It is rather exception to find a long-established worker cooperative (co-op) that is a restaurant (and bar), but in southern Ohio, The Casa Nueva Restaurant and Casa Cantina has been a staple in the college town of Athens for over 37 years. Affectionately known by the locals as The Casa, it started as a restaurant but expanded to add a bar with stage (the Casa Cantina) and to manufacture in-house made products. The Casa employees around 50 workers.
Why has this business survived and thrived for so long?
An interview with Leslie Schaller, one of the original founders and Business Director of this worker cooperative, added some insight. Leslie, a personable and approachable gal, has been with the Casa since 1985, when the previous owner literally skipped town after failing to pay rent and the authorities stepped in and closed it. “People were still eating, and we had to move them outside,” said Leslie. Eight of the then-workers decided to organize as a worker cooperative and re-open the restaurant in the same location but with a new name. Here are my takeaways from Leslie regarding the Casa’s business success:
1. Embraces the Cooperative Principles
First, clearly, The Casa folks have embraced all the guiding principles of cooperatives and they are open about sharing what has worked for them in creating a democratic, inclusive, participatory culture at The Casa. For details, check out the website links to their By-Laws, Rules of Operation, Structure, etc. You can easily see how the democratic process works within this business (not that it’s an easy process!). However I was struck by something else in our conversation, they appear to embrace smart business practices such as:
2. Solid Bookkeeping
A recurring theme in successful businesses, co-ops included, is good bookkeeping. Leslie is meticulous about the finances in the company. The board meets weekly and financial statements are sent out DAILY to all the employees. DAILY! Leslie humbly shared, “I might be a bit over the top with the finances, but I think it’s important that everyone knows and understands how the businesses is doing.”
3. Smart Approach to Training
That leads to their approach to training. To become a worker-owner one must participate in finance and co-op communication workshops. Also, one must be cross trained in at least four positions within the operation. “We want all the worker-owners to understand the company finances and our cooperative processes.” Given how long they have been in business, Leslie explained that most of this training is done in-house. That can be a notable savings to a worker-owned business. The on-going cost of training is often not figured into many business plans by new or converted worker-owned cooperatives.
4. Poised for Innovation and Opportunities
The Casa business has operated nimbly enough to take advantage of growth opportunities. Athens is a college town after all and when they realized they could add a bar and offer local entertainment, they went for it. When the opportunity arose to add a revenue stream by manufacturing and selling their locally sourced salsas and other in-house made products, they went for it. When they realized they could use a better, larger kitchen setup to make that happen, they figured out a way to make that happen via a community commercial kitchen that benefits the greater Athens community too.
5. Good Values
That segues into a final notable aspect of The Casa operation. In general, the business is not only committed to empowering the workers within it, but also to supporting the greater Appalachian community and other local businesses. Some of the original Casa folks also began a non-profit, Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet.org), that continues to help local business in the Appalachian region. This non-profit continues to exist with Leslie as the Director of Programs. It provides all sorts of business resources to the region.
For any Ohio business owner or Ohio cooperative practitioner who is serious about improving their cooperative practices or wants more inspiration, I strongly recommend spending time on the Casa and ACEnet websites and checking out all the nifty things these folks have been up to for years.