Want Better Working Conditions in Restaurants? Build a Co-op

At Blue Scorcher in the seaside town of Astoria, Oregon, customers count on a few things. There’s, of course, the golden braids of challah and the crisp loaves of sourdough, but also those flaky pinwheel pastries that go so well with the cafe’s frothy honey-cardamom lattes. But for the workers who find their way to Blue Scorcher, the business means much more than artisan breads and a paycheck. “When people find a good match here it’s kind of magical,” says Joe Garrison, a founding partner in Blue Scorcher.

As a worker-owned cooperative bakery, Blue Scorcher offers employees opportunities to advocate for themselves and benefit directly from the business’s success. Garrison tells the story of a young job applicant who walked through the door four years ago. “He sat through the interview with his arms crossed and didn’t make much eye contact, but we hired him anyway,” Garrison recalls. Today, the same man is an excellent pastry baker, a co-owner in the bakery, and financial officer on the cooperative’s board. “I really think there’s something powerful with this [co-op] model,” Garrison says. “It engages people in a good way.”

The worker-owned cooperative model offers many benefits, says Melissa Hoover, an executive director for the non-profit cooperative advocacy group Democracy at Work Institute. Owners in the business get to accumulate capital. When the business is particularly profitable, the employees who helped make it successful get to share in those profits rather than seeing the money doled out to shareholders or upper management. Worker-owned cooperatives also empower people through governance, dispersing the power balance between employees and employers — something that’s become even more important in the era of #MeToo. “If you own and control this, you will have a greater degree of say over the kind of people who are in power,” Hoover says. “You’ll be able to control those conditions better.”

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