Bartertown: Changing the way we eat, work and participate with food in West Michigan

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Bartertown, located at 6 Jefferson Ave. in downtown Grand Rapids, is much more than a restaurant — it’s a social movement. Okay, some of this, yes, is tongue-in-cheek, but much of it is not. There are black and red murals of Che Guevara and Chinese Marxists on the wall, which tip the hat toward a symbolic socialism and raised some eyebrows when the diner first opened. But on second look, one will find that staff members are wearing aprons and serving vegan sliders. So, is this just idealism?

BREAKING THE MOLD

In June of 2010, Ryan Cappelletti first opened the restaurant, breaking the traditional entrepreneurial norms that accompany such ventures. Rather than a private investment, and rather than abiding by the “accumulation of capital” model that dominates West Michigan culture, the plan was for a cooperatively owned and operated restaurant. In simple terms, this means that employees share, not only profit, but the risks, as well.

They also share duties, explained longtime employee Megan Shannahan, who took a few minutes to tell me about what it is like to be part of a cooperatively owned restaurant.

Everyone shares responsibilities and everyone shares the profits, she explained. And, due to the restaurant’s success, everyone is able to earn what social justice advocates would call a “fair wage.” Moreover, everyone shares a bolstered morale.

Shannahan explained it like this. In a typical restaurant, one may make more or less tips when business gets busy, but the base pay stays the same — not everyone shares tips equally. The real winner then is the owner. This argument can be extended to nearly all wage labor employment, which provides the basis for West Michigan’s working class. At McDonald’s, for instance, the person sweeping the floor, flipping burgers, taking orders or coordinating the schedules generally makes the same pay whether they serve 12 cars in an hour or the same in 15 minutes.

So, again, spirits are high across the board at Bartertown when the workload gets heavy as everyone knows that the additional profit will be shared, rather than accumulated. This argument is a real challenge for West Michigan culture, which has fed on the teat of philanthropy for decades, and now seems largely unwilling, or incapable, to develop a helpful critique that might open new doors for addressing injustice and inequality in our communities.

Grand Valley State University’s “Change U” (gvsu.edu/socialjustice), sort of a boot camp for social justice approaches, is one place people can learn about developing more inclusive approaches to community development.

Shannahan was one of a handful of the original “employees” at Bartertown. She pointed out how simple it was getting the restaurant opened. There were no legal precedents in the community. Instead, plans for this model had to be based on other cooperatively owned businesses elsewhere in the U.S., and the existing filing applications and other paperwork had to be created, rather than filled out. In other words, collective ownership is rare, if not viewed perhaps as threatening, or at least irritating, to the area’s dominant business culture.

Bartertown, then, is part of broader social and food justice movements gaining attention in West Michigan — although, this is by no means mainstream. In fact, only one group in Grand Rapids at least prioritizes a social justice platform: Our Kitchen Table (Oktjustice.org). From the perspective of these justice-based movements, people have a right to earn a living wage as well as a right to access healthy food. Bartertown’s cooperative philosophy appears to be guided by these tenets, not only in ownership, but in food as well.

DIGGING IN

Ah, now we come to it. What do they cook and how does it taste? Bartertown’s fare is local, vegetarian and vegan. This selection reflects an appreciation for food and agricultural practices that attempt to improve, rather than degrade, the environment.

On the evening my wife, daughter and myself visited for dinner and met Shannahan, they offered numerous mainstays, including the ubiquitous vegetarian mash ups of lentils, potatoes, chickpeas and greens, as well as the “two buck tacos,” which also stood out. Aside from the usual, they also featured two specials. You can check out the menu at bartertowngr.com. We each were taken with the butternut squash, black bean and curried apple sauce burritos, served with vegan or dairy cheese.

In sum, I plan to make Bartertown a regular stop. While the above arguments may sound, well, challenging, the meals here certainly are not. Beyond the murals, the uninitiated would simply find a snazzy dinner with excited staff and original, creative food that complements West Michigan’s culinary curve.

They offer lunch hours every day (except Tuesdays), brunch on Saturday and Sunday and dinner is served Wednesday through Saturday. Stop in, admire the murals, try the two buck tacos or specials and congratulate some fine folks on transforming socially positive ideals into tasty action.–Wes Eaton

 

 

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