Why Are So Many East Bay Pizza Shops Cooperatively Owned?

A woman shops for bread at Arizmendi Bakery in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Columbia Shafer lives in Oakland and has noticed there are a lot of employee-owned businesses near her. And not just any businesses – pizza shops. That got her wondering why pizza? And why here?

The answer to "Why pizza?" became obvious as soon as I started talking to people: “It’s delicious.” “Pizza never goes out of style.” “Why pizza? Pizza is the best!” All real answers I got.

But, aside from local love for the slice, this is a story that dates back to the late 1960s and early 1970s in Berkeley, when a small mom-and-pop cheese shop made a bold move into the world of worker-owned cooperatives. Yep, I'm talking about The Cheese Board Collective.

Collective Roots

The year was 1971, the cost of living in the Bay Area was on the rise and the previous decade had been one of mass protest, political upheaval and social change. Berkeley was the epicenter of a number of social and political movements.

It was in that context that Sahag and Elizabeth Avedisian collectivized their small cheese shop.

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“Instead of having exploited labor we wanted to equalize the situation, in that it’s the same kind of work conditions we would want to be in ourselves,” Sahag Avedisian said in an interview from 1977.

The Avedisians distributed shares in the shop evenly among employees, decision making became a democratic process, wages were equal and the entire operation took off in a new way. A couple years in, The Cheese Board Collective started baking bread and pastries, and eventually – in the 1980s – pizza.

In the years since its inception, The Cheese Board Collective has grown a vast network of cooperative bakeries and pizza shops throughout the Bay Area. They are an example of a successful cooperative model and have helped start other employee-owned ventures, including the Arizmendi Association of Cooperatives – named after the Spanish priest José María Arizmendiarrieta, who founded a famous cooperative movement, now known as the Mondragon Corporation.

Arizmendi Bakery pizzas cool on a rack.
Arizmendi Bakery pizzas cool on a rack. (Courtesy of Arizmendi Bakery and Pizzeria, Emeryville)

Aja Green, a baker and owner at the Emeryville Arizmendi location, joined the cooperative after many years working in the food and restaurant industry.

“When you're in a kitchen, you kind of just feel like a cog sometimes,” Green said. “You're just there. You're easily replaceable.”

Green came to the bakery looking for a steady job, but said she found so much more in being an owner at Arizmendi.

“We control everything. We do payroll. We are in charge of HR,” she said. “The person who's mopping the bathrooms with you also cuts your checks. And the person who helps you do pizza also designs all of our logos. So, we are controlling every single aspect of how to run a bakery."

A Look at Employee Ownership

The Bay Area is a popular spot for employee ownership, and not just for cooperatives such as The Cheese Board and Arizmendi. Employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs) and equity compensation plans are two other prominent models of ownership in the area.

Employee-owners at Arizmendi in Emeryville enjoy the fruits of their labor.
Employee-owners at Arizmendi in Emeryville enjoy the fruits of their labor. (Courtesy Arizmendi Bakery and Pizzeria, Emeryville)

“One of the really interesting things about worker ownership is that it's a really good cross section of the workforce, and the companies involved are a really good cross section of the economy as a whole,” says Loren Rodgers, executive director of the National Center for Employee Ownership (NCEO) in downtown Oakland.

But what drives businesses to create an employee-owned model? At its most basic level, Rodgers said, it’s the redistribution of wealth and decision making.

“We've got an economy where most businesses are owned by a very small segment of the population, and I think we ought to be thinking about who we want to own our businesses,” Rodgers said. “Employee ownership is one good answer as a way to get more people owning a bigger part of the economy, so that more people share in the wealth that the economy produces.”

What Does Ownership Mean in a Changing City?

In the Bay Area, where the cost of living has skyrocketed in the past decade, Rodgers says research on participants in employee-owned business models revealed greater job stability – 53% more, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics – and 33% more income from wages, as compared to regular employees.

For Green, who grew up in Berkeley, being an owner has meant having more control over her life.

“I have no control over where I live," Green said. "I rent and any minute my rent could go up, skyrocket, and I won't be able to afford to live here. But I know I'll have a job because being an owner means that you have some sense of job security.”

Unless a car hits your bakery.

In December 2018, Green and the rest of the Emeryville Arizmendi owners faced a catastrophe – a car crashed into the back of the bakery, causing a gas leak and fire. The shop closed for a little over a year.

"One thing we learned is that when you have a fire, when you have some kind of disaster, you're no longer just what you think of yourself,” Green said. “I thought of myself as just a baker who also happens to own a bakery. “But then I became, like, an insurance person. And I know all about insurance now.”

When the doors opened again in February 2020, the fans were waiting. The bakery sold out before closing.

A sign announcing Arizmendi in Emeryville would close do to coronavirus health concerns.
A sign announcing Arizmendi in Emeryville would close do to coronavirus health concerns. (Courtesy Arizmendi Bakery and Pizzeria, Emeryville)

Then, COVID-19 and shelter-in-place regulations struck in March. Like many other restaurants, the Emeryville Arizmendi temporarily closed. The owners have all taken furlough.

“We're all still owners,” Green said. “We know that our job is not going anywhere.” And since all owners have access to the finances of the business, they’re able to monitor their situation and meet on a regular basis to discuss next moves together.

Since shelter in place began the week of March 15, a number of restaurants have closed, and more continue to shutter their doors.

For Green, the Emeryville Arizmendi owners have been a source of strength and comfort. Their solidarity has made it easier to weather this devastating blow.

“I've got meetings every Monday where everybody is able to make the time to check in,” Green said. “To say, how are you doing and what do you need? Where are you at? How's your family doing? What do you need to get by?”

For some businesses, employee ownership models have provided relief and even better preparedness during the pandemic. But the future of Bay Area restaurants is still uncertain. For many, rebuilding their businesses will require rethinking the entire industry model. Green hopes moving forward, employee ownership will be a bigger part of the conversation.

A Few Open, Employee-Owned Restaurants

There are a number of employee-owned businesses open right now. Check out the list below for pizza shops and grocery stores providing takeout and delivery during shelter in place.

Arizmendi Bakery
There are six cooperative bakeries in the Bay Area. Almost all of the locations are open for takeout. Check out the Arizmendi Association of Cooperatives for your individual location.

A Slice of New York
The Sunnyvale and San Jose shops are both open for takeout – and they sell frozen pies with baking instructions.

Zachary's Pizza 
The Oakland, Berkeley, San Ramon, and Pleasant Hill locations are all open for takeout service. Check out their website for location hours.

Cooperative Grocery Stores

Mandela Foods Cooperative
The West Oakland cooperative is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., with 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. reserved for senior citizens and high-risk or vulnerable shoppers. You can also place orders online for pickup.

Other Avenues
Located in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset, the cooperative grocery store is open daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., with 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. reserved for senior citizens and high-risk or vulnerable shoppers.

Rainbow Grocery
The San Francisco grocery cooperative is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., with 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. reserved for senior citizens and high-risk or vulnerable shoppers.

Want More?

Check out The Network of Bay Area Cooperatives and the NCEO Employee Ownership List for more employee-owned businesses in the Bay Area.

Got a favorite restaurant that’s employee owned you want to tell us about? Tweet it to Olivia. She’s @oallenprice.

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This article was updated on May 26, 2020.