The co-op way: stronger together

Consider the word co-operation—not in a Grammar 101 fashion—but in a loose, what does this word feel like kind of way. For many in the Buffalo community, it is synonymous with support, democracy, advocacy, sharing, and ethics. Combine these in business development and what do you have?

Cooperation Buffalo!

Cooperation Buffalo is a worker cooperative business development founded one and a half years ago by three entrepreneurs who desired to “help people achieve economic security.” In a nutshell, Cooperation Buffalo employs strategies to start cooperative businesses.

Currently, they are helping to transition a child care center in Buffalo that is structured in the typical way—an owner (retiring baby boomer) and its employees—into a worker-owner co-op. In January, when the process is complete, its 20 employees will become worker-owners.

Andrew Delmonte, one of the Cooperation Buffalo worker-owners who used to work in the nonprofit sector, says joining in the development business cooperative was a natural fit for him. “It’s meaningful work for me to be able to practice democracy in the workplace.”

Cooperation Buffalo focuses on four key areas:

• Providing technical assistance and advice from their experts.

• Providing popular education training on coop principles, business basics, and community organizing tactics.

• One-on-one training and advisement services for start-up, existing, or conversion worker cooperative businesses.

• Back-office support and comprehensive incubation services.

Delmonte notes that it often takes up to two years to transition a business from owner to worker-owner. “Our mission is building wealth and power” for worker-owners, he said. While Cooperation Buffalo has worked with up to 60 people on its initial pilot project—the transitioning child care center—its goal is broader.

“We hope to work with five to 10 businesses over the next decade,” Delmonte says. He noted that finding the funding for the technical aspect of the work is always a challenge, but like any coop, “we are stronger together, and together we create more wealth.” He says Cooperation Buffalo can always use help in getting the word out, and that for folks who are thinking of retiring, perhaps considering selling their companies to their employees will help communities and individuals.

Lettuce and Happy Places

He was a high school drop-out, he says, from a single-parent home, but that didn’t relegate him to the realm of never-amount-to-anything. At age 19, Mike Zak started his own construction company, and by age 24, he had put himself through college. His passions, besides sleeping little and working long hours, are politics and the environment.

It’s no surprise that this enterprising young man would not be satisfied working in a 9 to 5 job. With his background in philosophy and social justice, he believes that while nonprofits do good things, they don’t change the economy, and “they don’t value their workers.”

Four years ago, he and Josh Miller, a like-minded friend, became the sole worker-owners of GroOperative, a business that specializes in vertical farming and aquaponics at 3231 Main St., Buffalo. They sell basil, microgreens, mint, cilantro, and lettuce to local restaurants.

Success has come in such waves that come March, he will leave his full-time job as an at-risk youth counselor at YouthBuild WNY to devote full time to GroOperative. “This is a compromise between all the things I want to do,” says Zak. “Grow lettuce. Farm. Raise catfish. This is the happiest place I could be. I get to do what I truly love.”

“Worker-owner cooperatives employ a new way of thinking,” Zak continues. “They make sense: We can enjoy the fruits of our labor and work in a democratic environment.” He says he is thankful for the people who have helped and support GroOperative through time and/or money.

Read more about Alex Wright and the African Heritage Food Co-op here.

Zak dreams of a thriving community, and his vision aligns well with that of Alex Wright of the African Heritage Food Co-op. Together, they are working on a grant that would enable them to house their co-ops on the East Side in the Bailey/Kensington area. Time will tell what the future holds.

Zak encourages anyone thinking of starting a worker-owner coop to find the right group of people. “A co-op is a culture where everyone is heard: one worker, one voice,” he says. “People are used to capitalism. That can’t happen at a worker co-op.”

“I like being a farmer,” Zak adds. He keeps his eye on the prize and counts his blessings every day. He cautions those who want to start planting to remember that “you don’t see much return in those first few years, but keep that fire burning in your belly. It’s about community. We can do more together than we can alone.”

Founded on Bread

She always liked to bake, but she had never baked bread. Today, Allison Ewing is one of seven worker-owners of the BreadHive Bakery & Café at 402 Connecticut St., the only worker-owner eatery in Buffalo. She and Emily Stewart founded the eatery in 2014.

“The jobs we had were interesting and worthwhile,” Ewing says,” but we felt like we lacked ownership; we weren’t working for ourselves.” Allison was a teller at a cooperative credit union; Emily was a community organizer. These skills have transferred well to their eatery.

Besides seven worker-owners, BreadHive employs 12 people who live in or near the West Side. BreadHive also has a wholesale bakery at 123 Baynes St. that is not open to the public.

When asked about successes, Allison says they had a five-year plan, but “enough people believed in us” that they were able to open their café in half that time. Their specialty bread is made fresh daily, and on certain days, one can buy unique breads like whole wheat cinnamon fig and pickle brine rye. Bagels, pretzels, and baguettes are all shaped by hand.

Allison considers it a success to have landed on Connecticut Street. “I always loved it here!” She notes that Alton Brown of the Food Network found his way to their café when they first opened, and then again recently to check on them.

But Allison says there are things to be wary of, as well, when it comes to worker-owner co-ops. “There is a learning curve when there is rapid growth!” She advises those who are new in the worker-owner co-op business to “get a good lawyer and accountant” who can help navigate the laws and systems.

Scott Beauchamp, in writing for the Pacific Standard magazine in 2014, summed up well the benefits of co-op ownership: “For people on the left, co-ops are a way to correct economic disparity and combat the iniquities of corporatism. For conservatives, endowing workers with more responsibility is inherently character building….It’s simply the most pragmatic way to keep food on the table.”—(Buying Out Your Boss: Worker Cooperatives Are the Future of Small Business.)

Read more articles by Cynthia Machamer.

Cynthia Machamer earned a B.A. in writing from Houghton College and has more than 15 years of experience writing in the nonprofit sector. She moved to Buffalo in 2005, and her happiest moments are spent with her two grown children and her niece.
Signup for Email Alerts