ITHACA, N.Y.—Gimme! Coffee, the iconic Ithaca-founded coffee company, is now owned by its employees. On Monday, July 25, Gimme announced its transition from a traditional company to a co-op model, giving its employees the opportunity to buy in, shape the businesses’ future, and share in the profit.
It’s a major development at a time when nationally and locally, sustained momentum has been behind a push to improve working conditions and organize labor. Gimme’s transition into a co-op stands in stark relief against recent events at Ithaca locations of the world’s largest coffee shop chain, Starbucks.
Unionized staffs of local Starbucks locations have begun to butt against their corporate employers, and accusations of union busting have sounded off from Starbucks’ Collegetown location after the company abruptly closed the store.
The battles between the executive level and employees at Starbucks have become numerous and grueling across the country, but redefining the playing field and the relationship between company and worker is what the co-op model’s big promise is, said Gimme! Coffee’s new Board of Directors president Kate Smith, who has worked as the bakery director since 2011.
“With more employees being involved in decisions, I feel like we can make decisions that actually change our employee’s life rather than just creating more profit for someone who owns the business,” she said.
Gimme wants to see the empowerment that the co-op model offers make service jobs a more sustainable line of work with predictable schedules, and introduce the potential for benefits like a 401k savings plan to become available to their worker-member-owners.
The co-op has also adopted an open book policy for its member-workers, giving them a clear view into the company’s finances and how their labor is valued in the context of the business’ revenue.
Gimme! Coffee announced that 50% of its 53 employees have committed to becoming worker-owners of the co-op, which they are able to do by starting a payment plan, putting in $50 every two-week pay term after logging 1,400 hours of work at Gimme! Coffee. Voting powers and profit-sharing kick in once a worker commits their first $50. A full share costs $1,300 for a worker-owner, whether they’re one of the managing director or a barista.
The Gimme Coffee Barista Union hangs on by a thread
The transition to a co-op also comes at a time when Gimme’s once lauded barista union hangs on by a thread. It was the first barista union to ever form in that nation, and the cross currents of the co-op and union developments can’t be overlooked.
Former and current baristas at Gimme! Coffee corroborated that the operations of the union became marred to some degree by interpersonal conflict, but the disruption that the pandemic brought to daily life also played heavily into the unraveling of the union.
The union is technically already dissolved due to the results of a March 2021 decertification vote. Though the final nail in the coffin, or potentially saving grace, rests on an appeal brought forward by Worker’s United — the Gimme Barista’s Union parent union — regarding whose votes were counted in the election. The appeal is before the Washington Office of the National Labor Review Board (NLRB), the federal agency responsible for enforcing U.S. labor law as well as investigating and adjudicating labor disputes.
Gary Bonadonna, manager of Workers United’s Rochester Regional Joint Board, said that, “As soon as we win that appeal, we’re back to the bargaining table.”
However, with the enthusiasm of the co-op sweeping through Gimme! Coffee’s staff, multiple baristas who were both opposed to the former union, or were a part of it have confirmed with The Ithaca Voice that interest in the union is tepid at best. There has also been major turnover at the coffee shop, with all the previous union stewards having left and a new slate of staff members working at Gimme without ever having been a part of the union.
Whether the Gimme Barista Union reconstitutes, or a new one forms in the future, the shop’s transition to a co-op has made room for the presence of organized labor, and Colleen Anunu, Gimme! Coffee’s, one of Gimme’s Co-Managing Directors, said that a marriage of the two has always been in their mind.
Anunu (whose pronouns are they/them) was brought on as CEO of Gimme in early 2020 just before the pandemic hit and says that Kevin Cuddeback, the former owner of Gimme, approached them while they were working a different job in the coffee industry.
Cuddeback had been interested in selling the company and cleaning his hands of Gimme but didn’t want to risk making a private sale to someone who didn’t understand the business, its values or its quirks. He brought the idea of a co-op to Anunu, who had started their career in coffee at Gimme while still a student attending Ithaca College in the early aughts. After leaving Ithaca, which is also their hometown, Anunu worked in various roles and levels in the coffee industry, and during their time built experience forming co-operatives. Cuddeback wanted to know if a co-op would work for Gimme in Ithaca.
“And I said, absolutely. And so Kevin [Cuddeback], knowing that he needed a strong management team, he asked me if I wanted to come back and manage the company through this transition,” Anunu said.
The co-op transition process, bogged down by the life-altering pandemic and daunting volume of work, was completed in early July 2022. Ultimately, the company was able to buy itself, taking out a loan from Shared Capital, a lending and investment firm that specializes in financing co-ops and is a co-op itself.
Gimme! Coffee signed a confidentiality clause with Cuddeback on the exact price for purchasing the company, but Gimme Co-Managing Director Claire Cristensen said that the loan covered 70% of Gimme’s value and that the other 30% was secured by a loan to the Gimme co-op by Cuddeback himself. The purchase of the company was a stock sale and did not include any real estate, Anunu confirmed. Had Cuddeback not put the money forward, Christensen said that Gimme’s staff would have had to raise the equity, likely putting the transition out of reach.
“If we’re all going to live in capitalism, which we seem to have to, what’s the best we can do?”
Now, with the transition complete, Anunu says that their vision from the start has been for a co-op union at Gimme. “We absolutely said, like, a co-op union model is what we’re going for here.”
The assurance from Anunu has some credibility, with sections in the co-ops bylaws, and in decision making protocols of the union which include a contingency for how a potential union would be included in choices. The space made is “negotiations may be required” with a potential bargaining unit on matters like setting salaries, defining personnel policies, hiring and firing workers or changing or adding company locations.
The co-op model Cristensen believes is “trying to answer some of the same questions” that the union movement is. The question being for Christensen that “If we’re all going to live in capitalism, which we seem to have to, what’s the best we can do?”
While unions give a bargaining unit the ability to negotiate contracts that shape their pay, benefits, benefits and safety policies, unions don’t formally have structural power to direct a business’s future, like the sale of a coffee shop location. But a co-op distributes that power among staff by creating a body of representatives that make a lot of decisions for the company.
Gimme! Coffee’s staff and management team now answers to a six-member Board of Directors, which is elected from the Gimme! Coffee staff. Only member-owners can vote on board members, but any employee can be elected to the board, whether or not they’re an owner of the Gimme co-op or not.
Business matters, like approving annual budgets, binding the company to future expenses and approving bonuses, among others, will be decided by a Board of Directors. Some decisions, like the dissolution of the co-op or redefining the membership criteria for worker-owners are decisions that must be made through a vote of all the worker-owners.
It’s a new way of doing business for a company that’s been around for over 20 years — while some skeptics remain in the rank and file of Gimme’s workers as to the co-ops efficacy, time will ground the hopes many have pinned to elevating the platform of the worker’s voice at Gimme.
This moment, though, is cause for celebration for the team that pushed Gimme into its new chapter, or at least prompted an attempt to.
“Everyone who was involved in the transition tried to go have some champagne afterwards,” Christensen said. “But we mostly just sort of sat there and went, ‘Wow, that was a lot of work.’”