Collective Avenue Coffee is Los Angeles’s first worker-owned cooperative cafe. Kateri Gutierrez and Jonathan Robles stepped away from the espresso machine for a quick minute to serve-up a behind the counter look of what it takes to launch a worker cooperative.
Why form Collective Avenue Coffee as a worker cooperative? Why not just do a regular or non-profit business structure?
Kat: We wanted to create something that focuses on helping our friends and community members grow, and the cooperative structure takes it a step further to teach our community to become owners of their businesses and work democratically.
Jon: In the beginning I was not sure what a worker-cooperative was until Kat told me about it the first time we met to talk about Collective. I definitely fell in love with the aspect of the Co-op that was very community focused and was about really pushing community members to take back the meaning of Democracy and really make it work for our citizens.
Collective Avenue Coffee has grown from a pop-up, to a permanent fixture at the Lucy Avalos Community Center and now you’ll soon have a brick and mortar location in South Gate. Please go into some detail about how this unfolded.
Kat: We were a pop up because we wanted to raise funds for equipment while looking for loans and a location for rent. Given that we were young and little experience with starting businesses, we slowly grew with the support of our customers and community members who believed in what we were doing, and how we took folks along to grow with us through partnership with community organizations, open vendor spots at our LAst Fridays events, and internships for youth and college age locals.
The city reached out to us to have the location at the community center because they wanted us to host the Last Fridays events at the community center, and mutually benefit by us bringing more foot traffic and them providing a stable space for us to grow. This has helped us host events and meetings here while people enjoy the outdoor experience.
We were invited to open in South Gate to complement our future next door neighbors, Candlelight bakery. We asked to take it a step further (in helping other start-up cooperatives) and share the space. They have been kind enough to let us make COOP LA (the name of the second location) our own, for the needs of the community.
Jon: We started off as a pop-up because we both didn’t have the capital to really start off as a full on coffee shop. The idea of being a pop up actually came to me from going to this coffee shop called G&B Coffee in Grand Central Market in DTLA and loving that they started off as a pop up cafe until they were able to raise the money to build their first brick and mortar. Thinking of them one night is when i got off from working at a cafe in Santa Monica and got off the metro station and started walking home late at night and noticed Balam and the bright lights from its outside patio area. I walked in there and asked if we could sell coffee on the weekend and they said yes and that was how we started to really build exposure for our mission in Lynwood and host our event Last Fridays.
The Lucy Avalos location really was something that our community members helped us be apart of. Through them our hometown started to see the positive impact we were having in our people and entrepreneurs in surrounding areas. Having the opportunity to be at this space has really given us so many avenues on where can take Collective and our city really, and I can’t be more grateful that we can do it in our backyard.
Now from our backyard to our neighboring city South Gate. That space really came out of nowhere it was an opportunity that my old boss Eric at Bakers & Baristas offered to us. He noticed the awesome work we were doing and him and his family offered us the space next the bakery they owned named “Candle Light Bakery” it was a great pairing for them and us. It also really helped with the development of the COOP-LA. It really helped us on having a shared space where we can develop Collective but, also the other cooperatives that we are working with. Having the COOP-LA is definitely a great way to showcase that helping each other grow is the only way to really achieve our goals.
How is your cooperative currently structured? I know you have a few interns right now and hope to hire one or two on in the future. Can you go into some detail about this?
Kat: We open up spots in the summer with some projects that have been done before such as outreach, co-op education (internal to ensure knowledge of business model), and coffee training. When they reach out to show interest, we ask them to tell us how they envision themselves helping Collective Avenue and what they hope to take out of the internship experience. Once we come to an agreement of project and availability (this is their volunteered time so we do not give them work that would otherwise be given to a barista), they work on their project, cooperative education, and represent Collective Avenue wherever they go. If they are interested to go beyond their project, that is where we have the conversation about doing a formal candidacy.
Jon: At the moment is has just been me and Kateri as the only worker owners so it hasn’t been difficult to make decision but now with having our second round of interns for the summer we had the chance to meet few prospects to join Collective as worker owners. Our internship program has been a great way for us to really get to know people and offer experience in how to operate a business from the day to day to the outreach we do that helps is spread the cooperative message.
What has surprised you most about the process of getting Collective Avenue Coffee running?
Kat: The hidden expenses that happen in licensing, permits, and the importance of educating our community on what cooperatives are. I have been pleasantly surprised at how many people are willing to give some of their times and skills to keep Collective Avenue going and growing. I am also pleasantly surprised at how curious people are to learn about cooperatives in and out of our community.
Jon: Definitely a lot of the the permits we have to get for different events and even now we are still learning the rules and regulations when opening up a brick and mortar. For me personally is getting our community members to come give us a chance and see who we are as a company but also show that it’s not about us making money but really helping our youth.
What major roadblock you have encountered?
Kat: Financing is always an issue, and finding a balance of paying bills (keeping our side jobs for most of our trajectory so far) while trying to meet our goals as a business.
Jon: Definitely using my credit to get a lot of the stuff in the beginning since we really had no money that we could us personally and we were picking up so we needed to keep up with the demand. Homelessness for a majority of 2017 and living out of my Honda Civic was since I couldn’t really keep up with bill I had to make the decision so I could get out of debt faster and have more money for rent.
What have been your major successes?
Kat: Getting a location, and soon two! It is extremely challenging but we have maintained our integrity of still being completely worker owned and run, and serving our community. We consider our community members and regulars our success because they are comfortable asking to use our space to practice civic engagement and community building in whatever way they find best. Some examples include the Lynwood Youth Advocacy group meetings and Salsa socials.
Jon: Definitely getting our location at the community center has been a major success and really in helping us progress the company in the right direction. Another would be that now that we have a brick and mortar we are getting a lot of interest in future members to join Collective which is fantastic and will help us grow Collective and spread our goal and mission.
What kind of support do you have and wish you had?
Kat: I wish people had more knowledge of cooperatives, as they would better understand what we are growing here. Yes, we focus on community, but we are working for worker rights and workplace democracy as well, and that is important for me at a greater societal level. We have support from our community members and growing support from our elected officials. In the end, we are very and have always started grassroots
Jon: Wish we had support financially that always been the struggle for us and has been hard for both of us. I do wish people just supported us from the bat and really understand us and see the good we are doing for our community.
Kateri, I’ve seen how hard you work and enjoyed the enthusiastic way you’ve spoken at Democracy at Work meetings, where do you get this powerhouse of energy?
Kat: Jonathan’s cold brew recipe! In all honesty the community feedback. If our community didn’t show appreciation of what we do, we would not know if we are doing this right. The Community keeps us going.
I like to think that I do not work for Collective, I work for the cooperative movement. Collective Avenue is our project.
Jonathan, as far as I know, you have been the main operational manager spending many hours on your own as you work to grow this into a multi-person cooperative, what gives you the stamina?
Jon: It does get hard constantly working especially when you have to juggle multiple jobs and maintain a business. But it’s honestly worth it seeing how many people we’ve effected and also really bought together to really work as a collective. It’s also worth while seeing people being inspired by the work owned structure and even more now that people want to be part of our but also create their own. That to me gives me the stamina to keep pushing because we as a company constantly inspire our youth and our community members.
What are your hopes for Collective Avenue Coffee within the next 6 months?
Kat: We hope to have the COOP LA up and running by end of Summer, as we are close to finish construction of the location. We are in the middle of raising funds for our gofundme at the moment so we are engaging the community by keeping them on the loop on the progress.
Jon: My hope is to have our second shop opened named the “COOP LA” so we can really show what South East LA can do to make a stamp on the cooperative world.