The Little Grill Collective Turns 10 – Part II

The second in a two-part series looking at the past 10 years of worker-ownership at The Little Grill.

Of the 26 people you’ll find now cooking, serving or cleaning up after your plate of blue monkeys at The Little Grill, just eight are worker-owners. This is the smallest that The Little Grill Collective has ever been. An additional three workers are in a period of trial membership that precedes full worker-owner status, and another 15 are simply employed at an hourly wage by the Little Grill Collective, which has been collectively evolving ever since the beginning.

All told, over the past decade, The Little Grill has had 39 present and former worker-owners. At the group’s largest, there were 24 of them at once, resulting in grueling, 6-hour-plus owners’ meetings thanks to the Collective’s commitment to consensus and democratic decision-making. An early goal, now discarded, was to have all workers eventually become owners. Along the way, the Collective has gotten more efficient with their communication, gotten better at delegating, adjusting processes and procedures, learning as they go.

“The idea of ownership has really evolved for a lot of us,” says Kendall Whiteway, the only worker-owner who has been a part of the Collective for its entire 10-year history. “The process of membership has become a great deal more demanding.”

To become a worker-owner today, an employee has to apply for trial membership at an owners’ meeting, at which time the group of owners and the candidate can discuss any concerns and identify steps to address these. The trial member must then shadow the Collective’s various coordinators (PR, HR, finance, etc.), complete a special project to benefit The Grill (à les Eagle Scouts), earn a unanimous vote of confidence from the current worker-owners and pony up a $500 buy-in fee.

The Little Grill: worker-owned for a decade. Photos by Paul Somers.

It’s a time-consuming process, as well as a key to Collective’s long-term viability. Pulling off the worker-ownership thing requires a huge degree of accountability and honesty among individual worker-owners.

“You don’t come into ownership without gaining trust ahead of time,” says Ashley Hunter, a worker-owner since 2008.

Lest all these requirements and vetting procedures give The Grill’s worker-ownership model a grim and stern feel, know that the worker-owners refer to their fellow cooperators as “family:”

“These people are my family,” says Whiteway.

Or Hunter: “It’s like an extended family, really.” Worker-owners, she says, apply a degree of heart and soul to their work that she’s never experienced working elsewhere. “People are listened to and respected … I love the ability to be creative and to be able to influence change in my workplace. It’s very empowering.”

A spirit of egalitarianism is applied to daily shifts, overseen by a worker who may or may not also be an owner. Thanks to issues of experience and training, a worker-owner isn’t generally going to be found in the dish pit, at the bottom of the kitchen hierarchy (a term that, granted, runs kind of counter to the mentality of the place), but still. You’ll not often find employees supervising owners elsewhere.

In addition to hourly wages earned for both on-shift and off-shift work – all the behind-the-scenes, non-food service tasks  – worker-owners periodically receive their share of The Little Grill’s profits. In the grand scheme of things, there’s not a lot of money in it, and some worker-owners have been forced by mortgage payments and other life realities to leave the Collective for better wages in the worker-vs.-owner sector. For others, it’s enough. For everyone, money issues, especially long-term ones, houses, kids, kids’ college, retirement, etc., are one of the challenges of cooperative ownership, where equity does not build up (in this specific model, at least). When a worker-owner leaves, he or she recoups the $500 buy-in fee, nothing more, nothing less.

Throughout the past decade, a policy of “brutal honesty” (Whiteway’s term) has been very important to keeping on-track.

“We speak frankly with each other and strive to address and resolve conflict as quickly as possible,” she says. “We’re forced to really examine ourselves and our flaws when working so closely with each other on a daily basis. That’s where the trust can begin to grow, though – it’s a necessary angle of business ownership for us.”

In the very earliest years of the Collective, regular “honesty meetings” kept the group afloat, says Ron Copeland, who sold The Grill to The Little Grill Collective in 2003, and remained on as a worker-owner until 2008.

“If you’re sharing money and power with people, there’s going to be conflict,” Copeland says.

Good vibes, in other words, don’t always come easy, and might sometimes need to be temporarily suspended for the sake of good business decision-making. Owners’ meetings have occasionally gotten testy over the past decade, but instead of overwhelming the Collective’s underlying commitment to cooperation and reconciliation, brutal honesty seems to end up making it stronger.

Things get a lot more crowded during peak hours.

Business-wise, The Grill is doing well, Hunter says. Try getting a weekend brunch table and you’ll understand why the Collective continues to discuss if and how it could expand and grow – a situation complicated by the fact that the Collective’s worker-owners own the business but not the building. A new space somewhere downtown? A second, satellite location? A food truck?

The worker-owners have not come to consensus on the matter, meaning that until then, things will stay the same (another challenge of worker-ownership is that the process of decision-making by committee and consensus can be arduous). Brutal honesty will likely be required at some point along the way.

But looking at it another way, facing tough choices caused by the restaurant’s own success seems like kind of an enviable position to be in.

As The Little Grill Collective begins decade number two, Whiteway hopes to see group “inspire other cooperatively-run businesses in the area.” While a similar workers’ co-op has yet to pop up in town, the beginnings of the Friendly City Food Co-op (this is a “consumers’ co-op,” a different twist on the cooperative ownership model) can be traced back The Little Grill. Short version: In 2005, The Little Grill branched out to open a companion business, The Little Store, which, during its relatively brief existence, strained the various financial and social capacities of the Collective. When the decision was made to close the store, the Collective convened a group of interested parties to see if someone else might take it over. That meeting gave rise to the group that went on to launch the food co-op. (Somewhat longer version on the Friendly City website here.)

“We felt like we were doing something significant for the concept of worker-ownership,” says Copeland, looking back on the decade since he sold The Grill to a group of his employees. The thing he feels best about? “The preservation of Grill culture” as the Collective has been finding its own cooperative, consensus-based, brutally honest & tight-knit familial way in the world ever since.

Ashley Hunter, a worker-owner since 2008, on bean patrol.

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