Alchemy Collective Coffee Brews Worker Power

Savannah Kuang, CUESA Staff
July 12, 2019

As small food businesses do their best to make it in the increasingly competitive and expensive Bay Area, a new generation is turning to cooperative models to support their workers. From veterans such as Cheese Board Collective, Arizmendi Bakery, and Mandela Grocery Cooperative to more recent openings like Hasta Muerte and Tamarack, the East Bay is fertile ground for worker-owned cooperatives that are pushing forward a more democratic way of doing business.

Among such businesses, Alchemy Collective Coffee, a majority QTPOC (queer, trans, and people of color) worker-owned café and roaster, fosters a dedication to shared decision-making and providing a safe space for their workers and community at their Berkeley café and Jack London Square Farmers Market stand, while brewing high-quality coffee one cup at a time.

Being Worker-Led

Alchemy Collective was founded in 2010 by Chris Taruc-Myers, Payam Imani, and James Parrish with the vision of creating community and empowering workers through shared ownership. “We were working at a café together, and we hashed an idea for having our own café,” says Chris. “Once we learned what a cooperative is, it felt like something we had to do because we wanted a collaborative working environment.” They began selling coffee at Phat Beets Farmers Market and, with the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign, launched their first café location in Berkeley in 2012.

According to the Democracy at Work Institute, a worker cooperative means that workers own the business and have representation on and vote for the board of directors, following the principle of “one worker, one vote.” Currently, the U.S. has an estimated 300 to 400 democratic workplaces, with about 7,000 employees, generating over $400 million in total annual revenue.

Worker-owned cooperatives don’t have a set management structure or hierarchy. Alchemy Collective’s worker-owners structure their business in a non-hierarchal model through committees that each manage a portion of the business. They have monthly meetings with the rest of the team to share their proposals and vote on them together. “For efficiency and agility, we don’t vote on every single proposal during these meetings since smaller decisions can be made within the committees,” says Chris.

Becoming an Alchemist

Before becoming a member-owner, new hires go through a six-month grace period and log in 500 hours of work. This process allows the worker-owners and the new hires time to get to know each other to see if it’s a good fit. Once they become a member, they receive patronage payouts, which is profit-sharing based on hours worked.

With everyone owning a share of the business, each worker-owner experiences first-hand the economic challenges of operating a business. “It’s expensive in the Bay Area, especially due to the cost of living, and many business owners aren’t taking home a lot of money at the end of the day,” says Shante Robinson, one of the worker-owners at Alchemy Collective.

“And with everyone committing to the membership, they might not get the output that they imagine, which can be a bit difficult. But at the same time, it feels really fulfilling because I know that this is my space and I am adding great value to this business.”

Sourcing Beans Sustainably

Roasting since 2013, the collective’s ethos of fairness is infused in all aspects of the business. The majority of their coffee beans are fair trade (a certification process, regulated by Fair Trade USA). Sourcing organic beans from farmers outside of the United States can be difficult, though. “Coffee is generally not grown in the United States except for a few places,” says Shante. “The coffee beans we get are mostly organic, but getting USDA approval for the organic certification can be a challenge for the farmers outside the U.S.”

The roaster is also looking into direct trade sourcing, which means developing direct relationships with farmers to ensure quality and sustainability, and ensure that the farmer are fairly compensated for their beans. “We are currently working with a directory program for direct trade coffee, which we’re really excited about,” says Shante.

Currently, Alchemy Collective offers a rotating selection of medium and dark roast blends and single-origin coffees from Guatemala, Brazil, Kenya, Columbia, and Ethiopia. “Our customers also get really excited about our natural-process coffee because of the fruity notes,” says Chris. They’re working on expanding their wholesale coffee operation and offering coffee subscriptions for the community and workspaces.

Creating Safe Spaces

Whether at their Berkeley café or their stand the Jack London Square Farmers Market, Alchemy Collective sees coffee as a vehicle to foster community and start conversations about what it means to create a stable, inclusive, and supportive work environment in the Bay Area.

“Having autonomy is one of the key things we want to give to each other and other people because we want more cooperatives out there and we’d like to set an example of that,” says Chris. “Stability is also important because worker-owners don’t have to worry about getting fired due to misunderstandings or because of your sexual orientation. We prioritize in creating a safe space, which is not always the case for a lot of small businesses.”

Visit Alchemy Collective on Sundays at the Jack London Square Farmers Market.

Group photo and photo of Jasmine, Shante, and Chris courtesy of Alchemy Collective.

Topics: ,