Everyone is an owner at cooperatives like Arizmendi.
by Grace Li • 11/21/2019 (SFWeekly.com)
If the United States decided its presidency based on a popular vote, Donald Trump wouldn’t be in the White House right now. It’s something that Sue Lopez, a worker-owner at Arizmendi Bakery, thinks about when talking about Arizmendi’s cooperative working business model.
“It’s kind of important to get back to the basics of when people’s voices count,” Lopez says.
Arizmendi Bakery has been in San Francisco since 2000, boasting two locations in the city — on 9th Avenue in the Inner Sunset and on Valencia Street in the Mission — and four more in the Bay Area. If you visit the bakery, you’ll find sourdough croissants, tea breads, and some of the best scones in city.
You’ll also find a unique business model that’s gaining popularity across the Bay Area and beyond: Worker-owned cooperatives, which came back into modern purview in the 1960s, are gaining traction for their anti-capitalist, compromise-heavy structures that promise equity for workers over big bosses. Organizations like Project Equity, which helps prevent baby boomer-owned businesses from closing following owners’ retirement by converting them into cooperatives, are leading the charge.
Arizmendi has an association of its own that’s been giving rise to more Bay Area cooperatives, including construction and landscape businesses. But it got its start from the Cheeseboard, a Berkeley-based cooperative that gave Arizmendi its first recipes, first bucket of starter dough, and thousands of dollars to initially fund the business. Since then, the bakery has flourished with its long history of worker equity and delicious baked goods.
The way the cooperative works can be deceptively simple: At its 9th Avenue location, its 21 worker-owners meet once a month to make decisions as a team. It’s one vote per person. Everyone has an equal say in the type of oven they might want to buy (gas or electric?), in the new products they’re rolling out for the holiday line (are the pie crusts flaky enough?), and in virtually any decision that will impact the future of the bakery.
“Everyone has a say in what goes on. There’s no seniority,” Lopez says. “It’s all equal pay at each bakery depending on the performance of each bakery.”
Even though the cooperative is based on equity in pay and in voice, it doesn’t mean that everyone will always agree. With no one to “pull rank,” conversations between 21 equal owners can take a while to resolve. Lopez says that they’ve been struggling with deciding on an oven for over a year.
But that’s part of the appeal of a cooperative. Long conversations can be grueling, but many times, they’re better than no conversation at all.
“There’s this capitalist streak of just one person. One person is running things. One person is the leader,” Lopez says. “We’re not socialized to compromise with each other.”
Moreover, the model has its creative perks. At another bakery, worker-owners might be subject to the whims of a manager’s vision. But in the eight years Edhi Rotandi has been working at Arizmendi, Rotandi has been able to pitch some of his own baking experiments as menu additions. A self-proclaimed “bread geek,” Rotandi brought his sourdough croissants to one of the board meetings in 2012. As with any new menu item, his croissants went through tasting and feedback.
“One of the earlier iterations of the croissants — one of my colleagues said it just tasted like a baguette with butter,” Rotandi recalls. “It was a little bit rough, but my technique at the time was less refined. But it was a good input. And I learned to work on it more, and it’s better.” Since then, his pet project has evolved into an Arizmendi favorite. You can order it plain, or with chocolate.
Before Arizmendi, Rotandi used to work as a baker for French pastry shops. And even before that, he was an electrical engineer. But Arizmendi’s unique business model was the right fit for him. New ideas are always encouraged at Arizmendi.
“We are independent,” Rotandi says. “We can do whatever we want.”
Now, Rotandi’s part of a quiet movement that’s bringing worker-based cooperatives to the table. With fresh breads and flaky pies, Arizmendi is leading in its own kind of revolution.
Grace Li covers arts and culture for SF Weekly. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.