Collective Avenue Coffee is a worker-owned coffee shop founded three years ago by Kateri Gutierrez and Jonathan Robles in Los Angeles, California. I recently spoke to Kateri by phone and discussed the history and vision of their young cooperative.
Kateri grew up in Lynwood, a working-class neighbourhood in LA, and gained her first business experience selling health products with her mother and tamales on the street to help her family make ends meet. She attended the University of California, Berkeley, and wrote her undergraduate thesis on the impact on social media on consumers as citizens. After graduating, she worked for a time at the Disney corporation before returning to Lynwood to set up Collective Avenue Coffee. Kateri believes her time working in corporate America taught her valuable lessons that she draws on as she and Jonathan build their own worker-owned business.
I don’t see myself going back to corporate; it didn’t match my values, but what I did take away is that you need to be efficient. Coops need to combine democracy with efficiency. In the end, a cooperative is a business, and the business has to thrive for the workers to survive. The coop movement can get symbolic very quickly, and we can forget to pay attention to the everyday process of running a successful business.
Like many other entrepreneurs looking to set up a worker-owned firm, Kateri and Jonathan lacked access to capital, so rather than start with a permanent, brick-and-mortar shop, Collective Avenue Coffee was launched as a pop-up shop, appearing at various venues and events around the neighbourhood. Kateri recommends this as a relatively low-risk, low-capital way to get a worker-owned business off the ground.
We did have investors interested, but we wanted to maintain the integrity of our worker coop, so we turned down the investors’ proposals. We offered them the alternative of writing loans for us, but they seemed to be more interested in establishing outside control of our business.
Recently, Collective Avenue Coffee has joined forces with two other worker-owned cooperatives and one certified B corporation, and together they are working to establish a cooperative hub in their neighbourhood, which they have christened COOP LA, that will house all four of the enterprises under one roof.
Opening COOP LA and moving into a brick-and-mortar space will be a big step for Kateri and Jonathan. Keeping the cooperative going over the last three years, even as a pop-up, has been a struggle. For the first two years particularly, the cooperative did not make enough money to allow Kateri and Jonathan to regularly pay themselves, and so Kateri worked as a substitute teacher on the side. Even now, the coffee shop doesn’t make quite enough money for them both to earn a living from the business, but Kateri says that in spite of all the struggle, she has never felt alone.
Entrepreneurs often feel alone, but if you start with a coop, it is a collaborative effort right from the beginning. When you distribute the work-load and responsibility, there is less stress.
Kateri believes that growing the worker-owned cooperative sector in the US will not only require a cultural shift, but will also require better basic support for cooperative start-ups. When they were first setting out, Kateri and Jonathan approached the Small Business Administration, a US government agency supported by tax dollars, and asked for help, but they found that the business coaches working for the SBA knew very little about worker cooperatives:
We went to the SBA for help, but felt that rather than learning from the coaches, we were teaching the coaches about coops.
Kateri does however recommend a free online course that she took, Economic Democracy: The Cooperative Alternative, produced by the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
It is clear from speaking to Kateri that while she is working hard to establish a workers’ cooperative in her neighbourhood, she is ultimately working to spark a broader cooperative movement in LA. In addition to collaborating on COOP LA, Collective Avenue Coffee runs an apprenticeship program for teenagers and young adults in Lynwood, and also invites community members to attend their meetings and get involved in the development of the business.
We wanted to create an alternative in our community. We chose a coffee shop because it is a place where people can socialize. To make a change, we have to set an example. We have to show the glamorous and the not-so-glamourous. The coop movement is not glamourous, but it is necessary if we want sustainable change.
Worker cooperatives may not be glamorous, but if we grow them fast enough, they will change the world, and the COOP LA project feels like just the sort of initiative that could provide a foundation for a growing cooperative movement in LA. It will be interesting to check in with Kateri and her fellow co-owners in a few years and learn how their project has developed.