In a small commercial kitchen off Montopolis Drive in southeast Austin, an industrial mixer clatters rhythmically in the corner while Leigh Ann Jensen carefully measures out sugar, chocolate, maple syrup, and instant coffee for glazes that will come together later. Meanwhile, across the room Christina Waite rolls, cuts, and weighs dough, placing tray after tray of the delicate rings into a proofing cabinet to rest and rise. The young women make an efficient, cheerful team, despite the fact that it's 2am. (Their interlocutor, on the other hand, aches for the comfort of bed.) The air fills with the heat and fragrance of the melted, burbling GMO-free, vegan oil, heralding the hour: it's time to make the doughnuts.
In fact, there's never been a better time to make doughnuts like these.
Red Rabbit Cooperative Bakery was founded in 2010 by Cathy Ruiz and a few of her coworkers in the bakery of a Texas-based grocery chain. She had just seen Michael Moore's 2009 documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story, and was inspired to combine her passion for baking with her desire to extricate her career from the clutches of the corporate model, in which employees are for the most part little more than cogs in a machine. Ruiz, who is vegan and was committed to developing a vegan product, brainstormed with her compatriots and, after tossing around different ideas, settled on vegan doughnuts.
Braden Latham-Jones, an AmeriCorps volunteer who moonlights as a probationary Red Rabbit worker, says the choice to make the product vegan was an important one: "If you're at the point where you're looking at your food like what you're going to eat or not eat, then you're already thinking about other things in the world and how the system of production works. And when you think about the means of production, you start thinking about capitalism. When you start thinking about capitalism, you start thinking about alternatives." By this logic, something as innocuous as a puffy disc of fried dough becomes a critique of capitalism, not to mention an emblem of democratic employment.
That logic isn't too far off the mark as far as Carlos Pérez de Alejo, co-founder and executive director of Cooperation Texas, is concerned. It is through that organization's Cooperative Business Institute, an incubator program for workers interested in starting their own cooperative, that Red Rabbit got its cooperative education – not to mention a crash course in the basics of starting a business, from feasibility studies to writing a business plan to marketing strategies. To him, worker cooperatives are the antidote to the failure of capitalism. "Our work is rooted in a critique. We're focused on worker cooperatives to demonstrate that there is another way to run our economy," explains Pérez de Alejo. "There is this growing frustration amongst people across the U.S. that they have very little control, little ownership over their economy, over their workplace, over the political landscape. That's exactly what worker cooperatives can offer. If we're serious about democracy, this is about as democratic as it gets. We spend most of our days at work, so rather than every four years pushing a button, this is every day, face to face, this is exercising that muscle that has a direct impact on your life, your family's life, your workplace."
Says Jensen, a 23-year-old recent college graduate who has been with Red Rabbit for three months, "I was really excited [to join Red Rabbit] because it was an opportunity to work with people who wanted to be there and wanted to be baking and wanted to be working together and who really care about what I have to say. They want to listen to me as much as I want to listen to them. I needed to work in a supportive environment. I have never, ever felt like 'you're the new guy, you don't know what you're talking about.'" For young people like Jensen who are just starting their working lives, the cooperative model offers a way for their voices to be heard, which can be empowering for a generation of workers that hasn't yet internalized the hierarchical structures of traditional employment. After Jensen – whose primary task within the Red Rabbit worker pool is making the doughnuts – completes six months of work with the coop, she will sit for a review and, assuming all goes well, will be voted into the organization as a full-fledged worker-owner.
Yet, lest one think that the worker-owner model is all bread and roses, it is important to note that, despite all of the collective's hard work and the doughnuts' resounding success in Austin, Red Rabbit has yet to turn a profit. After covering overhead expenses and setting aside money to finance their hoped-for brick-and-mortar space, Ruiz and her fellow worker-owners are unable to pay their probationary workers for anything other than kitchen hours; everything else, from working the bakery's stand at the Sunday morning HOPE Farmers Market to assembling marketing materials and manning special events, is paid in sweat equity. Ruiz herself, who handles accounting and doughnut delivery, is not yet drawing a salary for her efforts. "This model isn't for everyone. It's not just the sort of thing where you can turn up, do your job, and go home," she says. "It requires a lot of passion because you own the business. Ultimately you need to be passionate about the [cooperative] model because otherwise you're not going to get enough out of it, because it really is a political theory that you have to believe in. If that's not what your political persuasion is, it's not going to be for you."
The history of cooperatives stretches back to 18th century Scotland, where the Fenwick Weavers' Society formed to offer discounted oatmeal to local workers. It went on to offer other social services to its members, from savings and loan help to education. It was the Rochdale Pioneers in 19th century England, though, that inspired the modern cooperative movement; cooperatives around the world, from consumer to housing to worker, all work from the set of principles developed by that seminal group. Today, those principles include, among others: voluntary and open membership; democratic member control; education, training, and information; cooperation among cooperatives; and concern for community. Austin, with its emphasis on keeping it weird by supporting local businesses, is the perfect incubator for progressive, democratically owned businesses like Red Rabbit.
"Austin in particular is uniquely set up to be receptive to worker cooperatives in that there is already this existing culture that supports local and small business," says Pérez de Alejo. "We simply want to extend the conversation further from yes local, yes small business, but also yes to democracy in the workplace and yes to more dignified jobs for workers that are long-term, stable, and meaningful."
Austin, of course, is no stranger to co-ops. The University of Texas area is dotted with a number of long-standing housing co-ops, the Downtown recycling operation Ecology Action became a democratically owned co-op in 2000, MonkeyWrench Books is an all-volunteer radical bookstore, and in 2010, Black Star Co-op, Austin's first cooperatively owned microbrewery, opened its doors. Most notable, though, is Wheatsville Food Co-op. Founded in 1976, with more than 10,000 consumer-owners, the natural foods grocery is doing such a robust business that it recently announced the opening of a second location at 4001 S. Lamar, to go with the current store at 31st and Guadalupe, just north of UT.
In fact, Wheatsville was where Austinites encountered Red Rabbit doughnuts in their earliest incarnation. The initial offerings included sugar, coffee, chocolate, and spicy Mexican chocolate glazes – and have since expanded to include a walnut-topped maple glaze, raspberry-filled, apple fritters, cardamom cinnamon rolls, and eminently snackable doughnut holes. Where corporate doughnuts are cloyingly sweet and forgettably pillowy, Red Rabbit doughnuts are large and substantial, satisfying hunger and any diet-busting urges one may have of a morning (or an afternoon). They're the result of a long process of recipe tweaking, all in the interest of putting forth the best product possible, with the most integrity possible. This means non-GMO ingredients are carefully sourced and managed; for example, a cross-contamination incident involving the fryer at their shared commercial kitchen led to one of Red Rabbit's neighbors having to replace a very expensive box of Spectrum shortening.
Yes, this means that a Red Rabbit doughnut will set you back a bit more than your standard-issue sweet, fried dough, but when you shell out that $2, you are participating in a broader conversation about fairness, equality, and dignified work at a moment when such a conversation has never been more critical. But it's also an argument for high-quality food that tastes damn good – regardless of your politics.
Red Rabbit doughnuts are currently available at the following locations, but for up-to-date info, see www.facebook.com/redrabbitbakery.
Wheatsville Food Co-op, Whip In (Thursday–Monday)
Monkey Nest Coffee (Thursday–Sunday)
Genuine Joe Coffeehouse (Friday–Sunday)
Houndstooth Coffee (Saturday–Sunday)
HOPE Farmers Market, MonkeyWrench Books, Vintage Heart Coffee, Summermoon Coffee (Sunday)
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