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Amid food-industry upheaval, Baltimore businesses are handing workers the keys

From left, co-owners Detric McCoy, Kowfi Dorman El, Michael Prokop and Sean Smeeton in separate portraits at Taharka Brothers stall at R. House in Baltimore. (Photos by Amanda Andrade-Rhodes for The Washington Post)

BALTIMORE — On a recent fall morning, despite the chill in the air, workers at Taharka Brothers Ice Cream were packing a freezer truck and a van with pints of honey graham, peanut butter cup and pistachio. In the office, business metrics on retail performance, catering and home delivery moved across a screen on the wall. “It’s a really busy day,” said Detric McCoy. “Even right now, I don’t think I could run it by myself.”

He doesn’t have to.

In December 2020, Taharka officially became a worker-owned cooperative, and McCoy shares responsibilities that would typically fall on one person’s shoulders with four other worker-owners.

The structure has become almost commonplace among the city’s food businesses, whether they’re churning sweet treats, making vegan sandwiches or roasting coffee. In November 2020, popular pizzeria Joe Squared reopened after a covid-19 hiatus with 13 new worker-owners. This fall, the plant-based dessert shop Cajou Creamery also became a cooperative. And in early December, Union Craft Brewing announced it had added six longtime employees as owners and in the future would offer ownership to all employees after five years with the company.

All of this is happening at a time of turmoil in the food industry, for restaurant owners and workers alike. While many exceptions exist, workers in food-service jobs earn notoriously low wages, and benefits are rare. Historically, restaurants have been places where power imbalances — between the front and back of the house, star chefs and kitchen staff, servers and customers — were tolerated. The industry also disproportionately depends on the labor of people from marginalized groups — including people of color and undocumented immigrants. During the pandemic, those realities were laid bare, as workers were laid off due to shuttered restaurants, or continued working and risked exposure.

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“Historically, co-ops have always emerged and scaled during crises,” said Tori Kuper, the operations coordinator at the New Economy Coalition who is also on the board of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives. After the 2008 recession, Kuper said, the number of coops in the U.S. skyrocketed, and the spirit of mutual aid that arises during an economic downturn can also lead to interest in what the coalition calls “the solidarity economy.”

“The primary goal is … to create dignified jobs and economic security for members, which also structurally addresses the deep inequity and exploitation that covid really revealed,” she said.

Now, across the country, as restaurants struggle with labor shortages and workers reimagine their participation in food service, interest in worker-owned structures is growing. But while other cities may just be lighting a spark, Baltimore has been tending the fire of its solidarity economy for years, and many look to it as a model, Kuper said. “In Baltimore, this is something that is being built right now. It is being tested and is performing well.”

Much of the story can be traced back to 2004 and Red Emma’s, a vegan cafe and bookstore that grew out of an anarchist bookstore called Black Planet Books. The seven founders set out to create a space for the city’s radical left and thought adding food and coffee to the bookstore would bring in more people, said Kate Khatib, who was one of those originals and is still a worker-owner.

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Worker cooperatives operate in many different ways, and Red Emma’s structure is entirely non-hierarchical. Everyone who is hired starts at the same hourly wage regardless of experience or background and is put on a track to ownership. If all goes well and they pass certain benchmarks over a set period of time, they join a team of worker-owners who share equal decision-making power and profits. Wages increase with time worked, but the highest-paid worker can never make more than twice the lowest. “Over the years, we became much more focused on and serious about the workplace democracy aspect,” she said. “We really started drilling down into: What does it mean for a business in this sector to be sustainable? And … how do we create jobs that are sustainable?”

One answer was that they needed capital to buy a space, but traditional banks weren’t set up to lend to a group, and choosing the person with the best credit to take on the loan went against their operating values, since it strengthened the economic power of the most well-resourced owner over others. Red Emma’s began working with other cooperative organizations to fix that issue, which led to a nationwide cooperative lending network and then a local outfit that could provide both funding and technical assistance to worker coops. Today, that organization, the Baltimore Roundtable for Economic Democracy (BRED), connects the city’s growing patchwork of cooperatives.

Emily Lerman, a project officer at BRED, is also one of the founders of Mera Kitchen Collective, which began as a group of friends hosting pop-up dinners and grew into a catering business that showcases the dishes of chefs from around the world. When events were canceled due to covid-19 in March 2020, the team quickly raised funds and began cooking free hot meals for food-insecure residents. Now, Mera is running another GoFundMe campaign to open its first solo restaurant space before the end of the year. On a recent evening, a soft-opening menu taped to the window included a chicken tinga quesadilla and mutubal (a Syrian eggplant dip); An “opening soon” sign promised “story-worthy food from around the world.”

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But even with Lerman’s technical expertise, Mera has struggled to structure its business as a true cooperative. Immigration and visa issues have gotten in the way, as they do for many co-ops, so Lerman and her co-founders have focused on ensuring collective decision-making and on using the expansion to eventually put everyone on the team on salary and start profit-sharing. “We are tripping and learning,” said Aishah Alfadhalah, a co-founder. “We are just people who are really trying to do the best and as much as we can. It’s not perfect.”

Another challenge for worker-owned cooperatives in food service is becoming profitable enough to pay well. Red Emma’s starts workers at $15 per hour, which, in progressive circles where fighting for a living wage is also a common goal, might sound like a near failure of the model. In other words, shouldn’t shared ownership equal shared economic security? But Lerman and Khatib said worker co-ops are simply dealing with the same economic realities all small restaurants are.

Worker-owners, they said, attribute incalculable value to the ability to participate in ownership and engage with a community of people committed to treating each other with dignity and equality, and covid-19 amplified that aspect. “People want to do something they believe in that isn’t just going to benefit some corporation,” said Okan Arabacıoglu, the general manager and a worker-owner of Joe Squared. “And they want to learn. When you’re a server or bartender, you just learn to be a server or bartender. When you’re a chef or a cook, you just learn to be a chef or a cook. When you are part of a co-op, you learn how to do pretty much everything.”

That’s what Khatib has always counted on: Red Emma’s as a space to educate new business owners in the solidarity economy and incubate new co-ops, such as Thread Coffee, which now runs its own roastery and sells its coffee throughout Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

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At Taharka, McCoy said he learned on the job, starting right out of high school. Taharka’s founder, Sean Smeeton, created the company as a vehicle for social entrepreneurship for young men from Baltimore’s low-income neighborhoods, where opportunities for employment were few and far between, and McCoy started packing pints and working the ice cream truck at events, went to college for accounting, and now runs sales and marketing. Sharing in ownership has pushed his business goals even further. “I kind of stepped up,” he said.

Just a few miles away, Nicole Foster and Dwight Campbell of Cajou Creamery started selling ice cream, made from scratch with cashews instead of cows’ milk in such flavors as horchata, baklava and Mexican cacao, out of a new storefront on Howard Street in August. As they got up and running and planned further expansions, they worked with BRED to finalize a cooperative structure with an even more targeted goal: to create opportunity for formerly incarcerated people returning home. “You tell somebody that you served time, and people started touching their pocketbooks or walking away. You don’t feel like a whole person,” Campbell said. “We want to give people a chance to show that they are much more than just somebody who served time. We want to give people the ability to dream about a future, to have ownership instead of thinking ‘I am just a drone. I’m here to work for a paycheck.’”

They’re now working to bring on workers with Pivot, a Baltimore organization that helps women released from the corrections system rebuild their lives, and they’re inspired to make an impact in a majority Black city. As they embark on the path Red Emma’s paved nearly 20 years ago, both acknowledge that operating as a worker cooperative will likely be harder than running a traditional business, but Foster said she couldn’t imagine doing it another way. “It's not in our nature to have a business that would only benefit us,” she said.

Held is a freelance journalist who covers food, agriculture and the environment and is the senior policy reporter at Civil Eats.

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