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Collective does more than serve food

Southeast Portland’s Red and Black Café serves up politics as well as a cup of joe

By Abby Sewell

On Oct. 4, the Red and Black Cafe celebrated its three-year anniversary, reminding Portland that it is still possible for business and radical politics to coexist. The Red and Black has become a darling of the Portland activist scene, for good reason: it’s a worker-owned collective that offers organic, fair trade coffee and mostly vegetarian and vegan food at reasonable prices. The cafe serves as a meeting place for groups like the indymedia editorial board and as a venue for open mic nights and all-ages shows.

Saturday the 4th was a daylong celebration at the cafe, with music, a raffle, and drink and food specials. Business was steady all day, and several Red and Black workers were on hand at any given time, either helping out or simply relaxing while contemplating the success of their endeavors.

The idea for the cafe was born in 2000, when the Flying Saucer Cafe, which previously occupied the building, was put up for sale. The Flying Saucer was a typically apolitical single-owner small business, although the owner was, by all accounts, a very nice person. Community activist and IWW member Bill Bradley had the idea of starting a worker-owned co-op cafe and drove the fund-raising campaign to buy the space. Numerous organizations and individuals contributed the money for the project, with a large portion of it coming from the International World Workers (IWW) union. Links between the cafe and the IWW are still close, with three out of the seven workers being members.

The cafe workers make all business decisions together, holding meetings once or twice a month, and all receive equal pay. Once a worker has been with the cafe for six months, he or she can be voted in as a member of the collective. With the usual difficulties of keeping a small business afloat, worker Dan Davis said, “We’ve certainly had some touch-and-go moments, but so far we’ve all been able to cash our checks — and it’s getting better.”

On one hand, having eliminated the need for a boss’s salary, the workers started out at a higher rate of pay than the average cafe employee. On the other hand, they have not yet been able to give themselves a raise, and are currently getting no health benefits.

Davis, who has been with the cafe since the beginning, is still enthusiastic about the collective system. “Democracy — it’s a very good system. Seven heads are better than one,” he said. “With one boss, they’re free to run the business off a cliff.

“I’m pretty terrified of ever having to go back to a regular job,” he concluded.The Red and Black inherited an existing business and has been attempting to serve the old Flying Saucer clientele while also responding to the new customer base drawn in by the idea of a worker’s collective. For example, the cafe considered going entirely vegetarian but decided to keep a couple of meat dishes for the neighborhood omnivores.

In the coming year, the Red and Black may have the opportunity to take over more space in the building in which the cafe is situated. Nothing is certain yet, but people have been brainstorming ideas for the new space. One likely idea is the creation of a bike-friendly brew pub with locally made beer. Another idea — brought up when the laundromat down the street went out of business — is to incorporate a laundromat into the space, with water-conserving front-loader machines.

The cafe workers are going to national cooperative banks to ask for loans and applying for grants to raise the funds for the new project. They have already started working with people in the community to do planning and architectural work.

“Changes are coming up,” Davis said. “We’re probably going to be here for a while, and I just want to thank people for supporting us and give a shout out for the community to keep coming in!”

Abby Sewell is an intern with The Portland Alliance.

The Red and Black Café is Located on the corner of 22nd and Division, Portland Oregon.


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Last Updated: November 9, 2003