Worker bees create buzz at BreadHive - The Buffalo News

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Worker bees create buzz at BreadHive

The question is heard often at BreadHive Bakery & Cafe.

"I don't know how many times I've been asked, 'How do I talk to a manager?' " said Emily Stewart, who founded BreadHive with Allison Ewing. "But there's not one, there's six, and people change when they realize they're talking to an owner.

"It's usually followed by, 'How old are you?' "

BreadHive is a worker cooperative-owned business. It began as a wholesale distributor in a storefront in April 2015 on the West Side at 123 Baynes St. A cafe followed in June 2016 at 402 Connecticut St.

Valerie Rettberg-Smith, right, and Elizabeth Dashnaw check out the stock at BreadHive. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

BreadHive's owners -- five women and one man, ages 25 to 31 -- share in the profits and operate without a hierarchical structure. Decisions are made by consensus at weekly meetings.

"It makes me happy just waking up in the morning and knowing I get to shape dough, or work the front end or make sandwiches, and also work with people who want to be part of the same community I'm part of," Stewart said.

"That means we believe equity should be shared in a business, and that ownership should not be for the few and the privileged, and not tied to tremendous amounts of debt. That should be possible."

So far, she said, it has been.

Starters: BreadHive Cafe's breakfast, lunch sandwiches

"When we started this, we weren't sure we could do it," Stewart said. "And three years later, there are 16 people that work here."

Their success to date comes despite only one of the owners having previous bakery experience. Only two studied baking or cooking in school.

"As business owners, I have been so impressed by them," said Tim Bartlett, general manager of the Lexington food co-op who also helped BreadHive get off the ground.

"They have a great product, work so hard, really invest in their business and are always looking to grow it," he said.

Valerie Rettberg-Smith, makes apple streusel vegan muffins. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Part of trend

The Lexington food co-op is a consumer-owned co-op. Upstate Niagara Cooperative, a dairy cooperative in Western New York has a different structure, with more than 360 owner-operated farms.

The African Heritage Food Co-op, which began in August 2016, sells low-price fruits and vegetables purchased from local farms or distributors at mobile markets, set up mostly on the East Side, to combat the problem of "food deserts."

Bartlett said worker cooperatives are experiencing a resurgence.

"I attended a national co-op (conference) a couple years ago, and they said they had never seen so many worker co-ops as they were seeing now," he said. "The model is much more prevalent in Europe."

The food co-op carries BreadHive breads and bagels.

"It is an exciting thing to see people who are trying to own and run their business democratically," Bartlett said. "And their product is just so good."

Stewart and Ewing, who for a time lived at the Nickel City Housing Cooperative, turned early on to Jonathan Johnsen, who helped establish cooperatives in Buffalo in the 1960s and '70s. He showed how BreadHive could sell non-voting preferred stock called Class B shares to raise the capital needed to start both locations.

To date, 110 shares have been sold to 72 investors, who receive a 3 percent annual return and a year of free product. That enabled BreadHive to open its doors without debt.

All of the owners make the same salary, and profits are distributed based on hours worked, which Stewart said average 40 to 5o hours a week. Everyone eats for free and can take home any product they want. Health insurance remains a goal, but one that's in sight.

The biggest structural hurdles, Stewart said, are workers' compensation and tax issues.

Ewing said the lack of a hierarchy can also be challenging or uncomfortable for some.

"It definitely requires a certain kind of mindset for someone to thrive," Ewing said. "People who need a hierarchy tend to adapt not as well to how we operate. But the upside is people who tend to work in a more collaborative way find it extremely easy to do their best work, and not have to modify their style to fit in."

Airy and welcoming

BreadHive's cafe, a pale yellow and gold storefront with outdoor seating under an awning, shares a West Side block with longtime mainstay Mineo & Sapio Italian Sausage and Burning Books, a leftist book store.

The cafe is airy and welcoming, with bone white and brick walls and a tin ceiling painted a deep turquoise. There are three tables and seats with ledges overlooking the street.

BreadHive, 402 Connecticut St. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

On a wall above the food is BreadHive's logo, a fist clutching stalks of grain, and the words, "Good Bread Good Work."

A chalk board lists a bevy of sandwiches named after '90s women pop stars --among them, "Britney," "Shania," "Mariah" and "Whitney." An autographed picture from Britney Spears hangs on the wall.

Bagels hang from pegs. Classic poppy, sesame and plain bagels share space with everything, rosemary salt and three seed bagels, with blueberry on Tuesdays and pumpernickel on Thursdays. Next to them are pretzels sporting a dark brownish hue from being dipped in lye solution.

Baked goods include triple ginger molasses cookies, chocolate salted rye cookies, blueberry lavender pecan muffins and lemon poppy seed pound cake.

Elizabeth Dashnaw played a primary role in opening the cafe and designing the menu. BreadHive recently obtained a beer and wine license, and the cafe team is planning to introduce a happy hour tasting menu.

Dashnaw, who has an associates degree in culinary arts from the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute, said the worker cooperative model plays to her strengths, allowing her to come up with her own style of doing things and excelling at what she does best.

Baking rises to the fore

Joel Standard and David Hiller get to work on a batch of bagels. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

David Hillier was working on his Ph.D. in  English at the University at Buffalo when he knocked on BreadHive's door looking for a summer job. Baking at home was relaxing and therapeutic, he said, with the final product rewarding.

"I was obsessed with baking all the way through grad school," Hillier said.

While waiting to hear if he got the job -- without experience, he didn't -- Hillier decided to take a year off from school. When BreadHive offered an apprenticeship mixing dough, he accepted -- only the apprenticeship didn't last long.

The owners were so impressed by his work they offered him a job three days later. He's now an owner.

"I had a professor who used to talk about the field of academics and the need to find your place and carve out your own niche," Hillier said. "When I looked at academics, what I could see didn't really attract me. But when I looked at bread baking as a field, and cooperatives as a field, those possibilities were exciting to me and still are."

As Hillier spoke at the bakery production site, he was also preparing miche, a crusty French rustic bread recently added to BreadHive's sourdough-based bread rotation of West Side sourdough, seeded sourdough, baguettes, whole wheat cinnamon fig and deli rye.

The production space includes a 20-gallon bagel boiler, a steam-injected, Italian-built electric oven, green dough mixer and walk-in cooler. The equipment was mostly found at auction, saving the start-up tens of thousands of dollars.

Before Valerie Rettberg-Smith became a baker, she was on an unknown career path.

Obtaining a certificate in baking and pastry arts at Erie Community College helped change that. So did working at the Lexington Cooperative Market. But though she liked the community aspect of her work, she wanted to own the work she was doing.

The scene inside BreadHive on a Friday morning. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

At BreadHive, Rettberg-Smith does.

"With the worker cooperative, you're one part of six, but we're all putting our 1/6 of what we do with everything we have into it," she said.

Rettberg-Smith is the principal pastry chef for BreadHive. Among her favorites?  The salted chocolate rye cookies.

"I really love salt and chocolate," she said.

Mary Grace Egloff became the worker cooperative's sixth owner last week, after working for a year learning production baking and other baking skills.

It's been quite a career departure for Egloff, who was an investor relations consultant.

Egloff applied for the job "on a whim," she said. Everyone who is hired can ask to be on track to become an owner. After three months, Egloff wanted in.

"I got exceptionally lucky," she said. "I knew I needed to be working somewhere different, but wasn't trying to find something I loved. I wanted to find a job I could live with."

Instead, she found both.

The enthusiasm, shared ownership and sense of common purpose makes going to work every day something to look forward to, she said.

Email: msommer@buffnews.com

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