The restaurant industry is notorious for exploiting its workers—mostly immigrants and people of color—who work grueling, unpredictable hours for meager wages and few benefits. Even before the pandemic, the industry was under scrutiny for its toxic work culture. Then COVID-19 took a devastating toll on the industry – many restaurants closed and hospitality workers topped the list of job losses.
But with a catastrophic shift comes an opportunity for change. Could there be an alternative, fair economic model to conventional gastronomy? One that provides customers with delicious meals, celebrates culture, uplifts workers and owners from historically marginalized communities, pays living wages, and makes money?
The non-profit collective Oakland bloom think so – and philanthropy is well placed to help make such a transformation a reality.
The organization supports low-income immigrants, refugees and BIPOC chefs who want to start their own food businesses through their incubator training program Open test kitchen, which trains aspiring entrepreneurs in all aspects of starting a food business. In the fall of 2020, Oakland Bloom also launched a for-profit project, the brick-and-mortar store substorya cooperative restaurant in Oakland, California that prioritizes worker rights and pathways to ownership.
Oakland Bloom is one of eight projects across the country that have raised a combined $2 million since 2020 through a partnership between the Kresge Foundation and the collective Equitable Food-Based Development (EFOD), who designed and managed the funding process. Kresge provided financial support as part of his larger support commitment food establishments in underserved communities of color (see our story here).
“Oakland Bloom is committed to supporting communities and building wealth for poor immigrants and working class refugees of color. This differs from most immigrant support programs, which typically focus on employment as the ultimate goal or work with more privileged classes of immigrants on their journey to empowerment,” says Stacey Barbas, Kresge’s senior program officer for health $100,000 awarded over two years at Oakland Bloom, in addition to providing technical and other support.
“By focusing his model on the common barriers to business ownership for this particular group of chefs, Oakland Bloom has developed innovative programs and support systems that meet chefs where they stand both economically and socially,” she adds.
It’s also an example of innovative efforts being made across the country to reinvent how local food businesses operate, often weaving together disparate streams of finance, revenue and philanthropy to create a more equitable form of business – and better for the community to serve.
Reinventing restaurants for the common good
The Kresge-supported EFOD Fund is an alternative financing model for community-led, equity-based, food-based economic development and prioritizes the expertise of people of color as designers and decision-makers.
“Even though each of these projects is rooted in their communities, they help reinforce and broaden the EFOD vision,” he said Member of the EFOD Collaborative Executive Committee Mariela Cedeno of Manzanita capital collectiveand announced the first round of funding for 2021. A second followed in March of this year. “These grants reinforce our goal to advance a development narrative that leverages the food system and prioritizes community ownership and wealth building for long-term generational wealth.”
The Kresge grants are designed to make a difference for chronically underfunded, BIPOC-led projects that don’t have access to capital or equity, Barbas says. Kresge sees the investment as a “transition from a charity model of food aid to one that helps build community wealth and economic development in primarily black communities.”
Over the past year, Oakland Bloom’s collaborative projects have cooked 6,500 meals for homeless people in Oakland and Berkeley, supported more than 50 food entrepreneurs and provided aspiring chefs much-needed income during the pandemic.
“The Kresge funding came at a pivotal time — as our community restaurant project and incubator kitchen were forming,” said Seanathan Chow, Oakland Bloom’s founder and director of strategy, who is managing the effort as a boot-strappy company describes. He adds: “It was a learning experience, but we were able to do a lot with very little.”
In 2021, the total budget for Oakland Bloom and Understory was $440,000, including donations from Kresge/EFOD, WES Mariam Assefa Fund ($100,000 over two years) and one-time grants for collaborative development work Rippleworks, Y&H Soda Foundation, Community Foundation of Restaurant Workers and East Bay Community Foundation Women’s Catalytic Fund. In addition, Chow redistributed his shares and investments ($100,000) from a previous restaurant venture to help found the Understory Worker’s Collective[TW1] [SH2] .
Understory has been open for a little over a year and has seven worker-owners who pay themselves a living wage (between $26 and $28 an hour), with health benefits and paid vacation time. The collective received a James Beard Prize (the food industry Oscars) for its leadership and values, which include “uplifting communities of color, building economic sustainability, and supporting environmentally and race-sensitive food systems.” Oakland Bloom’s goal is to help chefs build sustainable businesses for themselves, including a path to equity in Understory if interested.
But is the worker-owner cooperative restaurant a sustainable model? What about the incubator kitchen concept? And could these innovations be replicated elsewhere in the country?
Co-op coffee and worker-run pizzerias are turning traditional hierarchy on its head
Oakland Bloom’s Open Test Kitchen isn’t the first of its kind in the Bay Area. The nonprofit La Cocina trains mostly female, BIPOC and/or immigrant chefs in everything from menu development to marketing skills. and 1951 coffee is an industrial training ground for newly arrived refugees.
Understory isn’t the first worker-owned food collective in the Bay Area, either. In nearby Berkeley, the cheese board collective, which opened in 1971, is perhaps the oldest and most successful example in the area. Elsewhere, other co-op cafes, bakeries, food manufacturers and restaurants have also chosen to reverse the hierarchies of the hospitality industry, including the bookstore/cafe Red Emmas in Baltimore; Phoenix Coffee Co. in Cleveland, OH; and a vegan restaurant from Sri Lanka mirisata in Portland, Ore. Some of these companies, such as Joe squared Pizza Place in Baltimore, Local butcher shop in Berkeley and upscale restaurant/bar donna in Brooklyn, have restructured their business models to remain profitable during the pandemic and beyond.
Understory, according to its members, hopes to go further by addressing long-standing injustices in the restaurant industry in a region with one of the largest income gaps between white restaurant workers and workers of color. The restaurant’s menu includes Filipino, Mexican, and Moroccan flavors; Pop-up opportunities allow other chefs to showcase their cooking.