All In The family: Casa Nueva’s worker-owned structure

After a fire ravaged several businesses on Union Street in November, Casa Nueva was among the Athens businesses that stepped in to help displaced workers. A sense of family infuses the Athens community, and Casa Nueva plays a central role. In their most recent all-members meeting, Casa started working on plans to aid workers from Jackie O’s and The Union. Some might view those businesses as competitors, but Casa sees them as family.

Nestled among the bars and boutiques that dot Uptown Athens is Casa Nueva, a Mexican fusion restaurant with its own bar. Although it’s the only Mexican sit-down restaurant on and around Court Street, its food isn’t what sets it apart. It’s the people who work there. Casa’s worker-owned structure aligns with the ideals of a a hip, liberal college hub. Money isn’t the only thing that motivates Casa’s workers. It’s more than that. It’s family.

Casa’s more than 70 members are omnipresent in the business’ decision-making processes. Josh Brown, a worker owner and the booking coordinator at Casa, is responsible for scheduling bands and comedians at the venue. He exudes comfort and confidence, looking right at home in his leather jacket and scuffed jeans, which he wore to the member meeting he had just attended. Brown became involved with Casa in 1996 and said it was the best decision he ever made. He admits that sometimes bureaucratic processes can be frustrating and exhausting, but the meetings always have a good outcome.

“We bicker like family, but we also work it out like one,” Brown said, gesturing to form a wide circle with his hands.

This sense of family infuses the day-to-day routines at Casa. It’s how the business overcomes problems ranging from an overbooked dining room to an hour wait for food. Casa’s front of the house meshes with the back of the house to juggle these obstacles to give their customers a better overall experience. Although Casa is known for its long waiting time, this is a strategic move on the waiters’ part. If they see the kitchens are overloaded with orders, they’ll slow down the seating to give the cooks a chance to catch up.

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Diana Harland, an associate of Casa, said, “Casa can’t just be a job … It’s a philosophy for life.”  When people butt heads, they work through their problems and squabbles during meetings. They conclude amiably, and if not, they continue to work to resolve the issues.

Casa Nueva was born out of a floundering business called Casa Que Pasa in the spring of 1985. The original eight worker-owners of Casa Nueva decided to take over the business after seeing how much the camaraderie and community atmosphere was retained, even when the building owners took over from the original owners. Although they had little business knowledge, these first eight collaborated with the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks. Together, they built a business that was community-based through the worker-owner cooperative structure.  Casa strives “to create a workplace in which all individuals are treated with equality, respect and compassion,” according the the About page on its website.

The worker-owner structure is a little hard to digest from the fine print and guidelines Casa provides on its website. In short, a worker-owner structure is any business that is controlled by its members, who usually pay some kind of membership fee. This fee is returned should a member choose to end his or her career at Casa. While a conventional business is controlled by outside owners who have little to no interaction with day-to-day processes, control of Casa is exercised democratically by its members.

Workers at Casa are defined by the amount of investment they have put into their jobs:

  • Worker-Owner (members) – These workers have full voting rights and participate in profit sharing. To become a worker-owner, a worker must go through trial membership, complete a set of requirements, and be proficient in at least four areas of the business.
  • Coordinators – These workers are worker-owners who are in charge of coordinating groups of worker-owners and associates to manage various aspects of the restaurant. The groups are called committees and include, among many others, the training committee, the cantina committee, and the finance committee.
  • Board of Directors – These workers are worker-owners who take responsibility for the financial stability of the business. They oversee the committees and take direction from their fellow worker-owners.
  • Associates – These workers are not worker-owners but are strongly encouraged to attend meetings to express their opinions on how to better the restaurant. Though they don’t have voting rights, associates’ opinions are considered when making decisions.

Though these categories may seem hierarchical, Casa dedicates itself to consensus building. Leslie Schaller, one of the original eight worker-owners, said, “We try to instill a sense that the vision and values of the corporation are driven by the members of that corporation.” Worker-owners and associates alike shoulder many responsibilities. Throughout the day, workers at Casa are thinking about everything from fair wages to how to better communicate with the back of the house.

Much like Jack Byrnes’ “circle of trust” in “Meet the Parents,” becoming a member takes commitment and dedication. Nick Riggenback is Casa’s newest member — he’s been there five years — and he’s Casa’s president. He said that after leaving a conventional business, Casa is like being unplugged from the Matrix.

“Not a lot of people are ready for that kind of responsibility,” said Riggenback taking a swig from his PBR and spinning his chair from side to side at the bar,. He explained that Casa’s regular meetings are a time for character building, but what members do outside of those meeting is what really makes an impact. Coming to a consensus means not only establishing your opinion, but campaigning for it day-to-day.

Casa customers — more like fans, actually — also participate in the culture. They use the space to come together and share good times. Patty Mitchell, a recent True Heroes award winner and creative founder of Passion Works Studio, is a regular at Casa. As a pioneer for commendable community building, Casa is the epicenter of Athens and a place for people from all walks of life to come together as one, she said.

Looking forward, Casa currently has no plans for physical expansion. Riggenbach explained that it would go against Casa’s community-building values to buy out the surrounding business for their own gain. Riggenbach did say there are discussions about building solar panels to adhere to their sustainability values, though these plans are more into the future. More immediate plans include building a Casa Nueva farm to oversee their products from farm to table as well as a food truck, which would add space without having to buy out other businesses. It would also serve as a mobile marketing strategy.

In the end, Casa is group of friends sitting at the bar. They share a few drinks and laughs. They boost each other and are friends before co-workers. Out of deep respect and admiration for each other, out of friendship and family, Casa Nueva is a worker-owned restaurant.

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Paola Santiago Del Castillo is a junior at Ohio University majoring in print journalism. She is an avid lover of international journalism, Harry Potter, and pizza. You can usually catch her in her room, sipping coffee, reading up on transborder communication and watching an occasional episode of “How I Met Your Mother.”