When no one is your boss and your boss is everyone

The Cheese Board Collective as a model for the restaurant co-op

If you’ve been reading my newsletter this summer, you’ve heard this one before: someone who wants to make the world a better place decides to start a restaurant. The food is vegetarian, but that’s just the tip of the political iceberg. The owner brings their democratic values to the business model, so everyone does all the jobs and the business decisions are made by consensus. We saw it at Horn of the Moon Cafe in Vermont, where Ginny Callan was able to create a radical home for the lefty community of Goddard College. At Bloodroot in Connecticut, women who met at NOW consciousness-raising groups created a feminist restaurant that did away with the inequities of hospitality and traditional kitchen hierarchies, and they’re still at it today. And if you’ve ever skimmed the vegetarian shelf of a bookstore you’ve likely heard of the Moosewood Restaurant, whose co-founder wrote the bestselling vegetarian cookbook of all time and whose collective has produced 13 more. 

I went into this series on 70s cookbooks thinking I was going to take a deep dive on vegetarianism, but it turned out that co-ops and egalitarian business models were the most compelling way that counterculture restaurants manifested their politics. It might be that these collectives were all a product of that special moment in history where a generation of young, middle class white people were particularly driven to break the capitalist rules they believed had betrayed America’s democratic promise. But we’re in another moment where the inequities and injustices of our society have become too stark to ignore, and essential workers like restaurant staff have been paying the price with their livelihoods and their lives. The collective model provides an alternative way forward that the restaurant industry desperately needs. 

The Cheese Board Collective, based in Berkeley, California, is an outstanding model for the modern co-op. A quote from a member of the Collective in their cookbook and oral history The Cheese Board Collective Works puts it simply: “The most political thing we do is that we all own the business together. We let that be our statement.” The Cheese Board was first opened in 1967 as a cheese shop in a narrow storefront in North Berkeley. Four years later, co-owners and then-spouses Elizabeth and Sahag Avedisian decided to live out their belief in the redistribution of wealth by selling the business to the staff at cost, entering a worker-owned collective with their six former employees. From the beginning, they aimed for a fully democratic workplace as a way to live their values. As they describe in Collective Works, “the new owners shared a belief that the collective process would organically create a truly democratic society.”  

All staff made the same hourly wage and rotated roles in the business. Decisionmaking took place by consensus with other workers on the shift or in mandatory monthly meetings of the full membership. In 1975, the Cheese Board moved to their current home on Shattuck Avenue, where they became part of a neighborhood of epicurean businesses like the original Peet’s Coffee, artisanal chocolate shop Cocolat, and New American institution Chez Panisse. Along the way, members were encouraged to learn and experiment, leading to breads being added to the shop, then a full blown bakery, and eventually, in the 80s, a pizzeria with its own staff (who are still part of the collective). 

The Cheese Board has been successful enough over the years to keep expanding, with a storefront added just for the pizzeria. They took over yet another storefront on Shattuck Avenue as recently as 2019. But the business isn’t driven by growing profits. As Collective Works describes,

The Cheese Board has little appetite for expanding its own enterprise beyond its borders. We want to promote worker cooperatives, but not at the risk of changing our own scale or culture. Some of our lack of ambition can be attributed to a philosophical distaste for society’s dependence on and glorification of growth and expansion, and some can be because of our natural inclination to take it easy and keep things on a smaller scale.

Instead of opening more Cheese Boards all over Berkeley or California, they helped found new collectives—first the Swallow, a restaurant inside the University of California Art Museum, which was open for nearly twenty years; and then the Association of Arizmendi Cooperatives, which provides technical assistance and financial support to new collectives based on the Cheese Board’s model. The Cheese Board provided seed money, training, and recipes to open other Arizmendi Bakery Cooperatives, and continues to participate in the Association as a member. Today, there are six bakeries in the network. 

From descriptions of the earliest iteration of the restaurant, to the state of affairs when Collective Works was published in 2003, to today, the Cheese Board’s cooperative bonafides have remained consistent. When I spoke with current member Ambri Pukhraj, who has worked at the Cheese Board Pizzeria for seven years, she walked me through the way things are run today. All of the collective’s roughly 50 members make $30 an hour (well in excess of Berkeley’s $16.87 living wage, this hourly rate works out to a yearly salary of about $62,000 for a 40-hour work week). They get health insurance, retirement benefits, and robust paid time off accrual--as well as access to the Collective’s own vacation cabin. 

If that made you think, “damn, how do I join?” know that there is a lengthy vetting period for new employees and the Collective to get to know each other. New hires get partnered with a sponsor and go through a six-month candidacy before joining the Collective as members, complete with clear goals and frequent feedback to help them through the process. The period can definitely be an adjustment, even for someone like Ambri who had been a part of co-ops in the past. “There’s no manager,” she explained. “Everyone trains you and tells you how to do things. Some people’s methods are wildly different from others, so you have to navigate that and decide what works for you.” 

Once a candidate becomes a member, they get the same voting power as all other members to make decisions that impact the whole Collective. Members still participate in monthly business meetings, and a variety of committees--from hiring and production to “big picture” and even an effective meetings committee!--help the Collective make decisions efficiently. The transparency around compensation and the equal say everyone has in decisionmaking “creates an artificial equality,” as Ambri puts it. Some members may come with privilege from their race, gender, or speaking English as a first language, but “despite those power differences and imbalances, we are able to create equal footing for some things. It helps make worker owners and members invested because it’s their business.”

Of course, with equal power comes equal responsibility, and it’s a challenge to participate in that side of the work. Throughout the Collective Works cookbook, members weigh in on how they adapted to that structure. “When I started working here, instead of one boss to make happy, I felt like I had thirty bosses to make happy. It kind of drove me crazy at first,” confesses one. Others talk about how it took time to feel comfortable speaking up and voting at meetings. For her part, Pukhraj admits, “it can feel inefficient when everybody has an equal say about every decision. It can take time, it can take more effort...Working together can be difficult and it can be hard to know you don’t have more sway than anyone else. But it cuts both ways,” because you also know others still have to take your opinion into account. “That’s the beauty of being in a collective.” 

A process that bakes mutual respect and dependence into the restaurant’s operations is worth the work, especially when crisis hits. The Cheese Board’s committee system proved critical when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Berkeley. As the Collective faced decisions about how best to reopen after the initial lockdown, a steering committee elected from the other committees helped develop a reopening plan and enabled the collective to be nimble with decisionmaking in the face of constantly shifting conditions. While having a boss or management make top-down decisions might have been even faster, co-ownership meant that every worker had a say in a plan of operations that took their health and wellbeing seriously. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a shock to the system for the restaurant industry. Along with the ongoing drumbeat of sexual harassment, institutionalized bullying, racial discrimination, and exploitation of undocumented staff that are endemic to the business, COVID has escalated the unacceptable tradeoffs that so many restaurant workers are forced to make every day. A University of California San Francisco study published in January 2021 found that line cooks were at the highest risk of death from COVID among working-age Californians. With those stakes, it’s no wonder that the industry is facing a massive staffing shortage. Who wants to go back to work to risk their life?

In these circumstances, decisionmaking by consensus seems like a dream worth working toward. Pukhraj emphasizes that at the Cheese Board, “we get to make decisions about what works best for us. And that’s not something others in the food industry are able to do.” But of course it’s not easy to make this happen. In 2018, the Democracy at Work Institute estimated that restaurants and cafes made up about 13% of registered worker cooperatives across the country. It’s hard to take financial risks in an industry with notoriously low profit margins, and challenging to find investors and loans for a co-op. 

The Cheese Board has been incredibly successful, but their longevity may be as much a factor of where and when they were founded as the strength of their model. Pukhraj recognizes that a “huge part” of their longevity comes from “the community of customers who support us” in a historically progressive city like Berkeley. “A lot of conditions in our environment have enabled us to thrive.” 

But there are many organizations all over the country built to help others achieve a co-op model--from the Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives (NOBAWC, pronounced “no-boss”) to the NYC Network of Worker Cooperatives to national advocacy organization the Democracy at Work Institute, which was quoted in pretty much every article I read on this subject. And with small businesses struggling to stay open in our current economic climate, city governments are recognizing and incentivizing collective ownership. In December 2020, New York City launched Employee Ownership NYC, an initiative to provide education and technical assistance for businesses seeking to become worker-owned cooperatives. The press release on the initiative notes that “since the onset of COVID-19, majority employee-owned firms have retained four times more jobs than their non-employee owned counterparts and are better equipped to manage uncertainties and risks associated with economic downturns.” 

We’re in a moment where workers’ needs and employers’ desires for stability have more overlap than you might think. As the small businesses that literally sustain us tiptoe their way toward recovery, workers choosing not to return to restaurants are showing us that they need more than a return to the status quo. They deserve the opportunity to co-create a workplace that provides for them as much as they provide for their communities. 

A note: I know I said last week that we’d be talking about the Moosewood Restaurant, but I wanted to focus this piece on worker-owned cooperatives and after speaking to a member of their collective I learned that they’re no longer structured that way. Alas.

Another note: Illustrations in this issue are my own reproductions of photos from The Cheese Board Collective Works.

Next issue: This week was the conclusion of the 70s series! I’m returning to contemporary book reviews, with a feature on The Weekday Vegetarians.

SOME NEWS: I have a short piece in the new issue of Food Network Magazine, with brief reviews of a few cookbooks coming out this fall. It goes out on newsstands today!