A democratic coffee bar

Fledgling worker co-op cafe W/N W/N calls itself the first eatery of its kind in Philadelphia.

Co-owner Tony Montagnaro (left), co-owner Max Kochinke, employee Shatyra Jones, and co-owner Mike Dunican work at W/N W/N, a new cooperatively owned coffee bar on 931 Spring Garden Street, which opened in December. | Alex Friend TTN
Co-owner Tony Montagnaro (left), co-owner Max Kochinke, employee Shatyra Jones, and co-owner Mike Dunican work at W/N W/N, a new cooperatively owned coffee bar on 931 Spring Garden Street, which opened in December. | Alex Friend TTN

After passing through a pink door tucked beneath subtle neon letters that mark the entrance to W/N W/N coffee bar, a space is revealed that resembles a charming clubhouse just as much it does a cafe.

The mismatched chairs and scattered knickknacks that line the walls of the eatery’s interior – a rose gold clock and a worn magnifying glass among the collection – create an environment eerily reminiscent of the business practice the spot has chosen to adopt: individual pieces working together equally in pursuit of a common goal.

Celebrating its grand opening the weekend of Jan. 22, W/N W/N is the only restaurant in Philadelphia run as a worker cooperative, an unconventional business model in which all employees hold equal responsibility and make democratic decisions in the restaurant. Originally set to open in Detroit, the humble cafe took root at 931 Spring Garden St. at the suggestion of an owner of local bike shop, Firth & Wilson Transport Cycles.

Tony Montagnaro, a 2013 Temple graduate and one of the 12 co-owners who currently share a stake in the cafe, said that a desire for an unconventional work environment was a driving factor in the project’s inception.

“What ended up really uniting everyone over the project was this excitement about being able to run a food and beverage establishment democratically, and be actually sourcing exclusively local food,” Montagnaro said.

Weekly meetings are held to allow co-owners to voice their concerns about the business, and all decisions are passed via unanimous vote. Although all co-owners hold the same position on the hierarchy, separate meetings are held with different members of the eatery to focus on specific areas of the business like marketing or art and design.

New employees are given a six-month training period before they can request to be a co-owner, in order to allot time for possible new staff to bond with existing partners.

W/N W/N’s menu ties into the idea of creating a solidarity economy – an economic model that seeks to increase the quality of life for a community through for-profit businesses.

To work toward this goal, the coffee bar sources its food and vegetables directly from farms in Philadelphia and New Jersey. Coffee is directly sourced as well, with farmers bringing in beans everywhere from Costa Rica to Indonesia. Organic meats and greens are also a high priority, ensuring that the amount of chemicals and pesticides in W/N W/N’s ingredients are kept to a minimum.

Co-owner Alden Towler, who networks with local farmers in addition to doing his own foraging and gardening for the business, believes that homegrown meals are an essential part of food service.

“One thing I’m really passionate about is the relationship between food and health,” Towler said. “For me, making food is really about trying to create something that’s not only delicious, but is going to be really good for people and the planet.”

Breakfast selections in the store include full service coffee and espressos, egg sandwiches, various pastries and a sauerkraut pancake, exclusive to the cafe. Afternoon dishes focus mainly on sandwiches and house-made breads, with a full bar available during the evening hours.

W/N W/N is also taking an eco-friendly approach to maintaining business. Waste management and energy usage are tailored to diminish environmental damage, and all compost and food waste is deposited at a local farm. Even the furnishings within the shop, with the exception of the 100-year-old chestnut wood bar back, are made from salvaged materials and construction leftovers from the space’s previous occupants.

Peter Frank, the executive director of the Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance, said he supports the endeavors of pioneering businesses like W/N W/N throughout the city.

“I think it’s important to the community to have a business like this that can be anchored here,” Frank said. “Because the ownership is shared amongst people who work here and live here, they’re not going anywhere. They’re only going to try to grow and serve the community in bigger and better ways.”

W/N W/N is bringing local musical acts the first Friday of every month, in addition to sporadic performances, ranging everywhere from DJ nights to ambient brunches.

Montagnaro and the rest of the W/N team hope to maintain the values within the business they’ve created in the foreseeable future.

“I just would like to see [W/N W/N] maintain, and support all of the people who help make it what it is, I think that’s what’s most important to me,” Montagnaro said. “If it can support its employees, owners and the environment and local ecosystem, I think that’s a success.”

Eamon Dreisbach can be reached at eamon.dreisbach@temple.edu

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