I've mentioned this in passing a few times, but if you don't mind, I'd like to get up on this soapbox for a minute and preach some truth.
Here's what we all know is wrong with the independant specialty coffee industry: mainly, for your shop to be what you want it to be, you need committed, highly trained workers, who care about the shop, and are dedicated to becoming better at what they do every day. Normally for any business, the way to have an elite staff like this is to offer them a competitive wage, maybe with benefits. Of course most shops only make enough to pay little more than minimum wage, so all they can do is hope that their shop is cool enough that it's worth it for the expert barista to take the small wage in exchange for "the lifestyle". Or you scale down your shop enough that you and your partner or whatever run it yourselves. You suffer from high worker turnover, lack of commitment, lack of new ideas, and you spread yourself thin trying to control every aspect of the shop and keep it up to a high standard.
There is only one solution to this, and the coffee community needs to be aware of it as a viable option: The worker-owned coffee house; the cooperative model. No, I am not a communist or an overly idealistic hippy; this is a highly effective, tried and true form of micro-capitalism. Why do you need heirarchy to run a business? Why do you need a boss? This country was founded on democracy, why don't we incorporate it into our businesses?
1. the big one: With every worker sharing in the profits and decision making, you can have a commitment to quality that single shop owners can only dream of. Many baristas do their best because it's in their nature, but imagine the energy and effort these baristas would put in if every drink sold meant money in their pocket. If the cafe they were working at was literally THEIR cafe and treated it as such.
2. the many armed manager: A single manager is limited and overworked. By dividing managerial tasks among all the members, you can do everything you ever wanted to do with a cafe, and do it better. For each task a single person is accountable, and more effective because it's the only task they need to focus on.
3. the startup: there are so many passionate baristas who have dreamed of owning their own shop, and almost none of them have access to the capital it takes to do it, or the ability to get bank loans. F%#@ the banks, they got us into this mess in the first place, we don't need them. If each member can scratch together a few thousand, you're probably almost halfway there. There are many non-bank lenders out there, especially for coops, grants, crowdraising websites... And if you have 8 or 9 workers, it's 8 or 9 times easier to fund your business than it would be on your own.
4. no decision gets made without you. It can be hard to get everyone to agree on some things, but this also means that each major decision gets scrutinzed, discussed, and researched thouroughly.
5. financial advantages: you don't have to pay worker's comp tax because everyone's an owner. Also, you pay very little tax on the business income because at any time you can divy up the business' earnings and give it to yourselves as tax deductable dividends. So basically, you cut out employment costs and manager costs, raise your profit by out-competing everyone, have the man-power to do additional revenue raising things, and cut costs to outside contractors by having a large pool of skills and doing more things in-house.
My core members and I just got done interviewing nearly 30 highly qualified people with a variety of different skills and specialties. All passionate about coffee, tired of having a boss, or tired of being a boss (this model also gives you the rare ability to own a business and actually live your life a bit), tired of their hard work being overshadowed by useless co-workers or ignorant owners, and tired of being paid almost nothing to do a job that if done right takes years of experience. On the job listing I stated that it would take some financial contribution, and about six months until we open, yet people have been scrambling to be a part of it. Once we have the group and pool our resources, we can work out the lease for the building we want, get the permits going. If things are on schedule, we'll be open in 6 months. Of course they probably won't be on schedule, but we're prepared for that.
How to start:
-research research research research.
-learn your state's coop laws, get in touch with cooperatives, ask them (somewhat informed) questions and they will help you, talk to cafe owners and small business owners.
-write your business plan. If you need help, look for free business plan writing workshops, there are probably some in your area.
-Assemble a core group. Not just anyone but people you know you can trust and depend on, and who share your general vision of what you want the shop to be. You only need 2 or 3 people to get the ball rolling. When your core group is SURE they will see this through to the end, put up ads advertising for applicants. I made the mistake of wasting a lot of time asking a lot of friends, acquantances, and random baristas if they were interested. And of course everyone was "interested" but probably about 10 people have come and gone from our collective. Instead let people who really want it come to you and compete for the position. Pay the $75 for the craigslist job posting, it's the best money I've ever spent. You have no idea how many people have just been waiting for an opportunity like this. Before you advertise for the position, make sure your business plan is solid: 1. you'll get more serious applicants that way, and 2. it will ensure that the people coming to you already generally agree with your vision as a foundation.
I had to write this. I've seen people post and post about the frustrations in this business, and experienced most of them myself. I believe this is the only way the specialty coffee industry can improve, you've all experimented with every brew method imaginable, and micro roasters aren't going to get much better than what we've got now. The only way to be better is by raising the consistancy of quality and dedication in our shops, and the only way to do that is by making being a barista a financially viable job. There are just too many intelligent, passionate, creative coffee people out there not to tap into that potential; merely employing them is a waste of their potential.
So, this is a novel idea.
But, from my experience, every co-op type business I've been in (which is honestly only 3-4) has a non-directed feel to it. Almost too homogeneous. No character... No direction.
A business needs to reflect the vision of an owner (for better, or worse). And, for the most part, people need direction.
Like I stated, I'm far from a co-op expert. And, my experience as a co-op consumer is limited.
I do think that this model works in certain businesses... but, not here.
Your first link has reader comments like:
"surrounded by for the most part highly attractive revolutionary thinkers and thousands upon thousands of revolutionary books"
"They're worker-owned, they support a wide range of left and anarchist politics"
So much for the ... not communist thought process...
My staff, get full medical and pension... dental, they keep all their tips... we don't nail them for the ones paid on credit card... and they make a decent wage... Nobody has ever left (except to go back to school) no other shop has ever been able to hire one of our people away from us...
Customers love the staff and likewise... the staff love the customers...
In five years, we've only fired one person and that was for yelling at another staffer... we don't have politics in the shops... we've had a few relationships which always makes things touchy... but we managed to get by...
I don't run my shops... my staff do and they know I know that... it's a mutual respect...
That seems to work... just fine...
I don't see any upside to this business model. It's like a group project for school - No matter how competent the members of the group are, there's always a minority carrying the weight of everyone else, yet everyone expects the same grade. There needs to be a "the buck stops here!" person. Otherwise you are creating a system that promotes groupthink rather than innovation. A company that chooses to not have a definitive leader, is a company that doesn't have a definitive leader to choose.