Walking the Green Path: Being Counter Cultural

by | Dec 20, 2016 | 0 comments

Four years ago, as Butter Bakery Café moved to the corner of 37th and Nicollet, we chose to wear our values on our windows as a sign of support for the young people building their new lives through the supportive housing of Nicollet Square.

We have been a daily advertisement for efforts to build community and restore our earth through the connections we make with each other, our food, and the world around us. And, as we’ve continued to grow as a business, we truly, deeply appreciate all of the support we’ve received from you for carrying this message.

Now, more than ever, this seems like a counter-cultural message.

The food industry in our country has become increasingly damaging to people, animals, and the earth itself.  Its dependence on cheap and unpaid labor, its efforts to cheapen real food for production gains, and its abuses of the earth through chemicals and misuse, as well as its efforts to promote cheap meals as “value” meals create a broken system.  As I struggle to build a sustainably run business within this broken system the challenges grow.

The food system is a major economic force in our country.  The production of food, its distribution, preparation, and service is very labor intensive and demands a lot of the earth’s resources.  Within each part of the system, brokenness can be created through abuse of power and the greed that develops out of privilege.

A large divide has been exposed between rural (mostly agricultural – food producing) and urban (mostly non-agricultural – food using) economies.   The food industry is a huge energy user, a huge producer of waste, and has an enormous impact on personal and communal health.  If the price of a meal seems cheap, trust that it is not due to placing respect and value on the labor and ingredients that went into the product.

Many years ago, a few brave black people chose to sit at food counters where business owners had chosen to not serve black Americans. With their presence at these counters, they demanded a change from an unjust system.  Over the years, others have used boycotts of particular food companies, strikes over labor conditions on industrial farms, as well as protests over conditions in which animals are raised for our food.  These courageous people chose to be at the counter and use their economic power to bring change to business practices.

We must continue to shop our values as we approach food counters today.  There are still widespread abuses that need our counter-cultural protest. These days, restaurants find it profitable to make claims about being natural, local, and fresh, while continuing to buy cheap food service items without being able to identify its place of origin or how it was produced.

With the power of technology and social media, we can learn and share a lot more information about how a business does its business.  With that knowledge, we can shop our values to make investments in efforts that lead to healing our broken food system. We can put our economic power into supporting the places that value food and the people who grow and produce it.

A personal challenge facing my business is how the restaurant industry has been based on cheap and unpaid labor.  Many restaurants use “off-the-clock” time for prep work and clean up work to avoid paying their staff for their time. The food industry is notorious for using illegal immigrants for cheap (underpaid) labor with threats of deportation to keep them from complaining.

The culture of “tip compensation” developed out of the vestiges of slavery to allow business owners to hire former slaves without actually needing to pay them – requiring these workers to rely on the gratuity of customers to subjectively pay (or not pay) for their services. The restaurant industry, in particular, has used sexual exploitation to sell its product by requiring women to debase themselves through dress and submission to customer gratification for earning their “tip” compensation.

Butter Bakery Café is currently in conversation with other restaurants that share a similar value for compensating our employees differently from the industry model.  We want to remove the culture of having customers cover the cost of paying employees by adding a tip to a menu item’s listed price.

This would ask us as business owners to bear our fair share of payroll and income taxes instead of asking workers to “claim their untaxed income” collected through tips.  It would ask our staff to give up the wide discrepancies that occur among front and back of house workers, as well as those created through shift selection.  It would ask customers to accept that there are hidden costs built into menus when taxes and expected tips are not listed.  Our hope is that this would offer more stability and security for workers, and provide more respect for the service industry as a vocation.

I see hope in the simple act of sharing a meal with someone, especially in situations where there is brokenness.  In the act of meeting and eating together, so many people before you have put their own effort into providing for you, which creates a space for you to refresh yourself and your relationship.

Through the simple act of approaching a counter, asking for information about business practices, and investing wisely, you can add value to the transaction taking place.  Through the simple act of walking this green path together, we can continue the process of supporting our beloved community.

Walking the Green Path is a series of stories by Daniel Swenson-Klatt, the owner of Butter Bakery Cafe, about what it’s like to run a small business focused on sustainability and building community.

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