Thoughts on co-ops for Co-op Fortnight

To mark Co-op Fortnight, Pete talks about his personal journey learning about the co-operative movement since joining Loaf. Is it just a way of running a business, or is there more to it? 

Did you know we’re halfway through Co-op Fortnight? It’s when the co-operative movement celebrates its history, looks to its future and generally promotes the model of working co-operatively.

If you knew nothing of co-ops except as a chain of supermarkets, this might seem rather strange, but even if you know co-ops are more than that, celebrating a business model is still a little odd. You don’t see Limited Liability Week or Sole Proprietorship Day. What’s so special about co-operatives?

Loaf is constituted as a worker co-operative. We’re all directors of the company and get paid the same wage with the same ultimate responsibilities. There is no owner or boss of Loaf — we all are, equally. After I joined in 2018, I became fascinated with the co-operative movement. It struck me as not just a very efficient way to run a business, spreading the work and rewards equally across all members, but also a very rewarding one. Having spent my much of my working life salaried or freelancing for organisations I had no say in running, it was a bit of a shock and took some navigating.

Since then I’ve been finding out more about co-ops. Working on our forthcoming new building, which itself will be a run as a co-op of co-ops, brought me closer to our future neighbours Birmingham Bike Foundry and Artefact. While they follow the same principles, they operate quite differently from Loaf. Then, as the upper floors will be residential, I had a crash course in housing co-ops, which can range from the UK’s deliciously gnarly Radical Routes to millionaire apartment blocks in New York. (Safe to say our building will lean towards the former model!)

Meanwhile at Loaf, the last 15 months have caused us to consider what it means for us to be a co-op. Like so many pre-pandemic things that just seemed to work, we probably took it a bit for granted. But with our business thrown into turmoil and the future uncertain we found ourselves leaning heavily on the co-operative values to guide our decisions.

In April this year, while waiting for the new oven to be installed, we held our first quarterly planning meeting. The pandemic didn’t just shake us out of our complacency — it caused us to look at everything we do and why we do it. We discussed every stage of the bakery, from sourcing ingredients to how we sell, and every aspect of the cookery school, drawing out the core values that we want to guide us. We also each said what we wanted Loaf to be and why that was important to us. 

Being a group of opinionated individuals we all had different ideas and visions, but interestingly that doesn’t seem to be a problem. Being a co-op means we work to accommodate the needs and desires of all members, finding a unique common path that might actually surprise us. 

At the end of the day we went through the co-op movement’s values and principles, seeing how Loaf measured up. We’re achieving some better than others and there’s certainly room for growth and improvement, but nothing feels alien or wrong. It’s all stuff we want to do and that we can see the value, socially and economically, in doing. 

This week I remotely attended Co-op Congress, the annual meeting of UK co-operatives with speakers from across the country. The theme this year was the role the co-op sector can play in rebuilding the economy, specifically on a community and local level. The general gist, as you might imagine, was that there should be more co-ops, because co-ops are great, and there was a lot of the sort of boosterism you’d expect from a flagship event like this. 

But I also learned some really interesting stuff. Stretford Public Hall was in a similar state to Stirchley Baths and was similarly saved by local campaigning, but in this case the locals run it as a co-op. Sheffield’s Ownership Hub is actively pushing co-ops and employee ownership with support of the mayor. We’ve talked of our new building being a catalyst for new co-ops so maybe this is a model for that. Finally I learned the Co-operative College exists, run as a co-op, but also basing its learning model on co-op principles. 

This last one made me think about our cookery school which has been run in a fairly traditional teacher/student manner for the last decade. It works, of course, but it’s not the only way to communicate our knowledge and we’ve been looking to broaden our approach. What would a bread course taught co-operatively look like?

Finally, while watching a slideshow inbetween the panels, I spotted Leeds Bread Co-op who, judging from this video, could easily be Loaf in a parallel universe. Their business is different, of course, but their testimonials of working in a co-op rang true. It was heartening to know that we’re not an outlier — there are others like us out there in the bread industry, with potential for more. 

Phil visited Leeds Bread Co-op a few years ago, before I started. It would be good to firm up that relationship again, to see what we can learn from each other, and to reach out to other food co-ops across the country and around the world. Together we are stronger, and all that. 

For me personally, this feels like the start of a journey, one I wasn’t expecting to take as I approach my 50s. When I’m not working at Loaf I have an art practice. During the lockdowns I was involved in the founding of Walkspace, an artists collective which I’m very keen should be run on co-operative principles. I also got quite obsessed with composting at my wife’s allotment and am using the co-op principles to sketch out how a community composting scheme might work for the businesses and residents of Stirchley. Watch this space for that one. 

The co-op movement can sometimes feel like a bandwagon, the hip way to run a business like all the cool kids are doing these days. But it’s worth remembering Stirchley has a long history of co-operatives, starting with TASCOS in 1875. This is not a flash in the pan — it’s a toolkit, a system for bringing people together to produce something that couldn’t exist otherwise, to the benefit of all involved. 

If you’re co-op curious and would like to talk to us about whether it can work for you, please do get in touch. If we can’t help we doubtless know someone who can. Ultimately, if you like what we do and wonder how we do it, this is a major reason why. We’re a co-op because it works.

Three podcasts

This week we’re recommending three podcasts that we’ve enjoyed and been inspired by over the winter.  

Farmarama is a podcast dedicated to regenerative farming which they define as “taking a more ecological approach, observing the natural ecosystems on a particular plot of land and working with them in a way that recognises the place of people within nature, not outside it.”

Their 2019 six-part series Cereal is incredibly inspiring and eye-opening, examining the industrialisation of bread making over the 20th century and subsequent reduction in quality. It also highlights the great efforts of small scale farmers and bakers to resist this trend and revive long forgotten grains and bring back quality healthy bread.

Since listening to and being inspired by the stories in the podcast we’ve started connecting with local farmers and millers and have been baking with a number of heritage grains. The results have been very pleasing and we plan to offer them for sale in the near future, ensuring Loaf is fully engaged with the local grain economy. 

Slow Rise: A Bread-Making Adventure came recommended by Sian, one of our regular customers. It’s a classic Radio 4 book reading by a proper theatre actor – warm and cosy, like listening to a kindly grandfather in a potting shed. 

Robert Penn embodies a self-effacing curiosity about how fundamental things work, and here decides to grow wheat from seed to make his own bread, along the way researching the history of bread-making from the dawn of civilisation to the industrial processes of today and meeting with breadmakers across the world. Best of all, it’s in 15 minute sections, perfect for a brief stroll or while kneading your dough. Lovely stuff.

(His previous books are about wood carving and cycling, so he’s evidently doing a tour of Stirchley High Street. Expect the next to be on fudge or plumbing.)

We talk about Loaf being a “workers cooperative”, but what does that mean? This two-parter from Upstream is a great introduction to the concept, why it appeals and how it works, socially, economically and politically. It manages to balance the invigorating rabble-rousing theories of the likes of Richard Wolff with sober analysis and case studies of actual co-ops on the ground. Entertaining and inspiring and highly recommended.

Happy International Women’s Day

It’s nicely thematic that International Women’s Day follows so closely on from Real Bread Week. One of the early IWDs, in March 1917, saw a women’s march for “Bread and Peace” in Petrograd, then the capital of the Russian empire. 
They were protesting food shortages and demanding the end of WW1. The march was joined by striking female textile workers who swelled their numbers to take over the streets, forcing the Tsar to abdicate and kick starting the Russian Revolution

The revolution, as any A-level history student will tell you, had many causes, but it’s not a surprise to see bread and righteously angry women right there at the start. 

At Loaf we see bread as symbolic of something more than the making of a nice sandwich. The domestication of wheat for bread tracks with the emergence of western civilisation 9,000 years ago, following the twists and turns of our societies through to the present day. 

Bread is both a symbolic and literal representation of the need to be well fed, and where there are battles for equality, bread will often be found. Indeed, the tension between exclusive “artisanal baking” and affordable healthy additive-free bread within the baking community is perhaps an indicator for the broader state of food provision here in Britain. (We err towards the latter, in case that’s not obvious!) 

The other aspect of Loaf is our status as a workers cooperative. Nancy wrote about how this related to IWD a few years back, and the cooperative movement has always had women’s equality and empowerment at its core. The history of the Co-operatives Women’s Guild, formed in 1883, is particularly eye-opening, seeing them involved in campaigns for rights we now take for granted. 

So, happy International Women’s Day! May it be a reminder of both how far we’ve come and, in these strange times, how far we have to go. 

Four inspirational bakeries for IWD

There are many ways to run a bakery. Here are four with a mission to support women.. 

The Good Loaf in Northamptonshire works to “provide real employment opportunities to vulnerable local women so that we can break the cycle of poverty, unemployment and offending”.

Luminary bakery in London “work holistically with women, offering a safe space to train, trauma-informed support as they overcome barriers from lack of opportunity, preparation for employment, and guidance in building towards a positive future.”

Hot Bread Kitchen in “aim to create economic mobility for individuals impacted by gender, racial, social, and/or economic inequality in New York City, historically using the vibrant potential of the food industry as a pathway forward.”

Yangon Bakehouse works to empower women in the Myanmar. “By providing our apprentices opportunities to gain life and work skills, they gain dignity and confidence to move into the workforce as employees and small business owners.”