I noticed that the Garden Cafe and Diner, aka Bartertown Diner, closed up shop this week after only 5 years. You could be forgiven if you thought it was due to lack of interest in it’s menu:
Bartertown's initial menu was described in a 2011 MLive review as an "imaginative" array of veggie, vegan and raw dishes that came with names like Dirty Dirty Beans & Greens and Raw Trash salad. MLive
But you’d be wrong. There seems to be an unrelenting demand for food that is “sustainable” and doesn’t “destroy the planet.”
The closure was actually due more to politics than food, specifically progressive politics; along with a decidedly unsustainable business model:
Bartertown was a collective, which meant there were no bosses, according to Cappelletti. The inspiration for the worker-owned restaurant was based on Cappelletti's own restaurant experience.
"Because of our economy, people are working 12- to-15-hour shifts, servers take home $200 to $300 a night in tips, the cooks are making $10 an hour[ed.that’s unfair!] and the owner takes whatever he takes [ed. he takes whatever’s left, it’s called “profit.” Or, as the collective learned “loss” when you fail to cover your costs.] Cappelletti told MLive in 2011. "We're going to have equal pay and equal say across the board. Everyone working together."
Oh, and the employees were required to join the Industrial Workers of the World union. Because, you know, solidarity.
In keeping with the worker empowerment theme, he commissioned a mural depicting Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong and other provocative leaders tackling restaurant duties.
Eating proletariat food under the watchful eye of Communist dictators, “what could go wrong?” In the end this Communist/progressive model failed miserably at the micro level just as it repeatedly has on the macro; people get tired of poor service and often inferior goods. Despite some initial enthusiasm for it’s vegan fare people ultimately objected to waiting 40 minutes for a tempeh sandwich with sprouts to go. As it turns out the capitalist model works better to incent people to perform at a minimum level of adequacy than the progressive model which pays everyone the same no matter how inadequate they are.
They might have bought a clue from one of Michigan’s first collective joints, the venerable Del Rio which operated in the People’s Republic of Ann Arbor for a remarkable 35 years as a collective manager-free establishment.
Not that there weren’t always complaints, butt we’re talking Det Burgers, booze and jazz in Ann Arbor, with an occasional impromptu session with Motown native, Bob Seger. The Del became an icon in a town that reveres such things and provides a guaranteed clientele turnover every 4 years. Unfortunately the Del’s reputation and mystique long outlived both it’s form and function. And an employee-owned no-management bar and restaurant is all fine and good until…well, it isn’t. That point arrived in 2003 when reviews constantly complained of slow, slovenly and surly service and mediocre food.
So after a 35 year run as an “employee-owned” we discovered who the real owners were when they decided to shutter the place rather than deal with disgruntled employees picketing the place and making demands for, among other things, higher wages.
“The bar’s operation as a collective no longer seemed feasible,” writes Harburg in “Consensus.” “In years past, a few dedicated employees had always emerged as informal leaders. But over the past decade, this had happened less and less frequently. Most of the employees of the ’90s lacked the idealism of earlier workers and weren’t committed to a collective.”
When the switch finally came, however, the owners discovered that the current crop of employees were in fact very committed to the concept of communal governance. Not only did several veteran workers quickly resign, many of those who left (or were fired) formed into picket lines that marched the sidewalk in front of the bar. The owners, all well into their 70s, decided that they simply didn’t have the time or energy to cope with this latest crisis. When no buyers could be found, the Del Rio closed its doors for good, following a gala last-night celebration that went on into the wee hours of January 1, 2004. – AA Chronicle
*sigh* Yet another workers paradise bit the dust.
Semi-Interesting side notes to the Del Rio story: It was actually owned by Ernie Harburg, UofM Professor Emeritus and son of songwriter Yip Harburg (Wizard of Oz, Finian’s Rainbow), his wife Torrey and Rick Burgess, UofM engineering graduate and local jazz pianist extraordinaire Harburg described the Del Rio as “an experiment in democracy disguised as a bar.” In reality it was a bar disguised as an experiment in Communism. Chef Sara Moulton of TV and, also defunct, Gourmet Magazine fame worked as a cook at the Del while she attended the University of Michigan and wrote fondly of her experience.
As all Communist experiments go it failed miserably. As I noted above these things always go well - until they all fall apart.
Can you hear me now, Obama?
Cross-Posted on Patriot Action Network