By Andrea Abel
Photography by Andy Sams
It started with a movie—a political documentary, to be exact: Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story. Cathy Ruiz watched it and was captivated by the featured cooperative bakery that offered equal compensation for all member workers, including the CEO. She went to her job at a commercial bakery the next day and posed a question to her fellow bakers: “Does anyone want to start a cooperative bakery?”
Such was the beginning of Red Rabbit Bakery, a cooperatively owned and managed business currently turning out delectable vegan doughnuts for Wheatsville Food Co-op and local coffeehouses, as well as hearty vegan breads for Black Star Co-op Pub & Brewery.
In June, 2010, a core group of experienced bakers trained in the culinary arts got together to explore the concept. The first step was to decide on the product. Ruiz, a committed vegan, remembers that she was set on going the vegan route. The others agreed it would be a good idea, even though they weren’t vegan. “We settled on vegan doughnuts,” she says, “because there isn’t any competition. It’s not the kind of thing that you would make at home—they’re yeast doughnuts; they’re fried. We want to expand, but we thought this would be a good place to start.”
“For six months, we met once a week,” says Gayathri Marasinghe, also an original co-op member. “We had a doughnut recipe and we tweaked it and tweaked it and tweaked it…we ate a lot of doughnuts.” After a dough was chosen, the crew worked to perfect glazes. “We decided to keep it to six different flavors: lemon sugar, coffee, chocolate, Mexican chocolate, sugar glazed and maple walnut,” says Marasinghe. Eventually, Samantha McCormick—who joined the group a little later in the process but who had the most experience with yeast doughs—fine-tuned the recipe and developed the additional bread recipes that would include sourdough loaves, baguettes and hamburger buns.
With the perfected recipes in hand, it was time to start the business. “We knew we wanted to start a worker cooperative, but we didn’t know how to go about it,” remembers Marasinghe. Serendipitously, the group spotted an ad in the Austin Chronicle about a course being offered on the fundamentals of starting a worker cooperative offered by Third Coast Workers for Cooperation. Kismet.
“Third Coast really helped us figure out what we needed to do,” says Ruiz—noting that Texas statutes typically bypass cooperatives and rely instead on more general business codes.
While all businesses share certain aspects, worker cooperatives have their own challenges and rewards. In the case of Red Rabbit, members invest equally and share profits equally, and decisions are made by unanimous vote. Members attend weekly meetings and also constitute the company’s board of directors.
Production is shared, though members have favorite tasks. Ruiz and McCormick like the scientific precision of mixing ingredients—creating something out of nothing, as Ruiz describes it. Artistic Marasinghe and newer member Bryce Benton find satisfaction in glazing. Each member also takes on additional tasks. For example, Ruiz does the bookkeeping and handles delivery, and as board president, McCormick sets the meeting agenda.
Although they all have academic and professional experience in other fields, they were drawn to baking by the tactile satisfaction derived by working with their hands. For now, Red Rabbit keeps up a grueling schedule, baking overnight Wednesday through Sunday—sharing a commercial kitchen space with three other food businesses. Although tough physically and socially, cooperatively owning the business helps to compensate for the difficult hours. “I would not work overnight unless it was for myself in this capacity,” says Ruiz. The bakers eventually hope to have a brick-and-mortar retail bakery, which would enable them to add new baked goods to their repertoire and expand bread production. “We have plans to include cinnamon buns, sticky rolls and cookies,” says McCormick.
While business decision-making must be unanimous, selecting a favorite doughnut is not.
“Mexican chocolate is the one I can’t resist,” says Benton.
“Sometimes I really want a chocolate one,” says Ruiz. “Sometimes I really want maple walnut. I think it’s maple walnut…and coffee…and chocolate.”
“But then, there’s nothing like the good-old sugar glazed,” McCormick chimes in.
Red Rabbit Bakery
Third Coast Workers for Cooperation