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Bay Area Communities of Color Embrace Co-op Cafes and Restaurants

By Danielle Dorsey

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The Bay Area is experiencing a resurgence of worked-owned, cooperatively run businesses, this time spearheaded by communities of color. These sort of community-driven cafes first rose to prominence in the East Bay in the 1970s, but the region’s recent crop of co-ops is pushing a more radical agenda that’s a direct response to rising rents that have displaced much of the local service community.

While 15 percent of worker-owned co-ops around the country are in the foodservice industry, the people pioneering this new movement of co-ops are very different than those who popularized the idea in the 1970s. Democracy at Work released a report in 2017 that found that 61 percent of worker-owners at co-ops across the country are people of color. According to the report, this is in sharp contrast with the 1970s, when co-op workers were mostly white and privileged.

Those who are creating co-ops today are driven to do so for different reasons than those who launched in the 1970s. Originators of the trend saw co-ops as an opportunity to exit the economy and start independent businesses, while today’s co-op leaders hope to re-enter an economy that has systematically shut them out.

Fruitvale cafe and bookstore Hasta Muerte opened in 2017 and regularly hosts community events. Alejandro Cano told the San Francisco Chronicle that, “We’re trying to live out our different values and politics in a system that doesn’t really create a space for that.” The cafe made headlines last summer when their policy of refusing service to police officers was made public.

More co-ops are following in Hasta Muerte’s footsteps, including Tamarack, a worker-owned, co-op that opened in Oakland in February of this year. The ten co-op members met while community organizing and their salaries are higher than the average Oakland bartender. The restaurant currently only has two full-time workers, with other members volunteering for unpaid shifts in the hopes that business will pick up as word spreads.

In the rapidly gentrifying Bay Area, local co-ops give worker-owners a rare opportunity to own a piece of a business without succumbing to the usual demands of the food service industry where 60 hour weeks are the norm. While the industry is not without challenges, workers are optimistic that their sacrifices will pay off in the end. 


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Danielle Dorsey

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