When The Allium was conceived in early 2019 in Calgary, it came into being as a worker co-op first and a restaurant second. Its founders knew they wanted to establish one of the former, and their collective interests and experience led them to choose the latter as the kind of business it would be.
Less than a year into its existence, The Allium’s experience has illustrated both the challenges and the advantages associated with the worker co-op model. Hailing its excellent food, local magazine Avenue named it one of Calgary’s best new restaurants in its annual review of the city’s culinary hotspots in its March 2020 issue, coming at a time when the worker-owners could see profitability on the horizon. But then came the Covid-19 pandemic, and the resulting blow it dealt to the restaurant industry.
Co-founder Sierra Love doesn’t gloss over the fact that the pandemic has hit The Allium hard, but she says it’s also revealed the restaurant’s strengths. When social distancing requirements halted its in-person dining operations, the restaurant was able to pivot fairly rapidly to a focus on takeout and delivery instead, as well as setting up a bodega to make use of surplus foodstuffs and sell sauces and spice mixes. Looking back on the shift about two months into this new reality, Love doesn’t think a conventional business could have handled it as effectively.
“We were just able to be really creative and put our heads together and be like, ‘yeah, we’re going to do this,’” she says.
The impact of the pandemic has also revealed the depth of commitment The Allium’s members have to the co-op. Faced with the challenges Covid-19 brought on, members who believed in the worker co-op model took a greater sense of ownership of the restaurant, while those for whom working at The Allium had simply been a job faded away.
Love acknowledges that The Allium’s seven full members and six probationary members have still faced challenges. Communication has been one of them, as many of the members lacked experience serving on boards or committees before they joined the co-op. The flip side of the passion The Allium’s members bring to this role is the emotionally charged rhetoric that can sometimes result, but Love says they’re learning to deal with this constructively.
“We have to learn to present these things in a way where people can still feel their emotions and they aren’t shutting people down and that everyone is feeling that they are able to participate and take part and feel empowered to bring their perspectives to the table,” she says.
Of course passion, as The Allium’s members have learned, is only one ingredient in a successful restaurant. Business acumen is another important one, which is why Love advises that anyone interested in setting up a co-operative restaurant be organized from day one. Although The Allium was generally well-prepared on this front, it also learned things along the way, helped in part by a technical assistance grant from CWCF which helped it improve its bookkeeping practices.
Despite the uncertainty resulting from the pandemic, The Allium hasn’t lost sight of its goals for the future, among them paying its employees a living wage and becoming a zero-waste restaurant. And Love also hopes The Alliums can serve as a beacon for others.
“I really think it’s bringing us closer to a more sustainable and just society,” she says. “We’re an example that these things can be done.”