The following is taken from a talk given at the E.F. Schumacher Society’s seminar, "Tools for Community Economic Transformation," held in Oregon in early January. In it, Robyn and Thelma describe how their worker-owned restaurant developed and how they financed a move to a better location.
Robyn: Let me tell you a little bit about ZooZoo’s. Back in 1976, ZooZoo’s was a privately owned restaurant managed by a woman named Rena. She had seven people working under her and she paid them very much below minimum wage. During that time she was having some financial difficulties and withholding this information from the workers. At one point she was doing her taxes with an accountant, and he realized how ripped off the employees were and how much she was losing. What she decided to do was to sell the business and not tell anybody about it. Well, what happened was that the accountant was in solidarity with the workers. He took some of the workers aside and said, "You’re getting ripped-off. This is what you need to do if you want to survive, and by the way, she is going to sell this business." They got together and said, "We want to buy it." So he was like a mediator. Consequently, all seven workers got together and financed the buy, which surprised her no end. She had no idea that the workers which she was trying to exploit were going to buy it out from under her. The money that they got came from private donations to buy the Zoo, and it also came from an OUR loan – a loan from the OUR Credit Union.
The reason that they wanted to buy the Zoo was that they thought it was a really viable community based business. It drew in a lot of low income people and provided a good service to the community. So they decided to became a worker-owned and operated business. At this point they called in a business consultant and they developed by-laws and a policy manual. On May 1st, 1977 they opened as a worker-owned and operated business based on a philosophy that we carry today, that we are dedicated to providing quality vegetarian foods at a low price to the people, but also dedicated to creating an environment for us as workers and for the community, dedicated to being a political base – based on stopping sexism, classism, racism in any way that we can. Most of our philosophy comes from constructive criticism and being able to give that and share that in a positive way – that is where our growth and our change comes from.
A year later, in 1978, we realized that our lease was running out on the old Zoo. It was a pretty tacky location. The Health inspector stopped coming to ZooZoo’s because he would come in and there would be dogs in the kitchen and there’d be mice running across the floor, and we’d say, "Look, we’re leaving, we really are leaving." He would say, "OK, as long as I know you’re leaving I’m not going to slap you with any fines." So the workers talked about how we could change this, and we started looking for new locations – what area we want to be in. We wanted to have a bigger space to generate more money, and a bigger space for the community to have a viable base to share cultural events or whatever.
When we decided we wanted to move, we implemented two new committees. (As a worker- owned business, we are set up into certain committees. There’s fund raising, there’s public relations, there’s bookkeeping, there’s management – there’s all these different committees, and when you become a worker-owner you are required to be on two of those committees. Those are the integral parts of the business and that is how we run the business end of the restaurant.) So the two committees we set up were fund raising and the move committee. Out of the moving committee – which was six people who met twice a week for just about three years – we came up with all these grandiose plans to raise money. As we came up with all these ideas, each person who had an idea took that idea on. As long as it was OK by the collective, then that was the person responsible for making that dream a reality.
Out of this came a really large mailing. We wrote this basic form letter that said who we are and we went to every business that we had supported and we also went to different collectives and said we have helped support you and we would like to have something back in return. Can you donate some money? Well, out of this we generated about $5,000 in response from private donations – it was incredible – and they keep coming in slowly ($5 here and $5 there). We also sent these letters to our families. One collective member’s father gave $1,000 my father gave $300 and it went around like that. We felt like this was a good way for them to become a part of our business.
We also applied for a grant from a trust called the Sitka Trust. This is a trust that is set up to help give money to low income people and organizations that help low income people. Since we provide a viable base to help low income people, they gave us $1,000, which was like a God-send because we received it right at the end of our move and it helped us finance our wages during the time that we were closed.
I’ll give you a few more examples of things that we did to help generate some money for our move. We made a co-op coloring book. We got all the collectives in Eugene together and asked them to draw a little picture of their business, and we sold them for $1. We keep selling them and keep making money from that. Food vouchers – we got this idea from a co-op in Bethesda, Maryland which used this idea to generate thousands and thousands, so we thought, "Oh, what a good idea." It was really slow at first. The first three months that we sold the vouchers we made like $300 and we thought, "Well forget it, this was a stupid idea." The thing is we were not letting time take its course. Eventually we ended up making $5,000 on this.
Question: How did the food vouchers work?
Thelma: They came in $5 and $10 bills – actually printed up with this funny little logo on it. People would buy the $5 ones for $4 and in a year’s time they would be able to redeem it at the restaurant for a meal worth $5. The $10 ones they bought for $9. I think we were also selling packages of them for even lower prices. What happened is that they were dated months apart so that we didn’t get tons of them in at the same time, so we weren’t giving out food like crazy.
Question: How did you market the food vouchers?
Robyn: How we did it was basically like having a public relations route where you go up and put posters around town. We gave these to people in the collective and said go to this area and try to sell these to your friends, do it however, but it was mostly by word of mouth. We would go to certain businesses around town but mostly it was through people we knew. Like we have a lot of our business from Hoedads. Hoedads is a tree planting cooperative and their office is right upstairs from the Zoo. They were really responsive supporters of ZooZoo’s, and they bought like umpteen amounts of food vouchers. It was just certain people in the collective took it on and it was a really personal – not a door-to-door – thing. We connected with people at small music halls (sold them at the door there) and stuff like that.
So the food vouchers helped us out a lot, not at the beginning, but eventually. We raised a lot of money though bake sales which is so silly – when you think of a bake sale you say, "Eh, $10 here $10 there." We are all really good bakers – I mean that’s our business. So when we put out baked items, they were quality goods and we had this great location, so we could eventually raise $100 – $200 per bake sale. That really helped us out a lot because we had bake sales once or twice a week for about a year. We also had a park fair. We got a park in Eugene where we arranged a little crafts fair with music and stuff like that. That really helped us out a lot. We also had a music benefit. The first benefit we had was in November of 1978 and we raised over $1,000.
Question: How did you have the park event set up?
Basically we had these little booths set up and different members of the Zoo sold different things at their booths. We had a tie-dyeing booth. We had different little carnival type things, and then we provided live music that they didn’t have to pay for. We made money from the individual booths. There was also a bake sale there. We also had a basketball tournament which was a really good fund raiser. It was really small but we raised $150 and we won, so it was really good.
Thelma: We also got a lot of work trades. When the Zoo moved we chose the Growers Market Building that had a garage where the restaurant is now. It used to be a garage that dealt in recycling – it was a recycling dump. The photographs are pretty amazing of the before and after. All of the labor (we put up the walls, we put in the plumbing, we laid the floor) was almost all donated or done in food trade. I don’t even know how much monetarily that amounts to at all. Those accounts are almost all paid now. They came in slowly. People realized that they couldn’t just get free food for weeks and weeks on end; it would break us. They have just chosen to do that out of their own realization that it would kill us.
Robyn. One of the things that we saw as a problem with our fund raising was that, yeah, we were successful but how much did we pay ourselves to do this? This is our business and when we take time from not just doing restaurant work but to do these things, should we log hours for this? This is a problem for us because it is so demoralizing to make $1 .65/hour. When you’re working ninety hours a week and you get like $90, you go, "God, where did this go wrong?" Yet when you keep logging hours then your wages are going to go down. It was a question of how do we keep our morale up. Well, as you can probably tell from Thelma and me, the zoo is a zoo. We are practical jokers with a high commitment level. That was pretty much how we kept ourselves going. A lot of laughs, a little bit of tears, but we knew we had this vision in mind and we were all so committed to this vision that come hell or high water we were going to reach it. And we did. It just took a lot of time and we just kept saying, "Oh God – we just made $50, but what good was it, we just spent fifty hours doing it."
One of the things we realized about fund raising that is really important is that when you want to have fund raisers you have to have the capital to invest. We didn’t have that, so we had to start from the bottom. We had this moving committee who had this moving fund – but there was no money in the moving fund. We had to start with these really small projects – bake sales, basketball tournament, whatever – to generate enough money so that we could reinvest in fund raising. That is something we struggled with a lot, and a lot of us donated a lot of money and a lot of time, which I feel is really good.
We raised this money in two and one half years. We had a goal set that we were going to raise $15,000 without getting grants and loans and we did it, and we’re still making money on it by selling the little coloring books and whatever.
Some of the things we didn’t do that we wanted to do: We wanted to write more grants. Unfortunately we don’t have the time or people power to do that – or we didn’t then, or the knowledge. Some of the other things we wanted to do were to have more expensive things to do – like have a dinner dance, where we rent out a really nice golf course and we would come in and cook, and people would pay a higher price. But those things take money to do and we did not have the money to do that. We did little things like a car wash and we rented a movie.
The unfortunate thing about it was the burn out. We moved in October 1982. At the time we had nine members. Before we moved we could staff our restaurant with three people. When we moved and changed the schedule, we had nine people working a day and we didn’t know what to do about that. Consequently, seven out of the nine people died. I mean there was burn out beyond control – and those people quit. They left us with this big void. If we would have looked more to the future instead of just living it day by day we could have avoided these problems.
Thelma: There are 15 of us now who are full time members. As Robyn was saying before, the old Zoo is completely different from the new one in that it takes more people and that is a transition that we’re in right now. The way membership works is that when a member enters ZooZoo’s, they are asked to give a 14-month commitment. There are several things that we give as incentives to stay – it certainly isn’t the wage – but one thing is that a member has to put up $400 in collateral against the MRG loan and a couple of the private loans. You just sign a paper that says if the business defaults on the loan, each member has $400 worth of collateral – so that is agreed upon. The other thing is that you have to supply $75 cash that goes into an OUR account – its members shares. Twice a month $15 per member goes from the business into OUR shares. It is a general fund but each person has a record of how much money they have. The longer you have been there the more you gain. Part of the trip with the 14-month commitment is that you have to fulfill your commitment before you can get the accumulated equity back. And when you do – for instance when you are there for 14 months and decide you don’t want to stay – you can take your equity, the total amount except for $90. $90 is frozen per member for ninety days after they terminate which gives us time to recruit a new member who puts in $75 and builds up a certain amount. There is a six week work trial which is basically where we decide, and where a person decides, whether they are going to stay or not. At the end of the six weeks we give an evaluation of that person as a group in a meeting and they also give us an idea of what they feel they can make as a commitment, once they have an idea of what the business is like.
Robyn: As you will see when you come to the restaurant our vision is not complete, but it is manifested in something really positive. The important thing to remember is that we started at the grass-roots level and we are still a grass- roots organization. We are still funneling things into the community and getting things back. And so it does have these amazing positive reverberations for us.