This summer, Project Equity helped the employees complete their purchase of Niles Pie Company, a growing bakery and cafe in Union City, CA. On August 12th Niles Pie threw their community a big party, and the turnout was fantastic.
Union City Mayor Carol Dutra-Vernaci and Senior District Representative Meriam Reynosa (top left) from the office of California State Senator Bob Wieckowski joined in the celebrations. In honor of founder Carolyn Berke’s (right) positive economic impact on her community and strengthening the ecosystem of employee ownership, Representative Reynosa presented her with a Certificate of Recognition from the CA State Senate.
Project Equity team members Patty and Elan also attended, and along with Kirk and Marguerite (right) from A Slice of New York (another of Project Equity’s coop conversions this year) enjoyed the festivities, live music and delicious treats.
Thanks to Kirk and Marguerite for sharing their lovely photographs!
A newsworthy highlight of our summer was our participation in transformational events at The Aspen Institute. Headquartered in Washington, D.C. with campuses around the world, the institute is an educational and policy studies organization whose mission is to foster leadership based on enduring values and to provide a nonpartisan venue for dealing with critical issues. At the institute’s Economic Security Summit, Project Equity’s Co-founder, Hilary Abell represented our successes in connecting work and wealth through employee ownership.
REN: I’ve worked at ASONY for 7 years. It started when one of my best friends contacted me and asked me if I wanted a job. I was in my sophomore year of college working at a job that just didn’t fit my schedule. I realized I needed a change so my best friend put me in contact with Kirk at A Slice of New York Pizza. I met with Kirk and we clicked. He offered me a job so that’s how it all started.
Q: How is this company different than previous jobs you’ve worked?
REN: At ASONY, I feel like an entrepreneur. The owners trusted me to work with clientele, do the right things at the right time. I have a sense of ownership. If someone asked me, can I speak with the manager – I can raise my hand and say, I can help you right here. Kirk always gave you a sense of pride in your work and you have control to make good business decisions. Kirk wanted you to steer the ship.
One of the biggest things I learned is that I am the face of the company. Early on they gave me a business card and I was told to write my own title and a quote – whatever I wanted. Kirk and Marguerite gave me a sense that I was my own boss. I was given the ability to spread news through social media about my job. I represented the company.
Q: What is different now that you are an owner? What is the same?
REN: What is the same: Our mission is the same. I talked recently to our co-workers, when we converted – our mission stayed the same. Make awesome pizza and provide a fun environment where customers and employees have a great experience.
When we look at the every day – it’s definitely hard being on the front line. When you look at what Kirk and Marguerite have done, it’s amazing that two people were able to build this. For these owners to be able to share this is amazing – they are telling us that we want to share this business with you. We want you to learn even more about running a business.
We are doing something different in terms of investing (time and resources to develop the skills) in whoever becomes a member.We’re looking at different ways to help new members grow and to make the best use of their skills and interests.
As an example, one of the members just became our bookkeeper since he had studied finance at San Jose State. He can use his skills in finance at the company. If he had just been another pizza shop employee, his skills in finance probably wouldn’t be used otherwise.
Q: What was the scariest thing for you when you started the process to convert to employee ownership?
REN: The scariest thing was thinking about the constant change that could happen. Would It create hierarchy? Would it create too much change that people would leave? There are about 15 of us have been here for 5 years or more.We have tattoos of the ASONY logo – we call it the family crest. We love each other. We were scared that the family dynamic would change and maybe go away if we all became owners. We knew that there would be disagreements and that we would have to devote a lot of time to making this change. But so far, it’s actually made us even closer.
Q: What has been difficult that you thought would be easy and what has been easy that you thought would be difficult?
REN: I thought it was going to be really difficult to establish (employee ownership) membership guidelines and things like that but it’s ended up being simpler. We thought we would have to put a lot of strict guidelines in place. But Hilary and Patty really taught us so much through the whole process. They broke it down and showed us that it was up to us to decide what guidelines would work for us. They gave us examples of different ways we could customize it so that it worked for us.
Q: What are your business plans for the future?
REN: What I want to do is help ASONY establish human resources processes. I think something small would help us get our workers health care and some basic necessities from the back of the house to the front of the house. We look at jobs in the hospitality industry and they usually don’t have the basics in terms of benefits. If I worked at a larger Silicon Valley company, I probably would have benefits and all these perks. I want to help the team get the basic benefits of health care. I don’t have a background in HR but I have a major in communication studies and a minor in Japanese from San Jose State University. I studied small group dynamics, interpersonal relationships and cultural performances so I think this background will help me to take on developing some basic HR processes and I’ll learn as I go as well.
Q: What would you tell someone who was considering becoming a cooperative?
REN: Definitely invest in this model. There are many companies like breweries, bakeries, grocery stores, that invested in themselves and they became employee-owned. The workers get to make their businesses successful and share in the profits. I think it’s better to go this route because everyone gets to grow in new ways and share the rewards.
I believe employee-owned businesses are going to change the way people think about business, especially in the hospitality industry.
Q: What do your family and friends think of you being an owner now?
REN: They finally see the bigger picture. I am doing something I really love. I love working in hospitality and I love seeing people smile and I love helping the community. We’re providing a unique and sought-after product that originally came from the east coast but made its way to the west coast and we’re hoping to provide the community with something that everyone can enjoy.
When I was in college I would get my family and friends together and cook food for them and I loved being the host. I saw relationships grow. Now they see how I’m the dude who likes to host at ASONY. I like to bring everyone together and I get to do this now at ASONY.
Q: How is your role in the business changing as an owner?
REN: I treat every single day as if it were my own business. I come into work and now I’m more determined to make sure that we’re successful. I’ve always given 110% but now I’m at like 120%. I want to help everyone pull through, whether they are here for short-term or long-term. I want to show employees the processes and help them feel like they’re leaders and they are empowered, by working together, we can make every day successful.
Q: Did you ever think you would own a business?
REN: Yes, it’s one of the things I hoped to do. I’m learning so much and I’m blessed that I’ve been able to do this for the past 7 years. I want to wake up every day and even if it’s a hard day, I’ll be smiling knowing that I’m all in it. I’m chasing a dream that leads to the next place. I’ve been so empowered and Kirk and Marguerite let me go through college and study abroad and they let me stay on at ASONY through all of it. I will give back whatever I can.
Q: What are your dreams for the business?
REN: I want to empower others to become leaders and find that trait within others – to help each other grow and develop to be the best we can be together since it’s not a one-person show, it’s a group effort. I want us to successfully grow. I want to see and learn more behind the scenes and support all of our employees to do this too. I want to see positive growth and a third and fourth ASONY open up soon. All as businesses owned by the employees. Gotta spread the dream!
As communities across the nation help business owners plan for succession, they realize the tremendous power employee ownership has to keep their companies locally-rooted.
This summer Project Equity’s Co-founder, Hilary Abell, visited Communities Unlimited (CU) in Little Rock, Arkansas to lead a training on cooperative development for the organization’s senior staff. CU is a non-profit community economic development organization serving seven Southern states that include 60% of the persistently poor counties in the US. Their team of consultants visits rural businesses to deliver high-touch services, moving their region from persistent poverty to sustainable prosperity. CU is eager to incorporate cooperatives and employee ownership into their “toolkit” to better serve rural communities.
Our regional partner, Molly Hemstreet of The Industrial Commons and the textile cooperative Opportunity Threads in North Carolina, joined the discussion, inspiring attendees to use employee ownership to revitalize heritage industries in rural communities.
Project Equity is seeking partners who want to work towards impactful economic development in their regions.
Interested in learning more about our regional work?