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By the People

At Arizmendi Bakery, the workers call the shots

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Every worker is an owner at Arizmendi Bakery. The young guy in the blue baseball cap pounding sticky lumps of dough into a pizza crust? Yep, he's an owner. The twenty-something woman at the counter ringing up your coffee and scone? Yes, she owns it. And that woman there by the oven, the one sweeping up underneath the baking counters, in a flour-covered apron and ponytail? Just hired help, right? Actually, no, she's an owner, too.

Arizmendi, in downtown San Rafael, is a worker-owned cooperative. Not only do the worker-owners behind the counter turn out addictively delicious focaccias, pizza, bread, cookies and scones, but by virtue of their work, they embody the phrases "consensus," "democratic" and "nonhierarchical"—all cultural buzzwords since the advent of the Occupy movement. But the Arizmendi Association of Cooperatives has been at this democracy thing for years, ever since spring-boarding off the Cheeseboard Collective, a Berkeley-based, worker-owned business founded in 1971, with which it's still closely affiliated.

"It's my first experience with co-op anything, living or working," says Franz Vandergroen, a worker-owner who's been at the bakery since October 2010, six months after its grand opening. "It's an atmosphere that I haven't seen in other places that I've worked."

Irene Contreras, an "owner candidate" with two months of training left before she's voted in as an official owner, echoes the sentiment, saying that the environment at Arizmendi is markedly different from her previous experiences in the top-down hierarchy of typical restaurants. "You usually have an executive chef, a sous chef and a pastry chef, and they basically give the orders, and you just follow," she says. "There's no saying, 'You know, I think it might be better if we do this.'"

According to Tim Huey, cooperative developer for the Arizmendi Association, this is all part of the direct democracy practiced by the collective.

"There are no managers," he explains. "The bakery is democratically owned and operated by the people who work there. Members—which is the same as an owner in the parlance of cooperatives—have one equal vote each."

It's definitely a model that seems to lead to strong employee satisfaction. Vandergroen calls it his second home, though he adds that this can be a double-edged sword when things go awry. "When things go wrong, you have to be at the shop," he says. "It's really a personal investment."

The San Rafael bakery is one of six Arizmendi locations, including spots in Emeryville, Oakland and San Francisco. Arizmendi is named for José Maria Arizmendiarrieta, a Catholic priest who founded the Mondragón Worker Cooperatives in Spain in the 1950s.

Without a boss maintaining quality control, one might imagine a hodgepodge of inconsistently baked wares. But on a busy Saturday afternoon, the self-serve bakery cases are loaded with a delectable looking pear coffee cake, focaccia with arugula and caramelized onions, muffins, cookies, cheese rolls and fresh-baked breads.

My dining partner and I order from the rotating pizza-of-the-day menu, sampling a triple mushroom, triple cheese topped with a sesame-ginger vinaigrette and parsley. With all the other tangy, fresh flavors loaded on the thin-crust pie, we don't miss the pizza sauce. After the pizza, we devour a "Chocolate Thing," a light, bready roll dotted with pieces of luscious dark chocolate. A fantastic corn-blueberry muffin holds up to the same standard, even when it's squirreled away and eaten two days later as a Monday-morning breakfast.

Vandergroen says that the cooperative's goal is to provide the best ingredients possible, including free-range eggs, organic flour and Straus organic milk. Ingredients and recipes are also agreed upon via consensus, voted upon at monthly meetings.

"If it's economically feasible," says Vandergroten, "we try to get organic ingredients."

A focus on training plus shared recipes between the different locations leads to top-notch quality and selection. "In a restaurant, you might get a day of training, but after that you're pretty much barked at," Contreras says. At Arizmendi, she explains, bakers receive three days of bakery training, with the option of a fourth if they still feel unsteady on their feet. Each baker is trained on all positions, further dismantling the employee disconnect that often occurs in many kitchens.

"I may have trained you," says Contreras, "but if I'm not around on the day you're mixing a muffin batter, you can go to almost anyone else in the kitchen and they can guide you through that."

In the perennial words of countless protests, this is what democracy looks like.

"There's such a sense of family, wanting to help and wanting everyone to do their best," says Contreras. "Even if you take a vote, and the vote didn't go your way, at least you got to voice it."

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