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Joe Squared Worker-Owners Say Co-ops Can Provide Stability For Struggling Restaurants

Emily Sullivan/WYPR

When coronavirus restrictions in Baltimore City change with fluctuating COVID-19 data, no single person at Joe Squared decides how the pizzeria will respond. Instead, 13 worker-owners put their heads together and vote on operational status. 

The Station North staple, once owned by Joe Edwardsen, is now a worker cooperative. After closing in the spring, when the coronavirus pandemic first began to grip the restaurant industry, Edwardsen couldn’t see how the pizza place could survive. 

But this fall, after receiving guidance and financial support from local groups, federal loans and grants, the restaurant re-emerged as a worker-owned cooperative — a move Joe Squared’s worker-owners say offers a new way forward for other struggling eateries in Baltimore and beyond. 

“I was pretty certain the place was dead,” Edwardsen. “I didn't know anything about co-ops going into this.”

The first glimmer of Joe Squared’s resurrection came about flickered when Edwardsen got a Facebook invitation to a virtual event by Baltimore Roundtable for Economic Democracy, (BRED) a nonprofit lender of worker cooperatives and advocates.

Willing to try anything, Edwardsen attended the seminar, which explained how Baltimore businesses could transition into the model with the aid of experts in the city’s robust co-op scene. Edwardsen’s gears began to turn, and he sent a group text to his former employees to gauge interest

Ultimately, 13 out of about 30 employees would return as co-owners after a summer spent applying for grants exclusively for co-ops and writing bylaws to determine the governance of the new iteration of Joe Squared.

Kate Khatib, co-founder of Baltimore’s most prominent co-op, Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse, and BRED’s executive director helped Edwardsen and other co-owners navigate that process.

“There's a whole bunch of things that you kind of have to figure out as you're building the structure,” Khatib said. “We took that as an opportunity to start training them in how to make decisions together."

In the midst of the pandemic, those decisions include setting the price of drinks and establishing COVID-19 safety protocol. Using a voting system, the worker-owners have decided to operate take-out only in order to limit contact/covid spread and established a $3 service fee on each takeout order to boost the pay for front of the house employees from $3.63 an hour to $12. They decided to spread tips to the entire staff, ending the industry tradition of excluding back of the house employees, who work in the kitchen. 

There was no upfront cost to the new worker-owners: Edwardsen did not require them to buy into the company. They voted to split profits and invest one-third of Joe Squared’s annual earnings back into the restaurant, to be used on renovations and equipment.

The process has been empowering, said Em Warrell, a worker-owner who does serving and bartending work.

“It gives you more pride in where you work because it's like, it's my responsibility to make this space comfortable and accessible and safe, especially now with COVID,” she said.

Another benefit, Warrel said, is the ability to see her ideas, like introducing a new cocktail,  come to fruition “as opposed to staying wishful thinking.” 


Meanwhile, worker-owners like Edwardsen and general manager Okan Arabacıoğlu say the co-op model has allowed them to offload some of the burdens of management.


“The decision making progress is a little bit easier now,” Arabacıoğlu, who’s worked at Joe Squared for 12 years, said. He’s retained his title and salaried pay, but is teaching administrative duties to some worker-owners. 


Collapsing the wall that usually separates restaurant workers at the front and back of the house has allowed the business to become more nimble, he said. As the restaurant was re-opening, all worker-owners came together to hash out the menu, taking note of what items would sell the best and which ingredients were too expensive due to the pandemic.


“Streamlining a menu has been invaluable,” Arabacıoğlu said, noting that collaboration between the front of the house and back of the house rarely occurs in restaurants. 


Khatib of BRED said co-ops have been remarkably resilient during the pandemic because of that input. Their nimble structure allows for quick pivots, with knowledge sharing from workers at all parts of the business, she said.


“It's often the case that restaurants are built around a deeply hierarchical structure that excludes the participation in decision making from the workers that are deemed less valuable,” she said.


The restaurant’s resurrection may be a model for other restaurants hoping to financially survive the pandemic, said Mo Manklang, the Policy Director at the Federation of Worker Cooperatives. 


“Everybody right now is scrambling for the best way to support workers,” they said. “Why don't we give those workers a voice and a share in the value that they're creating?”


Manklang said the number of businesses contacting the federation has shot up since the pandemic, as well as participation in seminars designed to teach workers the basics of co-ops. Given the financial impact the pandemic has had on frontline workers, that makes sense, Manklang said.  


“A huge portion of the worker movement in the US is really made up of cafes, restaurants, homecare workers, childcare workers, all of these industries where people are the most front line and have the least security in their jobs,” Manklang said. 


Khatib of BRED said that in a city like Baltimore, where anchor institutions can define entire neighborhoods, co-ops can have a tremendous impact on communities because of the boosted economic stake that multiple owners take on.


“Instead of being owned by one person, this business is now owned by 15 people,” she said. “You have 15 people who have that same degree of care, of interest, of desire to see the neighborhood and the neighborhood’s residents survive and thrive.”


Edwardson, the original founder of Joe Squared, has no qualms about his decision to transition into the co-op model. And he hopes the restaurant’s successful experience in navigating grants with BRED’s help can serve as an example of what’s possible for other struggling restaurants in Baltimore during the pandemic.


“It could have been an unnecessary casualty of all that and the co-op saved it,” he said. “There's a lot of restaurants that are going to have trouble going forward, you know, are definitely having trouble now. It's definitely a model that could work.”


And restaurants’ problems now will likely remain pertinent after the pandemic, he said.


“A lot of people have gotten used to cooking at home,” Edwardsen said.


Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.
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