At the Bethesda Avenue Co-op's cafe, Rickie Kadet lets loose a husky groan.
"The food processor is broken . . .. Let's stage a walkout," she calls out to her co-workers.
This is no strident call to union solidarity, however. It is met with laughter, because there is no "management" to speak of at the cafe, or, for that matter, at the bookstore up front or the grocery section next door.
"We're basically worker self-management," explains Kadet, a 26-year-old from Long Island who has worked at the co-op for three years. "We all believe in certain values, and we don't believe in working for corporations that don't let people have benefits . . . . We show people you can still live a good, comfortable life style and not have all the money go into one persons having a $500,000 house."
The co-op, which will celebrate its fifth anniversary Sunday, is an outgrowth of three trends of past decades: the anticorporation mood of the 1960s and the health-awareness and inflation-consciousness of the 1970s.
It is incorporated, but in an unusual way. There is no owner -- the building at 4948 Bethesda Ave. is rented. A board made up of workers and other interested people decides how to spend the income from sales.
There are other uncommon features. The cafe serves up strictly vegetarian-dairy fare, the bookstore is stocked not with Gothic romances but with volumes on alternative energy sourcses and tofu (soybean curd) cookery, the grocery section sells organic carrots and date sugar.
Battling inflationary trends, Co-op members say they try to keep the prices as low as possible. Richard Kozlow, who has worked at the co-op for a year and a half, explains, "We divert the profits back to the people who shop here. aWe're lowering prices on some items, which is pretty unheard of in times when prices are going up."
The Bethesda co-op has inspired, aided or directly spawned similar ventures in the Maryland suburbs, including the Glut Food Co-op at 4005 34th St. in Mount Rainier, a co-op in the student union building on Campus Drive at the University of Maryland at College Park and a new co-op set to open in December at 623 Sligo Ave. in Takoma Park.
The Bethesda store offers, in addition to a wide range of foods, books, records and health products, a series of talks, concerts, documentaries, classes in Spanish and yoga and a recycling center. Its quarterly newsletter carries notices of cheap and nutritious vegetarian recipes and of antinuclear demonstrations.
It also offers discounts to elderly shoppers and food-stamp users. It lends money to other co-ops and "alternative" (worker-owned and operated) businesses.
All of this activity makes for good business. In the last year, the co-op brought in about $1.3 million -- $30,000 of which was cleared as profit.
But, as any corporation must, the co-op has its share of growing pains. There is disagreement among the full-time workers (called "collective members"), part-timers ("support workers") and volunteers (who get discounts) over how much more the co-op should grow.
Kozlow recalls that the co-op "used to be a kind of laid-back place where people would hang around and talk. During the day now, it's pretty frantic. Everything's pretty high-key."
But, Kozlow adds, "I like the growth, I feel it's good to turn over the maximum amount of food to the maximum amount of people."
The co-op attracts a hodgepodge of customers with widely ranging interests. Some are housewives looking for food bargains, many are former "junk-food addicts" seeking vegetarian cuisine, others want to know more about communal living and worker-owned businesses. Many seek food and spices they say they can't find in major supermarkets.
In the cafe, an assortment of diners -- some wearing work shirts and jeans, some in business suits and ties -- has gathered for lunch. Among selections painted on a wooden menu are tofu sandwiches ($1.80), spinach pie (80 cents), salads ($1.50 to $2.25) and rice cookies (55 cents). Free toppings include kelp (seaweed), cayenne pepper, soy sauce, honey and yeast. From a nearby water cooler flows spring water, 15 cents a cup.
Stuart Mazzoli is downing split-pea soup and a foil package of natural potato chips. Mazzoli, a 31-year-old Washingtonian who says he has been a vegetarian for 10 years and is a guru's disciple, says he comes for the organic vegetables and the unusual books.
"This is not a conglomerate, like Safeway," he says."It's really a people's place."
Donna Rathbone, a 25-year-old from Falls Church, Va., has just polished off some "H-2-O-cress soup" and a salad from the salad bar. "I've got a high-pressure sales job and I slip away and come here for a nutritious meal," she says.
"About the only harsh words I've heard here were one day when someone lit up a cigarette and another person made it a point to let the smoker know they were upset about it."
In the bookstore checkout line, near the bulletin board with notices about an upcoming women's square dance and a "Fasting Health weekend," Barbara Martin, in lavender sweater and an add-a-bead necklace, strikes up a conversation about molasses with a white-haired woman in a green cloth coat.
Lynne Oakes of Bethesda, a bookstore volunteer worker, observes, "People are not afraid to talk to you in here. Where else is that happening in our whole city?"
The bookstore stocks such titles as "Creative Visualization," and "Himalayan Mountain Cookery" and "Spiritual Midwifery." The largest category in the bookstore's $12,000 stock is cookbooks, although there are numerous books on pregnancy and child care, gardening, construction, religion and children's books. The store averages $150 in sales a day.
In the co-op next door, which can be entered from the cafe, the nuts, seeds, dried beans and dried fruits are scooped from large white plastic tubs. There are coconuts for 69 cents each, artichokes at 79 cents each and organic Idaho carrots "weeded by Chinese weeder geese!!" (according to a sign) at 39 cents a pound. Old-fashioned metal scales hang from the ceiling. Customers are expected to bring their own jars, paper bags and egg cartons.
Michael Sobsey, 25, a support worker from Garrett Park, wearing a denim jacket and hiking boots, fields a volley of questions from customers.
The pace is often frantic. But many workers say they can put up with that.
Says Terese Walker, who runs the bookstore, "There's nobody watching over me and nobody breathing down my neck. We all share in the boo-boos."
Rickie Kadet notes that "You can totally be yourself here. People know your weak points and strong points. People tell you when to shut up."
The co-op will celebrate its anniversary with a "vegetarian potluck" party on Sunday at 4 p.m., at 4949 Bethesda Ave. in Bethesda. The party is open to the public. Participants are asked to contribute a vegetarian dish.