W/N W/N, a coffee and cocktail collective, empowers employees

Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

Local sourcing and cooperative ownership.

WIN WIN: The member-owners of W/N W/N outside of their newly opened shop.
Hillary Petrozziello

The name of W/N W/N Coffee Bar (pronounced Win Win) may confuse at first, but hear it explained and you'll get a glimpse of why this unassuming new spot on Spring Garden Street is well worth watching.

"[The name] comes from waste not, want not. It comes from creating a win-win situation for employees, employers and customers," explains member-owner Mike Dunican.

W/N W/N, which celebrated its grand opening last weekend, is the only restaurant in the city run as a worker cooperative. Worker co-ops are businesses owned in their entirety by the workers, who make decisions democratically on a one-share, one-vote basis (or in the case of W/N W/N, by consensus). It's a time-tested model, but unfamiliar to many in an industry more often associated with high employee turnover and rigid, top-down management.

"A lot of us came from the service industry and didn't like the way we were treated," says Dunican. "We wanted to create a space that empowered the people working on the floor."

Industry veterans on the ownership team include Will Darwall (Elixr Coffee), Tony Montagnaro (Pizza Brain) and Alden Towler, but not everyone who works at W/N W/N is an owner right off the bat. Employees aren't eligible to become member-owners until they've worked at the restaurant for six months, and then the existing owners have to reach consensus on offering them a share. Still, there's no capital investment required and a profit-sharing program is being put in place for all employees. Regardless of ownership, Dunican says, "It doesn't seem like it's just a job" to anyone on staff.

That level of personal investment will be critical if they're going to successfully defy another piece of industry gospel, which preaches "farm-to-table" as great marketing language, but difficult on the books. To many with that mindset, W/N W/N's commitment to sustainable sourcing is as radical as its management structure, but among the member-owners it's a closed question. They source almost all their food from small distributors and local farms like Heritage and Kneehigh. That kind of dedication comes with a cost.
"It can be be 200 or 300 percent more expensive to buy this way," admits Montagnaro. "If you're going to have local food, you've got to limit yourself." Unwilling to underpay labor or overcharge customers, W/N W/N is choosing to wear those limitations on its sleeve, or rather, menu.

Initially, weekday offerings will be consist of baked goods with a focus on ancient grains, sandwiches and substantial bar snacks like okonomiyaki, a Japanese cabbage pancake that W/N W/N makes with sauerkraut and tops with an apple and jujuberry Hoisin sauce. On weekends, the kitchen will create single-plate meals for brunch, entirely vegetarian at the moment, with the exception of bacon from ethical farms. The small, rotating menu also will allow them to keep waste down. Recently, they've been producing a single bag of trash a week, a fact that makes the money they spend on the commercial waste-removal company they're required by municipal law to retain seem itself a waste.

In the coffee program, which benefits heavily from Darwall's close relationship with Elixr Coffee, ethical sourcing looks a little different. Obviously, coffee doesn't grow locally, but Elixr will source and roast W/N W/N's house brew. Elixr's also been helping connect the newcomers with milk from Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative until W/N W/N has enough volume to meet the minimum order level for Trickling Springs Creamery. Darwall's ambition is to supplement Elixr's roasts with the best seasonal coffees from all of Philly's roasters, to be chosen by a discerning team. "That's where we're helped most by having a full, strong crew that's horizontally organized," he says, an asset carried over to a cocktail program he calls "people-powered."

Darwall elaborates: "In nearly all of our cocktails, part of the flavor profile is coming from herb tinctures we've made that are foraged or come from local farms." That's because so few ingredients vital to making craft cocktails meet the sourcing requirements of the W/N W/N member-owners. Even regional brewers and distillers are liable to import distant conventional grain or opt for cost-saving labor and energy options, which disqualify them. A few local providers, like Yards and Philadelphia Distilling, happen to be leaders in making their respective industries more sustainable. A locally brewed St. Benjamin's Koffee Kölsch is currently on tap along with standards like Kenzinger and Jack's Hard Cider.

The continuous research required to keep up with these challenges, not to mention the constant collective decision-making about when and how to compromise, are the Herculean tasks the new worker co-op has taken on.

"It's not something we're doing to jump on any bandwagon. It's the only way we feel comfortable serving and ordering food," says Montagnaro with a shrug. Succeeding in a culturally and economically diverse neighborhood while prioritizing employee empowerment and relentlessly ethical sourcing won't be easy, but if the menu stays as strong as the values it's built upon, it might be just enough.

W/N W/N | 931 Spring Garden St., no phone, Mon., 7 a.m.-3 p.m.; Tue.-Thu., 7 a.m.-mid.; Fri., 7 a.m.-2 a.m.; Sat., 9 a.m.-2 a.m.; Sun., 9 a.m.-mid.

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