In September, I was getting ready to fly home to Nashville for the opening of my exhibition More Love: Art, Politics and Sharing since the 1990s at Cheekwood. My husband and I had squeezed in a meeting to discuss renting a very small commercial building we were saving to a group of young women starting a bakery. It came out that one of the women was from Nashville, and lo and behold had gone to USN. (Now I’ve only ever met in my fifteen years in Buffalo one other person from Nashville.) It was all we could do that morning to not dive into trading stories of our favorite teachers and focus on hashing out a lease.
Emily, you are starting this exciting new worker co-operative bakery BreadHive. How did you first get the idea to start this social enterprise business?
I guess to really explain everything it would have to be a series of events and opportunities that led to a perfect moment back in 2012, sitting in the basement of a housing cooperative in Buffalo, NY after a 12 hour work day that the three of us called a hobby.
Let me back up. I attended college at Grinnell in Iowa and had a wonderful time exploring my mind, the ways that we think, and learning everything I could from my surroundings. But after college, I had a “but then what” moment. With an arts degree from a liberal arts college I had no idea how I wanted to spend the rest of my life, nor had thought much about it. Much to my chagrin, there wasn’t a magical path to fulfillment that I had, for whatever reason, expected--so I began searching. I explored the non profit sector, met some amazing people but was met with brick walls when I wanted to approach changing the systems that seemed to perpetuate the state of inequality we live in. I turned back to school for answers and guidance. I found a masters degree program that fit my interests and thought it might lead me into the field I would eventually end out in. At Vanderbilt, I studied Community Development and it was here when I first heard about worker cooperatives. I learned about Mondragon, a cooperative that transformed the north of Spain from the region with the most unemployment to a burgeoning mecca of equality and prosperity. One of many examples from Europe, I was amazed how simple yet perfect the concept was. By simply changing employment to ownership, one could create workplace democracy, living wages, and innovation for the growth and development of the business. Inspired, I did more research but locally I could not find people who had done similar things.
I moved to Buffalo after graduate school to pursue community organizing, a field I felt I could learn a lot from. While I enjoyed my brief tenure with organizing, it was the move that led me to that kitchen I mentioned before. Arriving in Buffalo, I knew one person--a friend of a friend. Tori lived in a housing cooperative, worked at a local pre school, spun fire, and studied performed arts. We became fast friends but she was busy. I learned that Tori baked with a collective that sold CSA-style shares and baked out of community kitchens. It was then that I thought, if I wanted friends I was going to learn how to bake…so I did.
The three of us, Allison, Tori and myself, baked every Saturday from sun up to sun down and made absolutely no money. We learned from books, tested new recipes and tried different techniques we found on the internet. We made good bread, but we knew it could be great if we had the right equipment and the time. All of us had jobs that we ultimately found unfulfilling so one night, after a long bake shift, knowing we had to return to our day jobs in a few short hours we thought--screw it, let’s quit our jobs and start a business.
Since we were also sitting in a housing cooperative and shared cooperative values, the structure of our business was a question. Let’s just say this was never going to be a traditional business. It didn’t take long to know that all three of us wanted the same for ourselves that we would want for future employees: ownership. Buffalo has a rich history of worker cooperatives and because of this we were able to make our business into the social enterprise it is today!
What opportunities does a place like Buffalo give you? You and you fellow owners have all come from other cities (Nashville, Atlanta, Rochester). It’s wonderful to see young people moving here, as there is a long history of the reverse.
Buffalo is a small town in a large city grid. As many of your know, Buffalo was a boom town and prospered during the industrialization of our country. But when the St. Lawrence Seaway rendered the Erie Canal irrelevant, our city lost its value in the mind of the classic robber barren. Industry left, leaving Buffalo confused and jobless. When I arrived, you could feel this rich history like it had happened yesterday.
But it is because of this that we, the “young people”, have found community and opportunity to pursue our dreams. When I arrived, I thought I was so lucky to find such amazing people so quickly and create such a wonderful support network. But I am not alone--these small microcosms of small, tight knit families exist all over the city. You cannot go to a place in this city and not run into someone you know. That feel, that sense of connection and place, doesn’t happen in many cities. For this reason, I fell in love with Buffalo.
The tremendous opportunity Buffalo has to offer is what keeps me here. We were able to start BreadHive by selling something called Impact Investment shares, or what NYS calls Class B shares. As worker owners, we own Class A shares which entitles us to ownership of the business and the profits. Class B shares were sold to community members through a public offering that granted them a meager 1.5% return and a year of bread. When I told people outside of Buffalo what I was doing, they were skeptical. But here, we were able to raise over $60,000 of capital that allowed us to start our business on equity with no debt.
Now, we are working with our city council members to launch a worker cooperative incubator that would guide people through the legal and accounting process of starting a worker cooperative, and show them how to collect the impact investment capital to start their business the same way. We have collected some great partners for the grant, have presented to city council twice and are close to seeing the launch of this program.
All of this has been a dream come true to have access to a community who understand and supports our mission and city who has supported our push to see other worker cooperatives come to life in our city. Buffalo is an amazing community!
You have a B.A. in art history, and your fellow owners also studied art. What did that background give you and what swayed you to move away from art and start a food business?
When I asked my partners this question, they quipped “lack of employable skills.” Personally I’m not sure what brought us to this juncture in life but we are here, we appreciate how art has informed our lives, but mostly we just want to bake bread and shape bagels.
How do you think USN prepared you for this venture?
I attended USN from 1st grade thru 12th. When I think of Nashville I remember USN as my home, and I see many of my classmates as family. They were with me when I pretended not to eat paste, during my awkward years with food always caught in my braces and when I was ready to leave the nest for college. USN saw me through thick and thin and I remember it fondly.
The best thing USN taught me is what I should demand out of life and to be a life long learner. This is how they have prepared me in life, and for BreadHive that makes me a better worker owner.