Opening and sustaining a restaurant in today’s Bay Area is rife with potential dangers. Labor is expensive, food is expensive, rent is expensive, and on top of it all, maybe the city your restaurant is located in isn’t as supportive as you’d like. It’s an exhausting, fickle industry. But some restaurants think they’ve found a solution--by turning to a co-op business model.
Instead of a traditional restaurant, where profits go to an owner or investors, a cooperative is owned by its workers, and profits are distributed equally between them. They also make decisions collaboratively, with each member having an equal say in business decisions. And since they can offer more autonomy and good benefits, they usually have higher employee retention rates than other restaurants. (Co-op and collective are often used interchangeably, but they're different: cooperative refers to who owns a business, while a collective is a style of management.) It can be difficult to sustain, but as Momo Chang pointed out in a recent piece for the East Bay Express, it can be an effective way for restaurants to sustain themselves in a time when it’s hard to find labor. We’ve featured the East Bay’s co-op restaurants below--if there’s one we missed, please let us know in the comments.
These days, you can’t walk a block in San Francisco without bumping into a line of people in line for coffee, poke or cookie dough. At North Berkeley’s Cheeseboard Pizzeria, people have been lining up for the restaurant's pizza of the day since 1985, when some workers from the Cheeseboard bakery and cheese shop started offering vegetarian pizza at night. The business started as a traditional for-profit shop in 1967, but the owners sold it to the workers in 1971. As the years passed, the pizzeria has adapted with the times, adding gluten-free and vegan options, and helped start the Arizmendi group of collectives in the '90s. On a recent visit, everyone from Cal students to businessmen queued up for the day’s pizza while children danced to a jaunty band singing about a nefarious ex from Grass Valley.
Their tomato pizza (a rare seasonal treat, as they usually eschew tomatoes in favor of creative vegetable and cheese combinations) showed off their commitment to sustainable produce with sweet, dry farmed local tomatoes while a roasted corn salad featured a satisfying mix of pickled onions and pasilla peppers and a sweet buttermilk dressing.
Cheese Board Pizza
1512 Shattuck Ave. [Map]
Berkeley, CA 94709
Ph: (510) 549-3183
Hours: Tues-Sat, 11:30am-3pm 4:30-8pm; closed Sun-Mon
Facebook: The Cheese Board Collective
Price range: $-$$ (Pizza slice $2.75, Whole Pizza $22-$28)
Three Stone Hearth isn’t a restaurant or food store, but a community supported kitchen. Just like in a CSA, customers help maintain the business by purchasing in advance. Only in this case, instead of produce, they’re buying nutrient dense prepared meals, inspired by traditional cooking preparations and methods (fermented foods and bone broth are both mainstays). The business, which is run by a cooperative of 19 worker-owners, is also open to the public, so anyone can pick up a jar of one of the week’s soups--a carrot soup with a bold gingery kick and a whisper of coconut on my visit--or something a little more filling, like their tender, well-spiced pulled pork, just begging to be piled atop some polenta (or perhaps sandwiched between slices of gluten-free sourdough, also available for purchase at their University Ave. location).
Three Stone Hearth
1581 University Ave. [Map]
Berkeley, CA 94703
Ph: (510) 981-1334
Hours: Wed, 4-7pm; Thur, 10am-4pm; Fri, 2pm-6pm; Sat, 9am-2pm; closed Sun-Tue
Facebook: Three Stone Hearth
Price range: $$ (Entrees $11-$17)
When Neldam’s Danish Bakery, an Oakland institution for more than 80 years, was forced to close in 2010 after money troubles, its workers didn’t know what to do. Many had worked there for decades. Pastry was all they knew. So, they decided to reopen in 2010 as a cooperative, renaming themselves A Taste of Denmark. It’s a nostalgic establishment, with row after row of treats laid out in gleaming cases, stately armchairs and a sign reminding you that stressed spelled backwards is desserts. While they still offer Scandinavian treats like cardamom bread and buttery danishes, they’ve expanded their selection of pastries. Don’t miss their traditional American desserts, like a mini lemon meringue pie topped with a giant tower of bronzed meringue or the chantilly cake, a chocolate chiffon and whipped cream creation that resembles a far superior Ho-Ho. A Taste of Denmark also offers an assortment of decorated cakes, wedding cakes, pies, and cookies.
A Taste of Denmark Bakery
3401 Telegraph Ave. [Map]
Oakland, CA 94609
Ph: (510) 420-8889
Hours: Mon-Wed, 7am-3pm; Thur-Fri, 7am-5pm; Sat, 8am-5pm; Sun, 10am-3pm
Facebook: A Taste of Denmark Bakery
Price range: $ (Pastries/Bread $10 and under, Cakes $19-$102)
Red Bay’s Coffee’s tagline is “beautiful coffee to the people,” which the company practices in a few different ways. On the supplier side of things, founder Keba Konte prioritizes buying coffee directly from farmers--one of their single origins is grown by Jackie Robinson’s son--which ensures they receive a fair share of the profits. He also approaches recruitment differently. He prioritizes employing a racially diverse staff and offers career pathways to those usually denied such opportunities, including formerly incarcerated individuals and former foster children. While Red Bay isn’t an official cooperative, the profits from their Uptown cafe are shared equally between the company’s two dozen workers, depending on how many hours they worked that month.
At that cafe, a former shipping container in the Hive shopping center, they serve rotating coffee blends (on my visit, their bright, chocolatey East Fourteenth) as well as more unusual offerings. A honey lavender cappuccino was herbal and not too sweet, while a vanilla charcoal latte--according to our server, the charcoal rounds out the espresso flavor while offering some debated health benefits--wasn’t as cloying as the typical vanilla latte, thanks to the the cafe’s balanced homemade vanilla syrup.
Red Bay Cafe
2327 Broadway [Map]
Oakland, CA 94612
Ph: (510) 517-5582
Hours: Mon-Thur, 7am-4:30pm; Fri, 7am-6pm; Sat, 9am-6pm; Sun, 10am-3pm
Facebook: Red Bay Coffee
Price range: Price range: $ (Coffee drinks $10 and under, 1lb Coffee $16-$19)
The Juice Bar Collective, also in North Berkeley, doesn't seem to be the easiest place to work. It’s the size of a wealthy person’s walk-in closet, requiring staffers to work in very cozy proximity to their coworkers. And while they specialize in juices and smoothies--like a virtuous, viridescent JBC Kale--they also produce a menu of sandwiches, salads and hot dishes. This means that at any given moment, there’s a blender whirring while someone else is pulling a tray of mac and cheese out of the oven (a richer, spicier and less austere version than what you’d expect from such a '70s health food store environs), someone else is making sandwiches (don’t miss their turkey sandwiches, with thick slices of local and sustainable turkey breast) and someone else is calmly taking orders from a line of customers that often snakes out the door and down Vine Street.
But any employee annoyances are eased by the cooperative’s policy of regularly rotating employee duties, so no one is forced to be stuck in a role they don’t enjoy for too long. Plus, as we found out in our previous profile of the Juice Bar Collective, workers also get full health, vision, and dental benefits, as well as a month of vacation.