The hand-scrawled slogan on the delivery van of the Women's Community Bakery, "Just Loafin' Around," is hardly apropos for the women who pummel and pound mounds of dough in a flurry of flour in a small, cramped workroom in Hyattsville.
A few miles away in Takoma Park, behind a water-stained Indian bedspread hung in the window of a storefront, 22-month-old Aasea toddles at the feet of her mother who operates a one-woman assembly line at the Apocalyptic Nut Butter Works. In quick, perfectly-timed moves, Barbara Jennia pours peanuts into a grinder, labels and stamps the plastic containers she slides underneath to catch the gooey ooze, then stacks them in boxes.
And in Adams Morgan, after sidestepping through a dinghy storage area where two cars rest in dilapidated hulks, lanky, long-haired Jeff Woodside idles up to pudgy cauldron in the Community Soap Factory. Not unlike a fairy tale witch, he stirs the brew - a batch of peppermint soap.
Although these may be unorthodox settings and production procedures, they are part of a subculture that is beginning to be recognized as a viable part of the Washington metropolitan area economy. They comprise a network of alternative businesses, generating an estimated $3 million annually.
There are more than 30 alternative or "democratic" business in the area, including record and plant stores, art and printing shops, and feminist and political-based legal and other services.
Apocalyptic, Women's Community Bakery and the Soap Factory are part of the food branch of the network that ties in with the six or more co-ops that serve their communities as grocery stores. Also connected are food-buying clubs with thousands of members who join to buy in bulk and thus save money, a co-op warehouse, and loosely knit organizations of farmers that sell organic and regular produce.
The businesses are owned and operated by idealistic young people seeking control over their lives. They want to work where they have a say in what is produced - like ecologically sound soap and wholesome baked goods. And they want to monitor profits to provide a living wage for workers, while holding down prices to make good food and supplies more available to the poor.
At some co-op stores, for example, shoppers can volunteer time and receive a discount on the food they buy. This also holds down the overhead and, coupled with selling in bulk, enables a co-op to offer such bargains as unprocessed bran for 15 cents a pound compared to 69 cents for half that much in regular markets. Other bargains are cornmeal for 19 cents a pound compared to 28 cents, (and the smallest quantity generally available is 2 pounds) and ground nutmeg for 23 cents an ounce compared to the unit price of $1.37 an ounce for a name-brand spice.
Alternative businesses now are seen as a means of revitalizing low-income, economically depressed areas. Co-op stores not only provide employment and reasonable prices, but anchor business districts by keeping community residents shopping near their homes.
In addition, because of their democratic structures, alternative businesses provide job training. In a collective-type hierarchy, each worker learns all aspects of production - from bookkeeping to purchasing and delivery.
At the bakery, six collective members rotate jobs for which they're paid $3.25 an hour. To produce cookies cakes and granola two days a week, and 900 loaves of bread a day the other days, there are three basic tasks - the mixer adds ingredients to dough stirred by a machine, the loafer weighs and pounds the dough for each loaf, and the baker times and keeps the bread going in and out of the several ovens. Also in the job rotation are delivery and bookkeeping.
"We want people to know everything, and it's also boring to do the same thing over and over," said Lee Armstrong, one of the founders of the three-year-old bakery that grossed about $10,000 in sales last year. The collective system also is equitable, important to the feminist-leaning company that prints this philosophy on its labels: "Common woman is as common as a common loaf of bread - and will rise."
"It's a good place to have women working together and learning to cooperate and learning skills that are typically male," Armstrong said, straining to lift a batch of dough to the counter to be weighed.
Although none of the women has left to become fulltime baker, Armstrong believes they would be qualified to start at union scale of from $7.50 to $8 an hour. She says they actually may know more about the baking process because they do practically everything by hand, not being able to afford sophisticated loafing and slicing machines.
The women's bakery, started in the kitchens of its founders, now sells to more than 25 food co-ops, markets and retail stores around the Beltway. The women developed recipes for breads, muffins and sweets that use no white flour, no sugar and no preservatives. Their basic ingredients are sea salt, wildflower honey, organic wholewheat flour, safflower oil, water and yeast.
"It's difficult to find good whole wheat bread in supermarkets," Armstrong said. "You give up quality when it's mass-produced."
The Women's Community Bakery operates afternonns out of the Loch Lomond Bakery in Hyattsville. It pays half the rent and use the semiretired baker's equipment after he finishes his baking at noon. The two businesses don't compete because the women's products are not sold on the premises (although customers who know wander into the back of the shop on bread-baking days to grab a loaf ot two), but are trucked to local co-ops.
Jeff Woodside and Esther Siegel, founders about two years ago of the Community Soap Factory, used a different kind of ingenuity to start their business that has national distribution and $50,000 last year in gross sales. Woodside pored through books in the Library of Congress to learn chemical formulas and reactions for making soap. Then he jerry-rigged equipment.
Theirs is the philosophy of appropriate technology - use the simplest methods and the purest ingredients to turn out the best products at the lowest possible prices.
The pair wanted to start a manufacturing business that would be worker-controlled, contribute to community development by providing jobs, and make an ecologically sound product. "We had to figure out what we could manufacture simply and rather inexpensively," Seigel said. "I had seen a book on home formulas and I remembered making soap was not too difficult."
They decided on liquid soap because it didn't require molds and a mechanism to cut the molds. They borrowed $1,500 from friends and bought equipment from a government surplus warehouse.
The Community Soap Factory is a collective of three persons which occasionally hires interested teenagers from Adams Morgan area. The equipment, basically two tanks and pumps to mix the ingredients and then transfer the soap to cooling drums, looks primitive, but is adequate, Woodside said.
They sell soap in pints and quarts, but prefer to sell in bulk because the plastic containers unsed for smaller quantities are not biodegradable.
Buying in large quantities to save money is the principle behind food clubs which keep the Community Warehouse in business. The warehouse also provides the bakery and other small enterprises with their ingredients at lower prices than they would be able to find elsewhere.
Bags of long-grain rice, table-rolled oats, sesame and organic rye flour, and boxes of raisins, dried apricots, figs and dates are piled several feet high in the warehouse on Kendall Street NE. Pasta, beans and seeds, spices, honey, maple syrup, apple juice, vitamins, nuts, grains, and cercals are all available.
The four-year-old warehouse is run by a collective of five persons, each doing everything from unloading trucks to inventory. Although Cindy (who wouldn't give her last name) says the workers take home lass than $100 a week, she refused to give the gross sales. She did says the warehouse has doubled its sales volume in the last two years.
Apocalyptic Nut Butter Works does not buy its peanuts from the warehouse.Because it needs sufficient amounts to warrant delivery from the grower in North Carolina, it can save warehouse markup. But it's still part of the co-op network, selling about 500 pounds of peanut butter a week to about 25 stores.
The $30,000-a-year business was started in 1974 by two friends who began making peanut butter in their basement. They moved to a store-front in 1975 after settling on the unusual name of apocalyptic because they thought it sounded good with peanut butter. Production now is carried on by three persons - two grind nuts and on delivers.
For Barbara Jennai, the flexible hours and simple process are ideal. "I could hurse my daughter, play with her, have her cry. There's no boss, no nobody, I just have to get so much peanut butter out a week," Jennai said.
Every Tuesday, she calls stores for their orders, then begins grinding and packaging. She makes smooth or crunchy peanut butter simply by loosening ot tightening a screw on the grinder. There are no ingredients besides the shelled peanuts.
A big step will be converting to glass instead of plastic containers to lengthen the shelf life of the peanut butter. But the butter works will have to borrow money to take advantage of savings for bulk purchases of the glass.
If legislation under consideration by Congress establishing a co-op bank becomes law, Apocalyptic could borrow the money ewithout having to test the reaction of a traditional lender to an alternative business.
The bank bill, not voted on yet by the Senate, would authorize appropriation of $250 million in federal funds the first year and up to $400 million the next four years from which these businesses could borrow, according to Mark Looney, codirector of Strongforce, a District-based organization providing technical assistance to non-traditional enterprises.