Login

Not a member? Sign up here.

Co-ops Could Face a Definite Downside

The Tough Economic Reality for Owners

Photo: Paul Wellman/S.B. IndependentFrench Press co-owners Julia Mayer and Todd Stewart

In 2009, my husband, Todd, and I opened The French Press with no money and no staff. We borrowed equipment from our friends in Santa Cruz and $5,000 from my grandma and worked 16 hours a day for the first two years to keep what seemed like a Hail Mary alive and become an institution here in Santa Barbara. We opened our roastery and second store with a small business loan that we are still paying off. I like to set the stage because if you just moved here in the past five years, maybe you see The French Press differently, but I think it is important to know that every single day we all work incredibly hard to keep our small business alive.

My parents both grew up here, and my brother and I are both raising families here in Santa Barbara, and I am deeply committed to our hometown being a steward of progress: environmentally, socially, and economically. Our mission for our business is to create careers in an industry that is traditionally seen as part-time and short-term. I’m proud of what we have done: We have many employees who have been with us since the beginning, and 25 percent of our staff is made up of folks who have worked for us for three-plus years.

How do we keep our business sustainable in the expensive landscape of Santa Barbara while pushing for growth for our employees? I struggle deeply with how capitalism puts profit above most everything, and I don’t think that as an “owner” I am somehow more deserving than all the folks who do the hard work daily.

When rent in Santa Barbara is as high as it is, and the cost of just operating a business makes “profit redistribution” a non-issue, it is hard to be incentivized to become a completely cooperatively owned business. I say that because I believe in what we are doing: paying fair wages and offering health care and vacation. We meet monthly as a staff to set our shared goals. And beyond that, we are working to create a culture that ​— ​even though it is just coffee ​— ​allows for true personal growth that is accurately compensated.

We do have a vision: We are setting aside equity that we can give to our employees who truly embody our company’s values and are helping move us forward. Because we don’t have a blueprint for it, we are figuring it out as we go. I hope this will be a reality by 2020.

I keep thinking about the Thomas Fire and the mudslides. During that time, our business saw a 60 percent decrease in sales through a season that traditionally is our busiest. We survived that kind of hit by emptying our personal savings and then taking out a personal FEMA loan to pay rent, payroll, and vendors. How would a co-op weather something like that? I realize that this is a 100-year event (with all fingers crossed), but it does come back to this: We built this place from nothing, and I would do anything to keep it here. Would a co-op be able to provide that kind of all-in buy-in? I don’t have the answer!

What I know is the business we started 10 years ago is independently owned with no investors. I believe that our progressive landscape of Santa Barbara has room for cooperatively owned businesses, radically optimistic business owners, and new, better models we haven’t even thought of.

Login

Not a member? Sign up here.