Starting from scratch: cooks form cooperative business
on November 13, 2013
The five women that make up Fusion Latina stayed up all night one Friday cooking. They had a big day ahead of them: feeding visitors at the Richmond Shoreline Festival. Working late into the night was tolerable because the women were working on behalf of their own business. Feeding the local festival-goers would be another step towards making it as a new, small business in Richmond that started with nothing more than an idea.
“We really believe in this co-op,” said Alejandra Escobedo, 41, of Mexico, as she filled burritos with spiced rice, beans, corn and chicken. The catering company, which serves Latin “fusion food,” is made up of immigrant women in Richmond who are all equal members of a business partnership.
Most people go to work and come home with a paycheck, without having a say in how business is conducted. “It’s nice to leave your job and go home and other people are responsible for your payment,” Escobedo said of the typical hierarchical business model. But the women of Fusion Latina have chosen instead to embrace radical equality: they have no boss. Instead, the workers make business decisions as a group. This model, which may look bizarre, has been successfully implemented by several businesses in the Bay Area including Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco, Arizmendi Bakery, and The Cheese Board pizza collective in Berkeley.
The workers chose to form a cooperative in part because many employers are unpredictable. Escobedo was working at the Latina Center, a community resource center in Richmond, but her hours and wages were cut. “When the situation starts to go bad, you need to decide what is better for your family,” said Escobedo, who has three kids. She decided to quit her job to start forming a cooperative, which she hoped would lead to better job security.
Forming a cooperative
Fusion Latina is not Escobedo’s first experience in starting a cooperative. Before moving to the United States, Escobedo said she worked in an indigenous community in Chiapas, Mexico, teaching children that the Mexican government had failed to educate. Only the men in the community made money, she said. The women and children did not wear shoes because they did not need to go to the city, she said.
But Escobedo saw something in the women that no one had seen before. “I noticed the women in the community had great skills doing art,” she said. The women would sew colorful floral designs into the “servilletas” they used to keep their tortillas warm.
“When I saw the art I said, ‘you can make money selling dresses or blouses,’” she said. The women were unconvinced. “They said, ‘who would want to buy dresses with flowers?’”
Escobedo was able to get 500 pesos (less than $40) from a visiting volunteer who was interested in helping the community. She was able to convince just two of the indigenous women to make some blouses for fun. A group of German visitors who came to the community saw their colorful embroidery. “They said, we want all of the blouses,” Escobedo said.
After the two women made their first sale, all of the other women grew interested in making clothes, Escobedo said. The group formed a clothing cooperative, because that was the usual means of organization for the indigenous people, Escobedo said. The women in the community already had a garden collective, so a cooperative was natural, she said. “Nobody’s rich, everybody shares everything, that’s the way they work every day,” she said. “We started the way they understand the job.”
Escobedo saw that the women were empowered by being able to work. “After two and a half years, all of the ladies in the community were involved in the cooperative,” she said. “When the ladies started making money, they started wearing their own shoes.”
On her days off from teaching, Escobedo said she took the clothes to Guadalajara, sold them, and brought back the money from the sales to the women. When she left Mexico in 2000, Escobedo said, there was a shop with three sewing machines and 100 women working in the cooperative. The clothes were sold in Mexico City and Guadalajara, she said. “I like to say that co-ops are nothing new,” she said. “People were working in collectives and groups because it was necessary to survive.”
From Mexico to Richmond
Thirteen years ago, Escobedo moved from Mexico to the United States, where the idea of worker-owned businesses is strange. But being a part of an economy that thrives on competition didn’t stop her from trying to create a new cooperative. While working at the Latina Center in Richmond she formed a new vision. “When I came here and saw a lot of ladies with a lot of potential. I said, maybe we can do the same thing here.” She found many women in the Latina Center’s Women’s Health and Leadership Program shared her interest in starting a business.
Getting people to commit to an idea that had no guarantees was difficult. The group started with 14 interested women, Escobedo said. But when women realized that they would not immediately get a stable income, some dropped out, she said. “The money is a really, really big necessity,” Escobedo said. The group dwindled to seven workers determined to make it work, no matter the cost. “We applied for food stamps, CalFresh, and we survived,” she said.
In the midst of this struggle, Escobedo decided to quit her job at the Latina Center and work on building Fusion Latina. “I really wanted to be a part of a co-op,” she said.
“For the first six months, we didn’t get any money,” Escobedo said, just a $400 loan from a husband. Another husband then loaned the group $3,000. Most of that money went to business permits, she said.
The women finally got the business off the ground in February, “I’m always proud to say we started the business with no money, because someone believed in us,” Escobedo said.
The women are motivated by the opportunity to control their own working conditions. Being in the cooperative with other single mothers has allowed Pilar Ruiz, of Mexico, the flexibility to better meet the needs of her 12-year-old autistic son. “I can be there with my son when he needs me,” said Ruiz, who used to manage two Taco Bell stores in Berkeley. “If I was working at Taco Bell, I can’t answer my phone. Here, I can answer the phone if I see the school is calling.”
Another benefit of a worker cooperative is that it can employ undocumented workers, Escobedo said. “They become owners,” she said. “They don’t need permission to work.”
Teresa Palafox, 43, of Mexico, said the long hours have put a strain on her personal relationships, but the cooperative has been empowering. Women are often thought of as “soft,” but they are capable of doing hard work, she said. “I want women to know that we can do this,” she said.
The women were exhausted from preparing for the Shoreline Festival. But as they assembled burritos at the event they beamed with pride. They said the democratic process is empowering, but also challenging.
The biggest challenge is solving conflicts, said Palafox, as she flipped tortillas on a flat-top grill. Having a cooperative means making decisions as a group, which can be time consuming, she said. The group designates two hours each week for decision-making. “We have a meeting and we vote,” she said.
The women do not always agree. “We fight,” said Ruiz. But the group respects each other, Escobedo added. “We have our disagreements, but our dream is bigger than that,” she said.
Making a living
Fusion Latina now makes wages by selling empanadas filled with beef and vegetables, chicken and mole, and fruit. The group has developed many other exotic dishes with a twist. “Before we sell something, we cook together,” said co-owner Lucracia Martinez, 57, of Nicaragua.
By selling their empanadas door-to-door to businesses around the East Bay, along with catering events and business lunches, the group is able to make at least $8 per hour, Escobedo said. The goal is $25 per hour and health benefits, she said. The group is looking to move from their rental kitchen space at the Artisan Kitchen to opening a restaurant, ideally in downtown Richmond, she said.
“The challenge is to keep our business going and to get our first big loan,” Escobedo said, as she stirred mole at the Artisan Kitchen. “It’s hard. [But] it’s always a possibility to start a business in a group.”
Richmond co-op loans
Once Fusion Latina got off the ground, it received a $5,000 loan from the Richmond Cooperative Revolving Loan Fund. This fund was inspired by Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and community advocate Marilyn Langlois’ visit to Mondragon Cooperative Corporation in Spain in 2010. The Mondragon Cooperative, founded in 1956, now employs more than 80,000 people. McLaughlin and Langlois decided that Richmond would be a good place to try this form of business. The mayor held several community meetings about worker cooperatives, said Langlois. As a result of this publicity, an anonymous donor gave $50,000 to start a separate entity that became the loan fund, she said.
“This isn’t meant as a cure-all,” said Langlois, who sits on the board for the fund. “It’s not for everyone. It’s for the people who have that kind of entrepreneurial spirit.”
Fusion Latina is looking to bring on three more people in the near future. They are specifically looking for people who are disadvantaged, Escobedo said. “I see a lot of immigrants have the skills and courage to work and I think they deserve the rights,” she said. “We really solve our economic problem. The co-op is returning to our tradition to work together.”
Fusion Latina has applied for a Mission Main Street Grant, which will award $250,000 to 12 small businesses. The group needs 250 votes by this Friday, November 15, to qualify for the recipient selection round. To vote for Fusion Latina, visit: missionmainstreetgrants.com
For more information on Fusion Latina, visit: chamberorganizer.com
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