I’ve been trying to figure out for a while how to mark my 25th anniversary working at Rainbow Grocery Cooperative and working in cheese. It seems like a moment in time to honor, but my day-to-day life is the same no matter what the calendar says. It would be easy to let it slide by unnoticed as I do my regular thing: buy cheese, cut cheese, wrap cheese, display cheese, de-mystify cheese…
But it is unusual in this day and age. To work in the same place at (basically) the same job for that long is notable. I think the reason I have stayed in the same place for so long is because my job is incredibly intertwined with my workplace and the experiment in radical democracy it represents. I’m incredibly proud to work at Rainbow. There is nothing else like it exactly… 200+ worker owners and no traditional top-down management. Nothing is without problems and challenges, but we work in a sphere that inspires me all the time. There is no real roadmap to follow. Other worker-owned cooperatives of our size mostly have more traditional management structure. Though the day-to-day is often typical grocery retail, the big picture always keeps me going. We are a workplace democracy in a world increasingly hostile to democracy.
Despite what many people in the outside world assume, I am not in charge of the cheese department. I am the buyer, which means I am empowered to make a number of decisions, but I am accountable to all people in the department and they re-vote me in as buyer during my yearly evaluation. Feeling responsibility to be on storewide committees keeps things from ever being bored. The ability to take time off committees has enabled me to do things like write two books about cheese. Indeed, during my time at Rainbow I have been on the Donations Committee, the Grievance Committee, New Worker Orientation Committee, Anti-Oppression Work Group, the Co-op Committee, the Storewide Steering Committee, the Board of Directors and a million short-term projects not solely related to cheese. I have learned from all of it but some of these groups were a lot more fun than others. Like mucking out the drains of a cheese cooler though, serving time on the no-fun committees is just something you have to do because the work needs to happen.
Cooperatives brought me to Minneapolis in 2004* where, as part of an eight-person contingent from our store we helped found the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives, facilitating most group discussions at the historic, and sometimes contentious, first ever national meeting of Worker Co-ops.** Kathleen Shannon Finn, at the time the President of the American Cheese Society — and one of the people who taught me the most about cheese — tried to recruit me for the Board of Directors of the American Cheese Society but I was too busy doing co-op stuff in those years. I still am a little sad I couldn’t do both, especially at that time when ACS was really starting to take off.
My timing in cheese was great if totally accidental. I started going to ACS conferences when they still only had about 300 people attending. Because of that I was able to meet most of the folks who were making the artisanal cheese movement happen before people started calling them “rock stars.” But again, that was just luck and timing. I didn’t get hired for the first job I applied to at Rainbow and if I did, I wouldn’t have worked in cheese. But, since I did get hired into cheese, and I lived in the Bay Area when ACS was having a conference in the North Bay, I went even though I felt weird and out of place. And it was just one of those places where I felt weird and out of place until at some point I just didn’t.
When we hire new cheese workers I think all the time about how much harder it is for them than it was for me. After a month on the job — and certainly after I started meeting cheesemakers – I knew more than 95% of our customers. Partly that was because few people with cheese knowledge came into our store at that time, but mostly because customers know so much more now than they used to. That’s a victory for the cheese world for sure, but it makes it much harder for new workers because expectations are so much higher. Similarly, starting as a cheesemaker is much harder. I remember conversations with customers in the 1990s who were buying local cheese even though it was inconsistent – and honestly not very good — because they felt very strongly that supporting hand-made American cheese was the only way it would ever become better. A lot of that stuff would be flat-out rejected as unsellable now, at least in the Bay Area market. New cheesemakers have a lot less margin for error.
Cheese brought me to France for the first time, partially funded my honeymoon in Austria,*** and got me an amazing few days in Italy. If the May 1994 Cheese Department hiring committee told me that in my job interview I would have told them to lay off the MDMA. Cheese has also brought me to places all over the United States I never would have been otherwise. Though my wife still owns part of a family farm, there is no rural in my immediate family for generations and the opportunity to meet and befriend people I would never have met otherwise is one of the things I appreciate most about my last 25 years.
One of the best things about Rainbow is that the co-op enables people to stick around longer than at most places. At one point we have five people who each had twenty years experience in cheese. That made our cheese department very special but eventually the gentrification of San Francisco destroyed the possibility of us staying together. I will admit, the break-up of that group was the closest I have come to leaving Rainbow. We were all about the same age, many of us became adults together, knew each other’s families, hook-ups, and exes. Knew all the same gossip about our co-workers and knew all the idiosyncrasies of our weirdest customers.
I went through a unacknowledged mourning period for a bit when I realized I was the last one left, but then an amazing thing happened. The power of our democratic workplace exerted itself and we got a whole new crop of new members who, while I can’t have the same intimate relationships, born of decades of familiarity, can improve the department and keep the work fun in different ways. What can we do with the cheese power we have developed over the years? Who can we support? How can our urban outpost support the things we want to support in agriculture and economics? How do we maintain democracy in the workplace over the long haul?
I guess what I really want to say is thanks to everyone who made this possible. I learned, when trying to thank everyone in the acknowledgements page of Cheesemonger, that one always forgets someone or mis-spells some names, so I will not try to name everyone here. But I am so grateful to work with so many amazing people over the years at the ‘Bow. I am also so thankful to meet so many amazing mongers, co-op people, distributors, importers, writers, book store folk and cheesemakers — some of whom have even opened their homes to me — and many more who have opened up their aging rooms and make rooms and brought me places I thought I’d never go. If you think I might be thinking of you, I am.
So 25 years…. And counting! What should we do next?
*I wish I had pics from that week. Does anyone?
** Little known fact: before this founding the USA was one of the few industrialized nations without a national organization. Canada represented us in International co-op circles. Thanks Canada!
*** Speaking of weddings:
Maybe I should have order customized cheese for my anniversary!