by Reem Assil and Jabari Jones
In a tough economy, and in a city known as a haven for big business, it has been a longstanding challenge for small businesses to thrive in Emeryville. But Arizmendi Bakery and Pizzeria has proven to be an exception to the rule. Located in the heart of the San Pablo corridor, it has outlasted several businesses that have come and gone, even Starbucks, which vacated after just a few months. Arizmendi recently celebrated its 8th year in operation.
Many attribute Arizmendi’s success to the unique vision of those who pioneered the worke- cooperative bakery model back in 1997, the year the first Arizmendi opened in Oakland. A second one, in San Francisco, followed soon after. Inspired by the famous Mondragon Corporation, a federation of cooperatives in Spain, worker rights and community activists in the US established businesses owned and run by workers, creating living-wage jobs and providing an invaluable asset to the communities they inhabited.
The name “Arizmendi” comes from Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta, a Basque priest who played a principal role in the anti-fascist movement during Spains’s Civil War. He inspired workers to start their own factory, Mondragon, which over the past 60 years has grown into a major multi-billion dollar enterprise with more than 100 affiliates and 34,000 workers.
The founders of the Arizmendi Association of Cooperatives approached the Cheeseboard cooperative in Berkeley, CA, and coordinated with its workers to replicate their model. The Cheeseboard workers shared their knowledge of cooperative business practices and generously donated their recipes and baking expertise. Now, 14 years later, the Association consists of the Cheeseboard and five worker-owned Arizmendi co-ops that support one another in running and building more co-ops in the Bay Area.
The support of a network of workers/owners invested in the success of all the bakeries has been a huge asset for Arizmendi Bakery and Pizzeria in Emeryville. The Association provides crucial technical, lega,l and financial support that has allowed the Bakery to sustain a liveable wage for workers while keeping its administrative costs low.
But more importantly, many of the workers feel the cooperative nature of the business is what sets Arizmendi apart from other area businesses and attracts a wide diversity of customers. Making decisions democratically, sharing all tasks and responsibilities, benefits and risks, has deepened workers’ commitment to the bakery and led to great business decisions.
The other key to Arizmendi’s success is its commitment to being an active member of the community. It regularly makes food donations of to local non-profit groups, such as Food Not Bombs and Rubicon. Every November, Arizmendi’s doors are open after hours for its annual Day Of The Dead celebration, a free community event featuring traditional food and drinks, altar for the dearly departed, ceremony, and music.
The bakery’s existence in Emeryville was the result of an organizing effort back in the early 2000s by residents who wanted to see more locally-owned neighborhood-serving businesses. Former council member John Fricke was a leader in that effort and Arizmendi received a loan from the City of Emeryville.
Eight years later, Arizmendi serves as an example of the success cities can achieve when they invest in small businesses that meet the needs and desires of their residents.
The road to success hasn’t gone without challenges. Arizmendi still faces the realities of doing business during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, including the rising cost of ingredients, equipment, rent, and health care. With unemployment up across the country, even as some corporations report fabulous profits while laying off workers and closing chain branches, the owners of Arizmendi have decided to buck the trend. Not only are we hiring, but starting last Sept. 6, prices slightly increased to keep up with costs and allow for a $1 raise for workers, the first in many years. Patrons have been overwhelmingly supportive of the increase as Arizmendi has always kept its prices significantly lower than its counterparts, and because covering costs means keeping their favorite bakery open and growing.
As the end of 2011 approaches, the bakery begins gearing up for the busy holiday season. The Thanksgiving and December holidays will feature favorite and new seasonal breads and pastries, as well as new merchandise which will sport a brand new logo! And because 2012 has been designated by the UN as “the Year of the Cooperatives”, the Bay Area can expect the Arizmendi Association to take advantage of the spotlight to highlight what makes cooperatives not only a successful business model, but also a means to create a more equitable society through economic democracy.
Arizmendi Bakery and Pizzeria is located at 4301 San Pablo Ave in Emeryville, CA. For information about our bakery, click here.
Reem Assil and Jabari Jones are workers/owners at Arizmendi.
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