With so much talk throughout the pandemic about how to make hospitality more equitable spaces for workers, some are testing whether worker-owned models are viable. By no means a new concept to the city, a handful of wine shops, restaurants, and bars is following suit.
In 2022, Astor Wines & Spirits, in business since 1946, announced it would be transitioning to a worker-owned operation; owner-brothers Andy and Rob Fisher sold the business to its employees rather than other buyers, in a statement shared to Curbed they said: “the best succession plan is to entrust Astor to the people who have been so instrumental in building our enterprise.” An operations manager for Astor told the publication that they saw the model — where employees are sold stocks in the company that are paid out if they leave — as similar to “a superior form of 401(k).”
During the pandemic, Williamsburg cocktail bar Donna shut down, after a decade in business, but come spring 2023, it’s relaunching in the West Village — this time as a worker-owned establishment. Last year, Leif Huckman told Eater of his decision to transition his ownership to Donna employees, with the help of the organization the Working World, because he wanted a set-up that helps “everyone participate in the equity of the business” and creates less of an extractive dynamic through shared profit goals. At the time, he said that they had explored going gratuity-free, but when they saw several bigwigs in the no-tipping movement recant their position, they knew they needed to look for an alternate (Huckman will stay on as a Donna consultant).
Another model has surfaced at the two locations of Banter, all-day cafes specializing in brunch, in the West Village. Teamshares works a little differently than others in its field: The company acquires small businesses with owners looking to retire and converts them to employee-owned. As of January 2023, Teamshares owns 90 percent of shares in both locations of Banter, while 10 percent is distributed to employees at no cost — over time that amount accumulates. It should be 80 percent employee-owned within 20 years, Teamshares co-founder Kevin Shiiba told Eater. That is, of course, if the Banters last that long (Shiiba said it acts as a financial lifeline for its partners should they become cash-strapped and pushed back on the notion that Banter would even have the potential to close). This is Teamshares’ first restaurant in NYC, but in the tri-state, they’ve worked with Mario’s in Maywood, and Coppola’s, in New Providence, both in New Jersey.
Teamshares has been given an infusion of venture capital — they declined to share the exact amount — showing that even at the investor level, people are putting their money on companies that want to transfer ownership to workers. A 2018 Harvard Business Review report stated that employee-owned operations were better suited to weather economic downturns, with the potential to boost profits by 14 percent.
When Prospect Butcher Co. signed a lease in Prospect Heights in October 2020, it was a given that the operation would be worker-owned, said co-founder Greg Brockman. About four years prior, he had attempted to start a butcher cooperative, but it never got off the ground.
“It’s really admirable to do the [the full cooperative method] but people are tired and have a limited amount of free time; they don’t always want to spend it writing bylaws,” said Brockman. Instead, Prospect Butcher Co. is somewhere in the middle. They have taken outside investment, but workers, not investors, are the ones with what's called voting shares about “major” company decisions.
The promise of better working conditions through employee ownership is especially valuable in the post #MeToo era, as Eater reported. Much like unionization, which is also seeing more interest among workers in New York, worker-owned models are not a magic wand fix or guarantee of the longevity of the business. Of course, just because the model aims to provide better working conditions, that doesn’t guarantee that a business will be operating ethically, either.
“That isn’t to stay what we’re doing isn’t capitalism,” he said. Employees are paid $18-22 per hour as the starting wage, with paid vacation, dental, vision, physical therapy, and life insurance; there’s a health discount plan, but they’re working on getting full insurance.
Brockman said he knows it's a daunting task and “having more options that are objectively better and fairer to workers is better than an all-or-nothing approach.” He said he is skeptical of profit-sharing being the main focus in general, but especially in an industry where margins are thin: “The profit is too easy [while evaluation is harder] to manipulate and it disguises the actual benefit of worker-owner which is being required to have your voice heard,” he said, adding of his butcher shop that “I would love it to be everyone’s last job.”
Sea & Soil Coop is a new sandwich shop set to open in Cobble Hill this summer by Gaby Gignoux-Wolfsohn and Noah Wolf, two teachers, and hospitality veterans. Launching a business where the cooperative format was baked into their business plan is just an extension of their values. When the storefront opens, after one year of being a worker in the bakery, upon approval by other members, employees can become owners: “Our emphasis on a democratic process is why we center the use of the word coop,” said Wolf in a follow-up email.
Unsurprisingly, places like the Bay Area have often led worker-ownership in food. Gignoux-Wolfsohn, who worked at bakery, Orwashers, said it might “feel a lot easier” for businesses to conceptualize co-ops in areas that aren’t as affected by high rent and might be where “conditions are less brutal.” It’s also precisely why the Sea & Soil Coop team thinks it's so important in New York.
“It’s really hard to find places that feel stable to stay a while,” said Gignoux-Wolfsohn, “and we want to be a part of providing that to other people.”