Baking a Co-Op
Niles Pie Company rolls out a business plan
that lets employees share in the profits
By Rachel Trachten
“Sharing the pie” has taken on a whole new meaning over at Union City–based Niles Pie Company. As customers line up for summertime pies bursting with strawberries or peaches, the shop’s original owner, Carolyn Berke, is divvying up ownership and responsibilities in the process of turning the business into a worker cooperative.
Berke says that as Niles Pie has quickly grown, she’s felt the need for partners. She started the shop in 2010 with help from just an intern or two and is now in a larger, permanent space with 10 employees. Her customer base has grown too, and Niles Pie currently sells its sweet and savory tarts at the shop and at farmers’ markets in Oakland and Fremont. With the addition of a small lunch menu served in the shop, where they also host baking classes and special events, Berke’s response to all this growth has been to look within. “Rather than trying to find outside partners,” she says, “it made sense to look to people who are already invested in the business in every way except financially. I come from a long line of true-blue socialists, and I believe in economic justice and that people doing the work should be getting the profit.”
Over the past year, Niles Pie employees have collaborated with Project Equity, a nonprofit that helps businesses transition to worker ownership. Together they’ve focused on creating an operating agreement with the flexibility to be adapted over time and a matrix to define how decisions are made and by whom, whether it be the managers, membership, or board. For now, decisions are made using a consensus model, but Berke recognizes that this may become too cumbersome once more workers join the co-op.
Niles Pie employees have the option of buying into the co-op and becoming worker-owners for $5,000, which can be paid over a year through payroll deductions. Worker-owners then receive wages that vary from person to person based on experience and skills as well as a share in the profits based solely on hours worked. Three Niles Pie employees have become worker-owners already, and three more will join at the end of the year.
Berke views the slow and laborious process of going co-op as a worthwhile challenge for kitchen people like herself, who tend to be action and results oriented. “It’s been good to revisit topics that you think you’re done with,” she says. “As you learn more and your understanding broadens, you can look at things from
As Bay Area food businesses struggle to find and retain skilled employees, Berke hopes that going co-op will give Niles Pie an advantage. In a co-op, low staff turnover and a high level of employee commitment ideally lead to increased efficiency and higher profits. Berke would like to use these profits to improve compensation for worker-owners interested in making a long-term commitment. “Part of our goal in becoming a cooperative,” she says, “is to raise the level of food service as a career.”
Edible East Bay’s associate editor Rachel Trachten writes about food, cooking, and gardens as tools for education and social change. She takes time out from magazine work for choral singing. View her stories at racheltrachten.contently.com and get in touch at rachel(at)edibleeastbay.com.