Most waiters and waitresses rely on their tips to supplement their hourly salary. But not so the staff at Black Star Co-op in Austin, Texas. There, the tip jar isn’t anywhere to be seen.
That’s because the restaurant pub and microbrewery pays its staff what it calls a “living wage” and also pays for health care.
Black Star Co-op is one of the first microbreweries in the United States to use a co-op model to set up a business. A restaurant and bar in Milwaukee known as the Riverwest Public House also uses it and a brew pub in Seattle is also looking at it.
“I know others who work in the restaurant industry if you have a bad night and you don’t get the income you thought you were going to get,” said Mark Wochner, a research scientist in acoustics at the University of Texas at Austin and a co-op member from almost the beginning.
He was the 31st member in the co-op, he says proudly. As a home brew fan, Wochner went to the inaugural meeting after he moved to Austin to do his post-doctoral research. He has served as the president of the board of directors for the past four years.
“At Black Star, once you know the hours you’re working you know you’re hourly rate and you can plan around and predict what you’re salary is going to be.”
The co-operative at Black Star has a nine-person board of directors who are picked from a “members’ assembly.”
The board sets general policies for the co-op but it is the employees themselves through the “workers’ assembly” who implement them, including the policy of a living wage for staff – calculated at $16 an hour – and health care. The workers’ assembly appoints a liaison member to the board.
“I wonder how many people in the U.S. washing dishes get health care for that,” said Wochner. “It’s probably pretty rare.”
What’s even more unusual is employees manage themselves. They make up what is known as the worker’s assembly and after a year on staff take on duties of a manager. For the first three months they’re on staff they earn $12 an hour, explained Wochner, but after that their salary goes up to $16 an hour. They also can receive bonuses.
The idea behind the co-op was simple: “We wanted to transform how things are done,” said Wochner. The good thing about co-ops is that “They’re extremely local and sustainable. It won’t close because one or two people retire.
“The co-op movement is a great movement for society,” he said. After the Occupy Movement and the cry for a third way, Wochner couldn’t help but wonder if the co-op example Black Star was using wasn’t that other option. “Co-ops are inherently tied to their memberships and in a more general sense to their stakeholders.
“We are really focused on doing good with our resources for a lot of things. Restaurants are a great engine for building capital.”
And by doing good that doesn’t just mean taking care of staff, but also putting capital into local charities as well as educating clients about the co-operative model, he added.
And all Black Star’s patrons are encouraged to become members of the co-op and join the members’ assembly.
Black Star Co-op officially opened its doors in December, 2010, Wochner said. And so far it has met with great success.
Planning for the co-op restaurant and brewery began in 2005. It was the brain child of Steven Yarak who originally came up with the concept and name. The idea was well received, particularly because the co-op movement is particularly strong in Austin, Wochner said. Black Star modeled itself on the popular local Wheatville Food Co-op.
But it took time to get members on board as well as funds to build the restaurant and brewery, said Wochner.