The first in a two-part series looking at the past 10 years of worker-ownership at The Little Grill.
Sometime in the early aughts, when Ron Copeland discerned a clear and strong call to enter seminary, he realized this meant he was going to have to unburden himself of the day-to-day demands of owning The Little Grill, which he’d done for the decade or so prior.
It had been love at first sight for Copeland when he walked into The Little Grill – that cramped, quirky and beloved hotspot of Harrisonburg counterculture on the northern fringe of downtown – sometime in 1986, his freshman year at JMU. In a few years’ time he’d graduated from a regular to an employee, and in 1992, by which point he’d migrated west to Seattle, word reached him that The Grill (as you’ll often hear it called) was for sale. The possibility that someone with no appreciation for Grill culture would buy and change the place was, in his words, simply “too much to bear.”
Copeland borrowed money from a rich, and soon-to-be-ex-, girlfriend and returned to town as the proud new owner of The Little Grill. (In operation under that name, and a whole succession of owners, since 1940, it is now the oldest restaurant in Harrisonburg).
Ten years came and went. The Grill’s menu got a little more vegetarian-friendly and a regular soup kitchen started up, and the place generally stayed weird & wonderful. Then the Lord called, putting Copeland in a pickle: he had to let The Grill go, he hated to let The Grill go.
After a few preliminary attempts to scare up interest from potential buyers sputtered, Copeland moaned about his predicament to an old friend the living in Berkeley. The friend turned Copeland on to The Cheese Board Collective, a worker-owned cheese shop, bakery and pizzeria in Berkeley. Intrigued, Copeland rang the Cheese Board and picked a worker-owner’s brain about the whole concept of worker-ownership.
Momentum coalesced behind the concept. Copeland and a group of employees interested in becoming worker-owners of, rather than just workers at, The Little Grill began meeting deep into the night on Wednesdays.
“It was pretty energizing to be a part of the original group,” says Kendall Whiteway, who took part in the early meetings and now, 10 years later, is the only original worker-owner still working at and owning The Grill. “I really had no previous exposure to the cooperative movement, and it was a pretty exciting prospect, a whole new world opened up.”
Casa Nueva, a worker-owned restaurant in Athens, Ohio, served as an early inspiration for the group (no other worker-owned restaurants exist in Virginia). Copeland, Whiteway and the others made a several day visit to Athens, and ended up borrowing heavily from Casa Nueva’s business structure, incorporation documents and bylaws as The Grill transitioned to worker-ownership.
On June 1, 2003, the change became official: The 12-person (Copeland being one of them) Little Grill Collective purchased The Little Grill from Copeland. Each owner bought in with a $500 payment. Copeland financed a large chunk of the sale price, which the Collective eventually paid off ahead of schedule. He also spent the next five years eating his way through a $5,000 Grill food credit he’d built into the sale.
And thus, 10 years ago, began the current chapter in Little Grill history, under a new, collective ownership model that, in retrospect, seems the perfect embodiment of The Grill’s communal cooperation, love and do-things-different ethos.
“I trust all my fellow worker-owners implicitly to have the business’s and the group’s best interests in mind in all decisions, [as well as] each other’s well-being and needs. We strive to focus on meeting the various needs of the individual as much as on growing our business. That’s really the key to worker-ownership,” Whiteway says.