Local caterers take the boss out of the kitchen
Whipping up 200 empanadas is all in a day’s work for the women of Fusion Latina. At Richmond’s Artisan Kitchen they’re a synchronized team, chopping zucchini and onions, rolling out dough for tortillas, and slicing poblano peppers. Although the kitchen work is typical for a catering company, what’s unusual about these five women is that no one is the boss: their business is a worker cooperative.
Co-ops like Fusion Latina (and others discussed in this article) are owned and democratically operated (one person, one vote) by their members. The partners share responsibilities, decision-making, and profits. “At first, we all worked for free,” says Alejandra Escobedo. “Now we can get paid, based on the number of hours we work.” Co-op members can receive different wages, as long as it’s agreed upon democratically.
|Mexican MushroomsFusion Latina offers this simple mushroom recipe, a delicious accompaniment to quesadillas, empanadas, or even spaghetti. You can find epazote leaves in any Mexican grocery store.2 tablespoons olive oil
½ onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
½ serrano chile, finely chopped (optional)
1 tomato, finely chopped
1 pound mushrooms, sliced
10 epazote leaves, finely chopped
Heat the oil in a skillet, then add and sauté the onion and garlic. When they are transparent, add the chile and tomatoes. After they are soft add the mushrooms and finely chopped epazote. Salt to taste. Remove from heat after 5 minutes.
Escobedo invited me to the group’s weekly meeting, held at the Richmond home of member Lucrecia Martinez. Conversation was in Spanish with translation for my benefit. When I arrived, four women were sitting at a small dining room table reviewing their earnings from the week’s empanada sales. (One person was absent, due to a medical need in her family.) The first agenda item was a big one: reconsideration of a part of their business model. Escobedo explained that twice weekly they drive to many local businesses to offer empanadas for sale. This approach, the women agreed, is exhausting and far from lucrative. They start cooking at 6am and, with all the driving, don’t finish until evening. In addition, sales are down because many customers are seeking lighter fare. With input from each member, the group decided to change their lunch menu to soup, salad, and a smaller empanada. And, going forward, businesses will need to sign up in advance to receive lunches.
These five women, all in their forties or fifties, came together during a year-long business and leadership training at Richmond’s Latina Center. Learning about cooperatives prompted conversations about creating a business, and food was a logical choice. “All of us love to cook; people love Latin American food,” says Escobedo. As they build the business, the women juggle family life and other jobs. “I like to be my own boss,” says member Pilar Ruiz, who also sells Mary Kay cosmetics and cares for her autistic son.
Freedom from a boss isn’t the only reason to go co-op. Berkeley resident Marc Swan had been the sole owner of Local Flavor Catering for 10 years when he recently made the switch. “It felt overwhelming as a working parent to grow a business,” says Swan, who now has two partners. “Using the co-op mechanism,” he adds, “I can avoid exploitation of other people’s labor. Where the fruits of labor are shared based on the amount of work you put in, I can rest easy with my own conscience.”
Swan and his partners prepare locally sourced “creative comfort food” and strive for stability through regular lunchtime clients. “The catering business in general is a roller coaster,” says Swan, adding that it’s known for “horrendous hours” and “crazy schedules.” Like the members of Fusion Latina, Swan and co-members Kate Sassoon and Ricardo Simon prioritize work/life balance. “We agree that calling in people to help is preferable to working ourselves to the bone,” says Sassoon. “We want this to be sustainable.”
Finding Common Ground
Local Flavor uses a consensus model for making decisions, meaning that issues are discussed until all concerns are met and consensus is reached. “We never have to get to a point where there’s one person who doesn’t agree; if we get to that point, we failed to address that person’s concerns and to talk about the real issue,” says Simon. “The ability to compromise is important too,” he says, “as long as you’re not betraying your core beliefs.” This model would be a leap for most businesses, but is surprisingly easy if members share goals and have built a framework for decision-making.
At Fusion Latina, the group usually comes to consensus, but their bylaws allow for decision-making based on four votes out of five. At their weekly meeting, Escobedo owned up to a mistake in not consulting the others about a holiday promotion she sent to customers. The prices she’d offered were far too low, and Escobedo apologized for acting alone. With no rancor, they moved on to the next issue.
To start a worker co-op, “the principal challenge is to find the right legal form,” says Swan. California law has no statute defining regulations for creating or running a worker co-op, so groups are left with two imperfect choices, according to Christina Oatfield, policy director for the Sustainable Economies Law Center. Oatfield says the options are to incorporate as an LLC (limited liability company) with a written agreement that spells out how members will share in work, profits, and decision-making, or incorporate as a consumer co-op. Both options have downsides. The LLC doesn’t require democratic decision-making or guarantee that workers will own and control the business over the long term. In a consumer co-op, workers are treated as employees rather than partners, and the organization must comply with burdensome requirements regarding meetings.
To remedy the legal headaches, Swan and Oatfield are part of a working group trying to get a worker co-op statute passed by the California legislature. Oatfield says the law would create a new legal structure tailored to worker co-ops without changing the laws governing other types of co-ops. This legislation (AB 2525) was introduced in February 2014 by Alameda Assemblymember Rob Bonta and will likely be voted on later this year. The new bill meets worker needs through flexibility in employment law and taxes, and also mandates that workers own and control the business democratically. “From our work with community-based entrepreneurs, we’ve come to recognize the benefits of a dedicated legal structure for cooperatives,” says attorney Sushil Jacob of the East Bay Community Law Center. According to Jacob, the law would help low-income workers establish local businesses “that will create jobs, address income inequality, and stabilize the community.”
Another roadblock faced by worker co-ops is confusion among other professionals about how co-ops function. “A lot of times banks and lawyers have no idea what you’re talking about,” says Simon. Whenever possible, Local Flavor works with other co-op businesses because they share a common language. In addition, co-ops are committed to helping one another out. Worldwide, they support the seven core principals adopted by the International Co-operative Alliance in 1995; principal six is cooperation among cooperatives.
One Co-op Leads to the Next
The Bay Area has one of the highest concentrations of worker co-ops in the US, with about 40 worker-owned businesses. Our most famous local example is Berkeley’s Cheeseboard Collective, which opened in 1967 as a tiny cheese store on Vine Street. Its two owners, who had been members of an Israeli kibbutz, converted the Cheeseboard to a co-op in 1971 by making their employees equal partners. The business was such a hit that in 1997, they opened a sister store, Oakland’s Arizmendi Bakery. (The name honors the Basque priest, José María Arizmendiarrieta, who helped to found the world’s largest worker cooperative, Spain’s Mondragón Corporation.) But why stop with one Arizmendi Bakery? Over time, the process spawned four more sisters, bringing veggie pizzas, cheese rolls, and other highly addictive goodies to Emeryville, San Rafael, and San Francisco.
|Info:Fusion Latina Collective & Catering Service:
Find on FacebookLocal Flavor Catering:
Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives:
US Federation of Worker Cooperatives:
In 2010, Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin traveled to Mondragón to learn about its co-ops, which have been thriving since 1956. The Mayor also hired Terry Baird, one of Arizmendi’s founders, to jump start new worker co-ops in Richmond. Baird counseled Fusion Latina on consensus decision-making, and the group received a start-up loan from a fund set up by an anonymous donor to launch co-ops in Richmond. Marilyn Langlois accompanied the Mayor to Mondragón and is now a board member for Richmond’s co-op loan fund. She says that in a city like Richmond, where the unemployment rate is high, co-ops offer another form of job creation. Co-op workers also develop skills because tasks are often rotated, and co-ops tend to protect workers from layoffs by cutting costs across the board in hard times. Richmond is home to several worker co-ops, including the solar company Pamoja Energy Solutions and the Liberty Ship Café, a catering business that got its start in 2010 with help from the California Center for Cooperative Development.
Operating as a co-op “takes time and effort,” says Langlois, “but the payoff is that everybody has buy-in to decisions. Co-ops acknowledge that every worker has something to contribute; their ideas and thoughts and experience are valued.” •
Marc Swan of Local Flavor recalls that when he was growing up in the north of England, this Indian snack food was ubiquitous in supermarkets, corner stores, and even occasionally in a fish and chip shop. Local Flavor’s interpretation adds squash to the traditional onion, giving it a lovely color and a bit more nutrition.
The recipe works well with summer or winter squash of any variety, but if using summer squash, after grating add a little salt, let stand for 30 minutes, and then squeeze out some of the juice. You can reserve this juice to add back in if necessary.
1 cup garbanzo bean flour (besan)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon garam masala
¼ teaspoon cayenne (if you like)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 cups grated squash
½ cup grated onion
Oil for frying
Mix all the dry ingredients in a bowl or stand mixer. Add the squash and onion and mix well. Let it stand for a while; as the salt works into the squash it will release liquid, and it will have the consistency of muffin batter. If not, add a little water to make it so.
Pour ¼ inch of oil into a frying pan and bring to frying temperature. Add the batter in 2-ounce scoops (or the desired size), and fry for several minutes until golden brown, then turn over and repeat. The bhaji should be cooked all the way through; it will spring back when pushed if it is.
Serve with minted yogurt or mango chutney.
Kate’s Spiced Apple Cardamom Cake
When she is looking for instant gratification, Kate Sassoon of Local Flavor serves this cake warm. Served cooled, it will have more developed spice flavors. Garnish with crème fraîche and cinnamon or lemon zest.
2 dozen cardamom pods
½ cup cooking oil
1 ½ cups all-purpose, organic unbleached flour
1 cup light brown sugar
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 cup buttermilk
½ cup cardamom oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup tart, hearty apples, finely diced
Heat the oil in a small sauté pan and toast the cardamom pods lightly until aromatic and golden brown. Strain, reserving the oil, and set aside to cool.
Preheat oven to 350°.
Whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, spices, and salt until fully combined.
Add the buttermilk, cooled oil, and vanilla, and stir until smooth. Then stir in the diced apples.
Pour in a well-greased 8-inch by 8-inch square pan and bake in the preheated oven for 40–50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Alternately, divide batter into lined cupcake molds (for a dozen cupcakes) and bake for 20–30 minutes. Let cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes, then carefully loosen the cake from the sides, invert the pan onto a plate, then turn right-side-up onto the rack to finish cooling.