Friday, November 1, 2013

Co-opt: to appropriate as one’s own

I love coffee shops. I like having a local coffee shop in the middle of my town, where I can meet friends for coffee and a bite to eat.

When I first visited Sharon, Massachusetts in 2002, I met a friend for coffee at a Starbucks located in the center of town, at Post Office Square. I parked near the library in front of the statue of Deborah Sampson, Sharon’s first celebrity, and walked around the corner to the coffee shop.

Eight years later when my husband, Chuck, and I decided to move our family to Sharon, the Starbucks was long gone. It closed up in 2008 when the national chain downsized. In its place was French Memories, one of a small chain of four cafes in the Boston area.

For a while, we reveled in being able to walk to French Memories. Chuck and our young daughter began a Sunday morning ritual of walking over to share a treat. I sometimes went to the cafe in the afternoons with friends. We’d take over a couple of tables with our children, enjoying hot chocolate and pastries.

In the fall of 2012, I heard rumors that French Memories was not doing well. Around this time, another restaurant opened near the town center, Mangia Pizza. They were serving Starbucks coffee for awhile, but eventually stopped.

In the fall of 2013, I heard that French Memories would be closing. A “for rent” sign went up in the window. Then on September 30, 2013, there was a sign on the door that the cafe was closed.

I’ve heard many possible reasons why two businesses, Starbucks and French Memories, did not find long-term success in this location: the amount of the rent, lack of parking, poor service, bad coffee, no drive-through, not the right menu items. These things may or may not be true. But I have a hunch that in both cases, the Sharon store was little more than a line on a financial report that wasn’t meeting expectations. More on that later.

Sharon has much to be proud of, as far as food goes. We’ve got ice cream covered at Crescent Ridge Dairy, which hosted a new farmer’s market on Saturdays this past summer. I love Pizzagando with its dining room that reminds me of my childhood in the 1970s. In the Height’s Plaza we have trusty Pizza Market and a real deli: Charlie’s.  Alice’s Mandarin Taste and Sichuan Gourmet are two tasty Chinese restaurants in town. Coriander’s Indian buffet is a favorite for lunch around here. I am cheering on the Sharon Market as they add new items and hold beer and wine tastings. Mangia is under new management after being opened in 2012. Across town, Ward’s Berry Farm is a huge source of pride. Our heads are swelling with the news that we now boast two CSAs in our town of 18,000 residents, Moosehill Farm CSA and Moosehill Community Farm. (I just wish the names weren’t so alike, but I can deal.)

And let’s not forget: Sharon is the number one place to live in the US! But we didn’t need a magazine to tell us that. We’ve lived here just over two years and we love it!

Lake Massapoag

For several years at our house, my husband and I have been grumbling about the economy, gridlock in Washington, the evils of big business. We are horrified about global warming and don’t really believe that recycling our Whole Foods bulk bags is going to stop it. More locally, we’ve been learning about the impending mixed retail/residential development, Sharon Commons. I have concerns about developing the open space for big box stores, but the ball was already rolling before we moved here. We’ve been doing a lot of reading and talking about sustainability, alternatives to capitalism, local investing and worker cooperatives.

What’s that, you ask? A worker cooperative...a business owned by the people who work there...

And it got me thinking after French Memories closed, Could we have a worker-owned cooperative cafe here in Sharon? How would one go about starting such a thing? How does a worker-owned cooperative business operate? Could one succeed here?

I endeavor to find out and will post my findings here. I also intend to explore what makes a good coffee shop/cafe, and what would help make our community more sustainable, and what does that even mean? I hope readers will weigh in with their thoughts, helpful information, suggestions in the comment section below. Perhaps others will want to join in the journey.



  1. Interesting that you're looking into this - Alan just told me the other day that we only have 3 1/2 years left on our mortgage - so my 5 year plan to open a cafe is really coming closer! I'll be interested to hear what people say about this. I'm curious how it would differ from a business partnership. I also recently learned about Time Exchange - and have been wondering how that could fit in to a business. I do feel these are interesting and very changing times - how we look at "work" and profitability.

    1. That's exciting, Laurie! From what I'm learning, cooperatively owned businesses often look like regular businesses from the outside. It's how they are created, how they function and who benefits that differ. I certainly champion locally owned businesses, absolutely. But I am interested in the cooperatively owned model as a way to build community and share wealth.

  2. Sounds like a great idea, I'm interested to learn more. When I look at the success of Amber Rd café in Canton and the Farmers Daughter in Easton, I believe the fresh healthy ingredients along with good service are the secret to success.

  3. Brenda, I agree - it's all about great products and services and most else can be traced back to each.

  4. I've heard of a Green Business Rating System that takes into account 1) is property owned by locals?; 2) are business decisions made by workers/locals?; 3) are "inputs" locally sourced? 4) etc.

  5. I will be taking a "Integrative experience" course at UMass in the spring on cooperative enterprise, in which students will be asked to create a business model for a Co-op in a field that interests them. (I am definitely a cafe/bakery kind of gal!)
    The Amherst area is definitely a great place to learn about this kind of business model. We have over 7 student run cooperatives on campus, and countless other cooperatives in the pioneer valley community.
    I'd be very eager to share with you what resources and lessons I stumble across along my own journey!
    ~Jess (Jack and Julie's eldest daughter @UUSharon)

    1. Hi Jess! Thanks for your comment! Please do keep me and my project in mind. I'm glad to hear UMass is offering such a course and that coops are alive and well out there!