in particular have a real fear of losing that command and control structure because they’re worried that quality will suffer and they’ll lose customers,” she says. “There are all different kinds of ways to structure your management.”

The Democracy at Work Institute is just one organization with resources to help new cooperatives. Pascal, Harris, and Sutherland worked with AORTA, a worker-owned cooperative that consults with and facilitates other co-ops to navigate one of the downsides of co-ops, which is also its chief upside — managing people and the disagreements that arise when everyone has an equal stake. “Rather than calling the cops on each other, we can call AORTA [to mediate],” Pascal jokes.

At 1149, potential members sign on for a six-month trial period before they become full-time members. “I call it ‘courting,’” Sutherland says. “It’s that opportunity for both parties to be able to say yes or no, without there being any personal hard feelings.”

In the four months 1149 has been open to the public, the work has been mostly harmonious, and in the spirit of the cooperative collaboration, Pascal is quick to encourage others to consider the co-op: “I want any reader who is like, ‘Oh, maybe this is for me,’ to know they can drop us a line.”

Monica Burton is Eater’s associate restaurant editor. Chrissy Curtin is an illustrator based in Ireland.

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