How a Small-Town Worker-Owned Restaurant Cooperative Changed My Life

Kathryn Dillon

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“Casa Nueva is an innovative worker-owned cooperative based in Southeast Ohio. We are dedicated to strengthening the environmental, economic and social well-being of our community by promoting wholesome products, democratic participation, and responsible practices.” — Casa Nueva mission statement

Casa Nueva, nestled in a Peter Pan city in the Appalachian foothills, has been operating as a worker-owned cooperative since 1985. And for six formative years, I was part of it.

Everyone in the small college town of Athens, Ohio knows the story. A small rag-tag band of restaurant workers arrived at their jobs one day to discover that their boss had declared bankruptcy and left town in the middle of the night.

Finding themselves suddenly unemployed, they decided to go into business together, and Casa Nueva was born.

When we look back over the course of our lives, we can always identify those pivotal moments. The ones that were critical in shaping us and setting us on our paths.

I should have been done with college, and my hometown, a year before I joined the co-op. Fear was the force that kept me there, but it ended up being one of the best decisions I ever made.

I was hired at Casa Nueva in June of 1994, a month before I turned 22. My restaurant experience was limited to a two-year stint at Wendy’s, but I was hard-working and organized, so they gave me a chance.

At that time, all associates were on track to become co-owners, though these days applicants can opt for an ownership or an associate path.

After a three-month trial period, which included both on-the-job restaurant training and a series of cooperative workshops, the existing members voted on whether to let you in.

Each and every member had to vote yes.

According to the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives, “a worker cooperative is a values-driven business that puts worker and community benefit at the core of its purpose”.

There are two central tenets for worker cooperatives:

· The business is owned by the workers, who contribute labor to the business and in turn, reap the benefits of its success.

· The workers elect a board of directors from within their ranks and follow the principle of one worker, one vote.

We used consensus for all important decisions within the business, meaning all members of a deciding group had to agree. It made for some spirited discussions on more contentious topics, to say the least!

We had a management team and a board of directors. Each entity had the authority to make certain decisions, but in each case, the entire group had to agree. The management team was overseen by the board; the board was elected and overseen by all the co-owners. Membership was at the core of all things, with one share equaling one vote.

Peruse Casa’s menu online, and your mouth will be watering. The restaurant’s cuisine is self-described as “Mexican-style”, with everything made in-house and from scratch in support of the slow food movement.

While not a vegetarian restaurant, they’ve always offered a plethora of vegetarian and vegan options. They work with an impressive and ever-expanding collection of local food providers, and most ingredients are sourced from within 150 miles of Athens.

Almost everything I know about cooking and food I learned there, on the fly.

I earned my stripes creating specials, beginning with Farmer’s Market Night. The food manager would bring me a bag of whatever looked good from the local market that morning, and I was expected to turn it into a dinner special. I think my first iteration of this involved eggs, broccoli, a watermelon, and God only knows what else. The food manager taught me how to make a frittata that night. (The watermelon, of course, was served on the side.)

I was sold. From that point on, aside from an occasional bartending shift, I was in the kitchen. I taught myself to cook, with the help of the talented chefs around me. I learned to make crepes for a “breakfast for dinner” special and mini French bread rolls from scratch for grilled Portobello mushroom hoagies.

I adored flamboyant garnishes and was thrilled when we had garlic scapes in the house.

Sometimes my aspirations were ridiculously lofty, like when I decided it would be cool to hand-make ravioli for a Valentine’s Day special, with two different types of dough and fillings. Keep in mind I’d never made pasta before. It was a raging success, though, and I can only wish I‘d retained a fraction of the hubris that got me through that particular shift without losing my mind.

Though I eventually went on to achieve an MBA, I often wonder whether college is really necessary, or if work and life experience can adequately prepare us for our career paths. This is a question I’ve been considering since my time at Casa, which I jokingly call “the best education I got paid to acquire”.

I was a wild child back then and I can probably thank Casa for the fact that I’m alive today because working there gave me a sense of purpose and direction that I simply couldn’t achieve from college alone.

The experience utterly transformed me.

It molded me into a person who believed I could do anything, with enough perseverance and hard work.

I could learn to write a business plan; to embrace financial statements even though math had never been my forte.

To facilitate meetings, often leading co-owners who were 10 or more years older than me, even though I hated public speaking.

To deal with drunk customers, and wanna-be underage drinkers (a common theme in a college town in the 1990s, when 3.2 beer and a drinking age of 19 were a thing of the past).

(I remember telling someone obviously underage that I’d be happy to give him a free soda, but I wasn’t going to jail for him, and I hoped he’d come back and see us when he turned 21. At least he had the decency to be polite about it.)

To be a good business partner and a good friend.

If I could survive — and even enjoy — line cooking on busy Saturday nights in a sweltering kitchen with no A/C, I can probably survive anything.

To those rigidly adhering to a more traditional path, I may have appeared aimless during that time in my life, taking extra years to finish my undergraduate degree. But following the traditional path doesn’t always glean the most wisdom.

When I finally left my home town at age 28, I sold my share of the restaurant back to the other members because Casa required that all owners also be workers, and therefore physically present. I moved on to Corporate America, but I hope I’ll always bring a little bit of the cooperative philosophy along, wherever my career takes me.

Casa taught me things like confidence. Courage. Standing up for myself. Courage. Not settling. Never allowing myself to get trapped.

Sometimes I stray from those lessons, a gradual but inevitable drifting out into the black sea of self-doubt, routine, and drudgery, but with the beacon of my memories, I can always find my way back.

Casa is there, in my past, shining a light into my current darkness, guiding me to shore.

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I live and write in Northeast Ohio, about everything from food to mental health, pets to relationships, music, art, and sports. My articles usually have a personal slant because I believe we as a society and as individuals grow stronger through truth-telling and connection.

Cleveland Heights, OH
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