An Inside Look at Worker-Owned Arizmendi Bakery

Leah Scrivener | 06.06.2013

A worker-owner at the Arizmendi Bakery on Valencia Street in San Francisco, California, who also works for the Arizmendi Association of Cooperatives, spoke with Food First recently to share their first-hand experiences working at a cooperative business. This interview gives first-hand insight from a worker-owner at one of the nation’s most successful cooperative bakeries.

The first Arizmendi Bakery was established in Oakland, California 1997. It was born out of another collective called the Cheese Board that had been successfully running in nearby Berkeley since 1971. After 25 years of running a successful cooperative business, members of the Cheese Board joined forces with other cooperative-minded individuals to form a new bakery. They decided to call it the Arizmendi Bakery, named after the Basque priest José María Arizmendiarrieta, who founded the Mondragón Cooperative in the Basque Country of Spain in the 1950s. Today, there are five different Arizmendi bakeries, located in San Francisco, Oakland, San Rafael and Emeryville.

Food First: What does it mean for Arizmendi to be worker-owned?

Arizmendi Bakery: Everyone is both a worker and an owner. You’re a worker in that you’re baking, cleaning, making scones and working the registers. But you’re also an owner, making the decisions that the business needs in order to run. All of the responsibilities that would normally get placed on an owner get divided up among the people who work at Arizmendi. Everyone in each individual bakery is an equal participant in figuring out how to run the business; the bakers have an equal vote and an equal say.

Ownership gives a voice to people who don’t traditionally have a voice. Just because someone is more educated than someone else, doesn’t mean that their opinion is more important. Everyone brings a different perspective to the decision-making process.

FF: What are the advantages of being a cooperative?

AB: A big advantage is that people take ownership and they care so much more. If you’re just an employee working for someone else, then you might have some motivation just because you want to get paid. But for us, it’s more direct. We divide up the surplus at the end, so we have a big stake in how well we do. It’s not just helping the person at the top.

Also, there is a lot of pride in creating these products and selling them, as owners. We can make decisions that work for us because we’re the ones who are doing the work, so we know what needs to happen.

Another big advantage is that ownership gives a voice to people who don’t traditionally have a voice. In my bakery, there’s a huge variety of education, but just because someone is more educated than someone else, doesn’t mean that their opinion is more important. Everyone brings a different perspective and a different set of beliefs and understandings to the decision-making process.

In some ways, I think change happens more quickly. We have 21 people at Valencia, so there’s so much room for innovation. It’s not just 2 or 3 people making decisions. We have 21 people brainstorming about how to improve our business, so there are many ideas. Sometimes, change can be slow when we can’t agree on something. But as a whole, we can make changes and delegate tasks and really improve our business drastically.

FF: Could you talk about the challenges you’ve faced, either day-to-day, or in starting the business?

AB: Day to day, it’s sometimes hard to not have a boss. With a boss, it’s easy to pass on problems. For example, if something goes wrong with the register, you can say, “That’s the boss’s problem!” But in a cooperative, it’s all us. Sometimes you can kind of get into a “group think” mentality where there’s a problem, but nobody fixes it. There has to be a lot of delegating to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Conflict is also a challenge in a cooperative: We’re all equal but there can still be power dynamics. It’s a challenge to be able to work with people on equal footing.

FF: Could you compare your experience at a cooperative with other jobs you’ve had?

AB: At a cooperative, I am directly working with the food and directly working with the customers, and my voice is just as important as anyone else’s. So it’s really empowering.

In the bakery where I worked before Arizmendi, there was a big divide between the front and the back of the house, which is pretty typical in food businesses. The divide along race, privilege and status was really apparent in the bakery where I used to work. That doesn’t exist at Arizmendi—those lines get completely obliterated. We have an incredibly diverse group, and we all are doing the exact same thing. We’re all doing dishes; we’re all doing management; and we’re all spread out equally.

FF: How do you manage the more technical aspects of the business?

AB: When the bakeries are created, the intention is to hire people with a diversity of backgrounds to help support the various aspects of the business. The idea is to train the worker-owners as much as possible in the finances and how to run the business. But, there are certain areas where the Arizmendi Association can step in for support. The Association has a lawyer on staff, as well as book-keepers, and an outside accountant to help us. So it’s not strictly up to the individual bakeries.

FF: Could you describe the decision-making process?

AB: The process is slightly different at each bakery, depending on their by-laws. At Valencia, we go by “modified consensus.” So we have a General Meeting every other week for three hours. We need a civil majority in order to pass a decision, but someone can block it if they are morally opposed to it, feel that they do not have enough information, or feel it would be detrimental to the business. There are specific reasons, it actually cannot be for any other reason…In the event of a block, we need a 75% vote in order to pass a proposal.

FF: How do you manage turn-over if the workers are owners in the business?

AB: That is a big difference between regular business and cooperatives. Because people have so much ownership, they care more [and] they stay longer. The pay rate for a baker is considerably higher. We’re dividing up profits amongst ourselves and we can decide how much to pay ourselves to begin with. So it’s a much more sustainable job and we all decide what benefits we want. There’s so much that keeps people there longer.