A Cooperative Coffee Bar's Worker-Owners Share the Stress, and the Profits

Winners Take All

by Katie Bohri

Restaurants create a lot of waste. There’s food waste, and the wasted fossil fuels that go into keeping a full menu available year-round. But there’s also a waste of human energy: the energy that workers must spend to manage the stress imposed by an industry that pits employees against each other for better shifts and better tips. Tips are how restaurant workers survive: in Pennsylvania, they make $2.83 an hour.

“In our experience, everything has been obviously structured around the restaurant making money, and not anything about the real impacts of it as a place. It’s like turning on a faucet and walking away for a day. It’s crazy,” says Will Darwall, a worker-owner barista and bartender at the cooperatively owned W/N W/N Coffee Bar on Spring Garden Street.

The egalitarian structure of the business is evident in its name. W/N W/N stands for “waste not, want not” and its pronunciation, “win-win,” is a nod toward what you can expect the result to be when people work together toward a sincerely held common goal.

W/N W/N has been open for just seven months, and the bar is now home to a wide range of customers who believe in cooperative ownership, usually called a “co-op.” At a co-op, workers own and self-manage the business, making decisions democratically rather than receiving marching orders from a single manager or set of owners.

On any given day, you’ll find concert-going crowds spilling into the bar after a show at Union Transfer, or philosophy discussion groups. They host art shows and DJ nights, and have turned a tiny space on a part of Spring Garden that doesn’t get much foot traffic into a humming storefront. They also host a monthly Farm Dinner, a prix fixe meal that features a talk from the farmers, as well as cocktail pairings.

Part of the co-op business model is that they must have a positive social impact, and for W/N W/N, that means mitigating environmental impact as well as the community building they do. “There’s not a whole lot of waste in general. That’s our kitchen trash can,” says Alden Towler, chef and worker-owner, as he points to a five-gallon bucket near the doorway. “We’ll go through a shopping bag a day. Sometimes it won’t even fill up every day.” W/N W/N composts all their food waste, so the trash may just have a few food prep gloves in it. 

Nothing goes to waste at W/N W/N. If a watermelon comes through the door, you can bet that the parts that don’t make it into your salad will be juiced and turned into a cocktail, or pickled and turned into an appetizer. Dedicating themselves to creating completely locally sourced meals means that the café menu changes often.

The restaurant business is a stressful one, and in a cooperative model, some days may seem like the employee-owners are trading the stress of working against each other for making more of an effort to work together and be in collective control. “The biggest challenge is that everything would be easier if we ran it less democratically,” Darwall says.  “Including a lot of people in a decision will make the decision take longer, and we’re in an industry where money is constantly flowing out the door—rent, utilities, payroll, insurance, expiration dates on food. Our industry requires incredibly quick decision-making.” Decisions, though they do not necessarily come quickly, are made with consideration and consensus. 

Balancing an alternative ownership structure with all the regular demands of being a business that must stay afloat is, Darwall admits, a bit grueling. “Cooperative ownership has been a learning experience for me and for everybody else,” he says.  It’s the “everybody else” that make the difference in the cooperative model. Whatever the learning curve of being a new business, the employee owners face their challenges together.

Cooperator Brunch
Join participants from various Philadelphia co-ops, as well as representatives from the Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance, for a low-key brunch. There is no structure, agenda or timetable for this meet-up, and friends and family of cooperators are welcome. W/N W/N worker cooperators will be serving up delicious local food and drinks.
WHEN: Saturday, September 5, 9 a.m. – 1 p.m.
WHERE: W/N W/N
931 Spring Garden St.
winwincoffeebar.com