Worker-owned coffee cooperative is brewing up big plans for business
on August 11, 2011
Chris Myers is sitting at his kitchen table in his North Oakland apartment on a Tuesday morning. The BART train rumbles outside his window as he takes a sip from his mug of coffee.
But there’s no coffee machine in sight. Instead, there’s a contraption made from a bike gear, metal rod and a glass funnel. It’s what Myers uses to get his daily caffeine fix, and what he hopes other Oaklanders will as eventually use as well. The device works by pouring hot water over ground coffee beans in the glass funnel; then, drip by drip, the coffee pours from the funnel down to a mug where its ready to drink.
Myers said the single-drip method produces a clean cup of coffee that is thicker than those brewed using a regular coffee machine, and that the process is less wasteful and more flexible, because brewing one cup at a time allows for different kinds of coffee beans to be tasted. As he drinks from his mug, the coffee’s bold smell is inescapable.
With the help from a friend, Myers founded Alchemy Collective, a worker-owned café. Although they currently only demonstrate their brewing methods at North Oakland farmers’ markets, where he and other members make cups of their single-drip brew to shoppers in exchange for a donation, Myers dreams of having a physical café location for Alchemy Collective in downtown Oakland. The group will also soon be introducing a rolling espresso cart that will operate out of Berkeley’s Biofuel Oasis.
Myers, 29, has been experimenting with ways of making single-drip coffee devices for a few months, hoping to get the perfect cup of joe each morning. The name “Alchemy Collective” was inspired both by the medieval-looking lab brewing equipment and the chemical aspect of making coffee, which, Myers said, has roots in alchemy.
But his main interest is in something else other than just brewing quality coffee one cup at a time for customers at his North Oakland farmers’ market, or eventually opening a café. “We want to be a good example of a worker-owned business,” Myers said. “We think it’s a really important thing in our economy that not enough people know about.”
Alchemy became an officially incorporated worker-owned business last September with the help of a cooperative lawyer that guided its founders through the paperwork. Following in the tradition of Arizmendi Bakery, which has a branch in the Oakland Lakeshore neighborhood, the Mandela Food Cooperative in West Oakland, and a handful of other cooperatives in the city, Alchemy Collective is democratically operated and the first worker-owned business in Oakland that specializes in coffee.
A worker-owned business means that all six of Alchemy’s members have the power to vote on management decisions and the direction of the business, and all receive an equal share of the profits. It’s a model that intended to create employee equality in the workplace with the goal of delivering a higher-quality product.
Myers and a friend who helped him found the group began thinking about running their own shop about a year ago, when they were baristas working at Nomad Café in the North Oakland. Their original plan was to find someone to buy Nomad and turn it into a cooperative, but when that didn’t work out, Myers said, they started thinking about building a new separate cafe. “We’ve both had a lot of experiences working in cafes,” Myers said. “We had a pretty clear idea of how we would want in structured and designed.” A part of that idea includes a large stage area for bands to perform.
The members of Alchemy Collective continue to look up to Nomad as a leading neighborhood café that focuses on the whole coffee process, starting with where the coffee beans come from, where they’re roasted and the freshness of the final product. “The whole technique of making coffee and making sure it’s as perfect as possible is important to us,” Myers said, “instead of just slamming something into an automatic coffee machine and serving it.”
Right now, Alchemy is focusing on getting their espresso cart up and running within the next couple of weeks. It will be stationed at the Biofuel Oasis in Berkeley five days a week, while they continue demonstrating their coffee methods every Saturday at the North Oakland farmers market. Myers and collective member Rob Wertheimer built the cart with additions like a fold-out table for pastries, drawers for condiments and a sink with plumbing. “It’s like a go-go gadget espresso cart,” Myers said.
Wertheimer and Myers said the cart is the stepping-stone to start talking to banks and other bigger lenders about loans for a more permanent cafe. “We kind of did it backwards,” Myers said, “We came up with the business plan and then started talking to banks and real estate agents.” Right now, Alchemy gets their revenue from donations at the farmers’ markets and from donors using Kickstarter.com, a fundraising website.
Still, the group’s finaances are far from sustainable and most of the work is a labor of love. “It’s hard at this stage,” Myers said. “We’re just getting going and everyone has their own job and is trying to pay rent.”
Myers has lived in Oakland for the past five years and works as counselor at a group home in San Francisco. Wertheimer, 27, is in between taking classes and several different part-time jobs. He’s been in Oakland for a couple years and joined Alchemy Collective in February after Myers put an ad out on Craigslist seeking coffee and worker-owned enthusiasts members.
Their other members, all in their twenties, are baristas at different cafes around the area, with a wide-range of experience in coffee roasting and brewing.
“It’s part of our commitment to staying on the cutting edge,” Wertheimer said about his coffee connoisseur colleagues. “But trends come and go and it’s more about knowing what your customer is into and being able to say, ‘Here’s something new, here’s something I read about on this forum. Let’s see if this way actually makes a better cup of coffee.’”
Before starting with Alchemy, Wertheimer had other business ideas from websites to iPhone apps, but they never quite took off. “The good thing about this is that there were other people who were committed and brought skills that I didn’t have,” he said. “I came into this being a coffee enthusiast but not knowing a ton about it.”
But starting up a business in tough economic times hasn’t been easy, and Myers and Wertheimer know they have a long road ahead of them. “It’s true what every entrepreneur has told us,” Myers said, “that it’s going to be expensive and take a lot longer then you think. But when you can see the end result so clearly and you know what it should look like and how everything should be done, it’s hard to resist.”
They say they’ve gotten great feedback so far from the farmer’s market in North Oakland where they bring their single-drip coffee device to brew beans from Verve Coffee Roasters, a wholesale coffee bean distributer.
“We’re lucky to live in a place that has good examples of cooperatives,” Myers said about working in Oakland, “They’ll be more like us popping up and we’re excited about that.”
Look for the Alchemy Collective at the North Oakland farmers market at 5717 Market St. on Saturdays and for their espresso cart at the Biofuel Oasis next month.
To learn more about Alchemy Collective and their Kickstarter campaign, visit their website.
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