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Socialism in One Restaurant

October 18, 2017

(Editor’s note: For transparency sake, I was a part of the Grand Rapids Chapter of the IWW when Bartertown was part of the IWW. We had meetings there and I was part of many conversations both during and after Bartertown’s involvement with the IWW. I also tend to agree with Cole Dorsey’s comments in this article. This article was written and submitted by David Zeglen, who is a professor at George Mason University.)

by David Zeglen

Last November, “Bartertown”, a small vegan restaurant in Grand Rapids, Michigan, closed its doors forever. Despite the restaurant’s relative obscurity, the closing nonetheless made headlines in the mainstream media: Fox News issued the story “Marxist Vegan Restaurant Closes After Customers No Long Willing to Wait 40 Minutes for a Sandwich”; Fortune reported “A Michigan Marxist Restaurant Closes After Failed Group Decisions and Long Sandwich Waits”; and Vice Media ran a short article entitled “Marxist Vegan Restaurant in Michigan Closes for Predictably Marxist Reasons.”

This hyperbole, schadenfreude, and invocation of familiar red-baiting tropes was symptomatic of a deeper anxiety about restaurant capitalism in one of the most exploitative sectors of the American economy. Bartertown represented the possibility of an alternative organizational model for the workplace. Although Bartertown’s co-founders never assumed that their restaurant would remain open for very long in a place as politically conservative as Grand Rapids, they were committed to cultivating a class consciousness via workplace democracy that would remain with Bartertown’s workers long after the restaurant closed. While Bartertown’s labor experiment was unable to move toward enacting broader structural changes, it nonetheless challenged the capitalist restaurant model and provided valuable lessons for future workplace organizing.

A Post-Recession Outpost

After years of working in various restaurants, Bartertown’s brainchild, Ryan Cappelletti, had seen first-hand how the industry relied on the basic principle of keeping wages low to keep food costs down and increase profit margins. Given the post-recession economy of Michigan in 2011, Cappelletti wanted to build a restaurant that saw its customers as struggling laborers in need of fair prices, and its workers as deserving of fair wages. Thus, Cappelletti and his fellow co-founders began to design a model that could meet these principles.

For Cappelletti, this was a chance to challenge some dominant ideologies about the food industry. To reduce food costs, the restaurant would be a true farm-to-table by using locally sourced vegan food from within Michigan. But Cappelletti didn’t use this farm-to-table ethos as a brand gimmick to justify charging higher prices like other local vegan restaurants. Instead, this model would ensure that customers could get a locally sourced plate of food for as low as $5.00. Although it is often assumed that locally sourced, seasonal food is more expensive for the customer, Cappelletti argued that restaurants opted for less nutritious frozen goods from regional suppliers more out of convenience than cost.

Capelletti also wanted the restaurant to have a barter system wherein Grand Rapids’ homeless, unemployed, and underemployed could come in and wash dishes for an hour in exchange for a meal. Additionally, as local mushroom forager Glenn Freeman recounts, the restaurant also accepted local food ingredients as currency that could be credited in exchange for a meal. 

This “Bartertown” also remained inviting to the working class by foregoing the pretentious décor and fancy menus characteristic of farm-to-table restaurants. While other places used overblown language like “artisanal” and “handcrafted” to deliberately ostracize certain demographics, Bartertown’s menus, with items such as “two-buck tacos,” “chickpea dip,” or “tofu Reuben” were simple and direct with basic descriptions. When rhetorical flourish was invoked, it was never to dress up the items as evidenced by the “bowl of food,” and “raw trash salad” options.

Rather than purchasing brand new lights, chairs, and tables, Cappelletti also hired a local builder who agreed to forage for materials and upcycle them into furnishings for the restaurant. As a result, Bartertown’s décor consisted of refurbished old doors for tables, mix-matched utensils, mugs, and plates, and used kitchen equipment, including a beat-up oven salvaged from an old church.

Let Them Eat Che

The DIY aesthetic was also applied to Bartertown’s art: on the main wall inside the restaurant was a giant red and black propaganda-style mural of Che Guevara dressed as a hamburger cook holding a plate of veggie burgers, with Ronald Reagan working beside him as a dishwasher. Although Bartertown sought to evoke a commentary on the linkage between political leadership, mass murder and faux-revolutionary status, the so-called “Che mural” offended many residents, including a local Cuban émigré who took to Facebook to complain about the restaurant’s alleged endorsement of a mass murderer. The Facebook comment was subsequently linked to a blog post critiquing the mural on a local website, wherein Grand Rapid’s bourgeois vegans became righteously indigent towards Bartertown’s aesthetic, despite the restaurant’s unprecedented commitment to worker’s rights.

Indeed, although Bartertown was conscientious about making its food accessible to everyone, there was also an underlying “fuck you” attitude towards customers who had internalized the absolutist mentality of always being right. Bartertown helped cultivate this attitude by hiring people who had little restaurant experience and therefore hadn’t been indoctrinated with the industry’s hierarchical value system, making it easier to train them in workers’ rights from the bottom up. During training, Cappelletti often encouraged the staff to be nice to the people who were nice to them back, and to not take any shit from people who were rude or offensive.

Bartertown also had a list of by-laws posted on the wall indicating that any sort of oppressive behavior, derogatory language, or general cause of discomfort or stress including mental or physical abuse from the customer would not be tolerated. As Bear, a former worker at Bartertown recalls, “we aimed to give excellent food and great service all the time because we loved to work there and keep it alive, but we just weren’t going to take any shit. If you didn’t like that, we would say ‘get the fuck out of here, we don’t need your money.’”

To help cultivate the workers’ sense of autonomy, Cappelletti contacted the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) for help. Cole Dorsey, one of the founders of the Grand Rapids IWW branch, met with Cappelletti and agreed to help organize Bartertown into a closed-shop union based on the IWW’s core principles of horizontalism, direct democracy, accountability, and transparency.

With the IWW’s help, worker meetings were held every week and all decisions about delegating responsibility for specific tasks were made according to a simple majority rule with every worker having an equal vote from dishwasher to cook to server. Everyone agreed to being paid the same hourly minimum wage and dividing all tips fairly, and all the financial records were open. More important decisions about profits and finances were also collectively decided, usually through consensus, and everyone agreed that the priority would be paying back their investors, which they did within the first year. According to Onya Jackson, one of Bartertown’s co-founders, implementing IWW principles opened her eyes to how unfairly restaurants were usually run in the industry.

Trappings of Success

As Cappelletti admits, the IWW’s support before and during the restaurant’s first year was critical to Bartertown’s initial success. In addition to helping organize Bartertown’s workers, the IWW financially helped the restaurant by running donation drives, investing in Bartertown’s Kickstarter, and organizing punk concert fundraisers in Bartertown’s basement. When Bartertown first opened, the IWW also offered free labor from branch member volunteers to fill in when the restaurant was short-staffed, and offered advice on how to handle negative media attention while providing positive media coverage.

But the restaurant’s popularity also made it increasingly difficult for the busy staff to maintain the IWW’s requirements for a union shop, such as holding regular IWW meetings, recording meeting minutes for transparency, and writing up by-laws for the restaurant. By the time Bartertown had been open for a year, the relationship with the IWW had largely ended. Dorsey speculates that Bartertown might still be around today had they continued to work with the union and incorporate the restaurant into a larger network of IWW-supported businesses in the city. For Cappelletti, the dissipation of the relationship was regrettable, as the restaurant would soon need the kind of advice and support that only the IWW could provide.

For instance, in the spring of 2013, nearly 15 months after the restaurant had first opened, Cappelletti relinquished ownership and gave the restaurant to Bartertown’s five co-founding workers, including Jackson. After Cappelletti left, Bartertown’s confrontational attitude and equitable working conditions started to erode. According to Kate Vlaming, one of the co-owners of the restaurant at the time, workers grew increasingly passive-aggressive towards each other since nobody wanted to upset or offend anyone else by voicing their opinion about increasingly unfair divisions of labor.

As the owner, Cappelletti functioned as a symbolic totem that enabled workers to confront each other’s ideas indirectly, thus helping facilitate a workplace democracy. As a result, after nine months as a worker-owned and operated restaurant, in early 2014, Cappelletti agreed to take back ownership of Bartertown while continuing to run it as a worker-operated, if not worker-owned, restaurant.

However, Bartertown encountered a further problem that the IWW could have also helped to mitigate. In December 2014, Bartertown’s rental lot was sold to Rockford Construction, a local land development company with a reputation for gentrifying neighborhoods in Grand Rapids. Rockford immediately doubled the rent on the lot, making it increasingly difficult for Bartertown to maintain its fair wages and low prices, even though the restaurant was doing their best business yet – a common problem in the American restaurant industry.

Soon after the Rockford takeover, Thad Cummings, a local entrepreneur, approached Cappelletti about becoming a partner in Bartertown. Although Cappelletti initially turned him down, Cummings continued to visit, investing money into the business and providing financial advice. According to Cummings, there was no way of saving Bartertown without its debt being bought out. In February 2016, Cappelletti relented, and finally sold Bartertown to Cummings.

Don’t Eat the Rich

After taking ownership of Bartertown, it became immediately apparent that Cummings’ approach to organizing the restaurant’s work relations was clashing with the workers who remained after Cappelletti sold the restaurant.

Cummings tried to continue the monthly staff meetings with equal votes for decision-making. But according to Cummings, some of his workers saw the job as just that (a likely result of different hiring practices from Cappelletti’s) and didn’t want to participate in meetings, while those who did participate would gridlock Cummings over basic business decisions. Cummings ended up making several unilateral decisions about the restaurant, which consequently provoked a backlash from several workers that the restaurant was only nominally worker-operated.

Furthermore, Cummings’ business partner, Crystal LeCoy, constantly micro-managed the workers and refused to hear input from other staff on how to run the restaurant. When some workers challenged LeCoy’s ideas, she responded by threatening to fire them. As Bear put it, “we weren’t the kind of people to take that without fighting back. We gave her [LeCoy] a lot of attitude for trying to control everything.”

Cummings and LeCoy also turned Bartertown into a no-tip restaurant. Instead of tipping, customers could pay two dollars for a meal card that would go on a board near the front of the entrance, which anyone from the community could take down and use. Workers recalled that while several homeless people did come in and use the board, many of the cards stayed unused, which made them suspect that Cummings was pocketing the “tips” and hacking wages.

When Cummings explained to his workers that their wage was more than what they were previously making with tips, they responded that the issue was less about money and more about having some control in the decision-making process. As Cummings said, “it’s bizarre when employees tell you how they are going to run the company.” Cummings also felt that making Bartertown a no-tip restaurant took away the incentive to work hard, and attributed this factor to the decline in customer service among his workers, rather than dissatisfaction with the social organization of management. However, he also admitted that he implemented his idea for the meal board with little input from the staff.

By the fall of 2016, Bartertown had become a series of constant battles between the restaurant’s old workers and its new owners. From Cummings’ perspective, he was continually frustrated by the fact that the workers couldn’t understand the financial complexity of the restaurant, which meant that workplace democracy could never work in the restaurant industry.

But for the staff, it was Cummings who didn’t understand that they were more interested in having a workplace democracy that wouldn’t last forever rather than having a deadening job that would. It wasn’t that Bartertown’s workers didn’t understand the nuances of business economics, it was that they weren’t willing to sacrifice their temporary autonomy for the drudgery of long-term wage slavery.

Although Cummings made a last-ditch effort to re-brand the restaurant and start anew, by November the writing was on the wall, and the restaurant closed for good.

No Recipes for the Kitchens of the Future

Instead of gleaning insights from an experiment with workrplace democracy, once Bartertown had closed, the media and the public responded by mocking a restaurant that had tried to provided workers with labor rights and a community with affordable food in a post-recession economy.

Cappelletti also distinctly recalls that several locals in the community blasted Bartertown’s for being thoroughly depraved and anti-American. But Bartertown’s politics embodied a particular valence of the American Dream that resonated with a different kind of world where people regulated production and could decide to do one thing today and another thing tomorrow. As Cappelletti countered, “we weren’t anti-American; just the opposite. We made Bartertown happen because we believed we could make it happen, and because we believed we could do whatever we wanted. We were just really hard working, and did everything we could to try and make the experiment last.”

Whatever mode of production follows capitalism won’t emerge as an entire system, but will involve small-scale experiments like Bartertown. Although many will fail, the lessons of those failures will enable other experiments to succeed and help shift this emergent system into the dominant one and change the overall logic of our contemporary social relations.

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