.The Worker-Owned Alchemy Collective Prepares to Expand

Plus Montreal-style smoked meat pops up at Beauty's Bagel Shop.

Fast-food workers across the US have been staging strikes to demand a higher wage, and the issues that brought rise to the Occupy movement remain largely unresolved — but in Berkeley, the proprietors of one business believe they’ve found a way to successfully bridge the divide between workers and owners. The Alchemy Collective Cafe (3140 Martin Luther King Jr. Way) opened in a tiny storefront in South Berkeley last February with a simple business model: The baristas would be the owners, so that each worker would have an equal stake in the cafe’s success.

Now, as the cafe prepares to move to a larger location just a few blocks away, the collective ownership model continues to be a success, according to Chris Myers, one of the worker-owners.

“I do think that the cooperative model is better for communities and people as a whole than the traditional business model, and [it] can lead to stronger businesses,” Myers said.

Myers acknowledged, however, that there’s also nothing “inherently magical” about running a collective-owned business. As with any enterprise, a solid business plan and smart decision-making are prerequisites to success.

Currently, the Alchemy collective has five worker-owners: co-founders Chris Myers, James Parrish, and Payam Imani, plus two others — Chole Bartholomew and Tierza Prothero, who signed on more recently. From the start, the founders drew on what is a rich tradition of worker-owned businesses in the Bay Area, seeking advice from Arizmendi co-founder Tim Huet and hiring a lawyer who specializes in co-ops to help draw up the paperwork.

But the cafe has also taken the idea of collective ownership further than many Bay Area co-ops: The Alchemy Collective makes all business decisions on the basis of one-hundred-percent consensus. As Myers noted, “If the Senate were like that, it wouldn’t work.” Even reaching a consensus between five owners is a daunting prospect, but Myers said, “I feel like it should have been more challenging.”

One of the keys, according to Myers, has been in choosing collective members who share the same basic vision with respect to the quality of the coffee and the type of service they wanted to provide. Consequently, most of the disputes the worker-owners have had have been about relatively minor issues. The biggest point of contention so far? Whether or not the cafe should accept credit cards. (For the record, Alchemy does take credit cards now, and, according to Myers, that turned out to be a good decision.)

Nevertheless, Myers conceded that the process of trying to grind out a consensus can be exhausting. “However, to me, this is far preferable than being a sole owner and having to coerce your employees into giving a hundred percent to the business when they have no real stake in it,” he said.

At a modest 540 square feet, the new Alchemy Collective Cafe, located at 1741 Alcatraz Avenue, will still be four times the size of the original shop, with enough room for a small kitchen and seats for at least ten customers. A covered outdoor patio area should provide seating for another ten. All in all, it will be a big upgrade, especially given that the cafe’s current, broom-closet-size location has neither a customer bathroom nor running water.

The addition of a functional kitchen will allow Alchemy to expand its food offerings beyond its existing roster of Starter Bakery pastries, but Myers said the cafe plans to keep the menu fairly simple: granola, an egg-and-cheese breakfast sandwich, and a couple of other sandwich options for lunch.

“We still want to focus on the coffee, and not spread our energies too much in making burgers or whatever,” Myers said.

If everything goes according to plan, the new Alchemy Collective Cafe will be ready to open sometime in September.

Augie’s Montreal Smoke Meat Pop-Up

Maybe you consider yourself an expert on pastrami and corned beef, those cured-meat staples of the Jewish delicatessen. But have you tried Montreal-style smoked meat? Now you can, thanks to Augie’s Montreal Smoke Meat, a new pop-up that debuted on Monday at Beauty’s Bagel Shop (3838 Telegraph Ave., Oakland).

According to the company’s own description, Augie’s “smoke meat” is beef brisket that’s cured for seven days, then cold-smoked, baked, and seasoned with a pepper-and-coriander rub, resulting in meat with “the spice of pastrami” and the “tender, crumbly texture of corned beef.” At the Beauty’s pop-up, the meat is hand-sliced and served on rye bread from San Francisco’s Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen — $9 for a seven-ounce “L’Original” and $13 for a massive twelve-ounce version.

I snagged a “L’Original” on Monday and found the pastrami-and-corned-beef hybrid description to be apt. A warning to those used to the fillers in, say, a typical Reuben: This is a no-nonsense sandwich, with nothing but a smear of mustard to adorn the thick slices of meat, which was well-marbled and quite salty — tasty enough that I had to exercise extreme self-control to save half the sandwich (okay, maybe it was a quarter) for my wife.

No worries if you missed Monday’s debut: Augie’s will pop up at Beauty’s every Monday this month, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.


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