by Ed Mayo
Forty years ago, Berkeley’s now-famous pizza parlour, the Cheeseboard, opened its doors. Organised as a worker co-operative, after a buyout from the first owner, the fame is in part due to the Pizza of the Day, a focus on one amazing Pizza rather than than the usual choice of seventeen. As I write, the Pizza of the Day is “roasted cauliflower, caramelized onion, mozzarella and Montalban cheese, toasted Pistachio, garlic olive oil, parsley”.
Constantly updated: click the image to see Cheeseboard’s special pizza of today.
The Pizza of the Day is aways without meat, and using local and organic produce where possible.
In 1997, inspired by their own success, they helped open another bakery based on co-operative principles. They named it after the founder of the Basque Mondragon Co-operative, Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta – the Arizmendi Bakery.
What they have developed is a way to spread success – which was the call of the very first post on this blog site, by Dave Hollings: how to spread the use of the wheel, rather than wondering how to reinvent it.
Joe Marraffino, Arizmendi Development and Support Cooperative, describes how they have done this: “When the Association is ready to develop a new bakery cooperative, we find a new site, draw new capitalization loans, recruit new worker-owners, and face the risks that any new enterprise faces. However, these risks are reduced by what is not new: the enterprise adapts the same business plan that existing member bakeries have used, it offers a tested product line using the same recipes, it has a similar name and co-advertises to nearby markets, it uses proven governance structures, and it shares the cost of support services with other members.”
The result, he argues, is that the new worker cooperative bakery will cost less, start faster, and be more resilient than a new business venture. This initial advantage is reinforced by a network of similar businesses offering mutual aid, and by enduring technical assistance. Once the workplace moves into profit, then they pay for their membership of the secondary co-operative, but if it is not, then they pay nothing and still receive full technical assistance services.
The culture of the enterprise is key, and this is perhaps why the model has spread but still far more organically than an investor-owned franchise that simply rolls out a new format and proposition around the country. As the Cheeseboard Collective declares, alongside a passion for good food (with a ‘sourdough starter culture’): “the belief that every voice is central has sustained us over the years. We have never wavered from the original vision of a democratic workplace.”
I suspect that anyone who has eaten at the Arizmendi Bakeries will remember the pizza that they had. But they have another recipe we could learn from, which is how to spread proven success in a bootstrap way.
It is a different model to the lone start-up approach, a different model to the secondary level that provides the support, and perhaps is a risk to the starter co-op that has to commit to engaging with its fledgling worker co-op sisters, but it solves some of the issues that face co-operative development today.
It doesn’t necessarily cross borders. I was hearing from the founders of the co-operative development network in Canada, Coop Zone, last month about an attempt to use the same system to bring a worker co-op bakery to Canada. The hurdles were far higher, as so much of the core business is attuned to the legal and commercial context of the USA. Replication across borders is always more of a challenge, even if the inspiration to try is often richer, because you can see the possibilities in among the differences.
Here in the UK, the Community Shares Unit, a partnership programme of advice and support, over the last seven years has helped to catalyse a market for co-operative capital in which over 100,000 people have invested over £120m to support over 400 community businesses. Could a new replication unit, a new partnership of some form help to spread success? Which among our outstanding worker co-ops would be one to kick off with?
It could just be pizza heaven, worker co-op style.