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.” 

Court Street shaped by fire through history

The flames have long since been extinguished, but they have certainly left their mark.  In the wake of the fire that ravaged almost half a block of West Union Street early in the morning of Nov. 16, Athens residents and members of the Ohio University community alike look to move forward from the disaster.  Nearly 40 Ohio University students living in second-floor apartments were displaced by the fire, and four of the block’s businesses were affected, with The Union Bar and Grill receiving the brunt of the damage.

To the students and business owners who watched helplessly as their possessions and livelihoods went up in flames, the disaster will undoubtedly be a bitter pill to swallow as they struggle to figure out where to go from here.  Relief efforts began pouring in from the city, university and Athens community to expedite the process of recovery.  But this is a process that should be old hat to the city of Athens.  Fires have been devastating the Uptown area for more than a century and are responsible for a major part of its current aesthetic.

November’s fire on West Union came nearly 140 years after a devastating blaze wiped out nearly half a city block on the opposite side of Court Street.  The great fire of 1877 saw several Athens businesses and residences turn to ash.  The conflagration, which started in a grocery store, destroyed almost everything from what is today the College Bookstore, on the corner of Court and East Union, to the Athena Cinema.  The timber-framed buildings proved little match for the blaze as the flames consumed them one by one.

An archived report in the Athens Messenger estimated the fire caused approximately $20,000 worth of damage, which today would amount to almost half a million dollars.  In the aftermath, on the site of the fire, the Phoenix Building was erected, so named sardonically for the fire from which it arose.

Fire again licked Court Street in 1922.  This time, it was the First National Bank of Athens that burned.  The site ignited again in 1971 as Bank One.  Today, the Chase branch occupies the location at the corner of Court and East Washington.

Until the 1950s, the fires had been relatively isolated to the southern end of Court Street.  It was in November 1952 that Uptown’s north end received its first taste of flames when the Athens Armory caught fire.  The sturdy brick building escaped destruction and still stands today.  Ironically, the Armory is where the Athens Fire Department now houses its archives.

Fire struck the southern end of the Uptown district again in 1955.  This time, the site of the blaze was the First Methodist Church on South College Street, across the street from Kantner Hall.  The fire gutted the church that had stood there since 1908 and the flames threatened neighboring sorority houses.  The fire was contained, but the damage was done.  The original church was irreparably destroyed.  According to the church’s website, the congregation held its services in what is today the Templeton-Blackburn Memorial auditorium until the new church building was completed in 1958.

Disastrous fire returned to Court Street in 1962, when a kitchen fire erupted in The Coachman, an Uptown bar and restaurant.  The bar would later reopen, and in the same style of gallows humor as those who christened the Phoenix Building, The Coachman changed its name to The Inferno.

Besides the Bank One fire of 1971, Uptown Athens enjoyed a few decades’ respite from major fires.  However, the 1980s would see a string of three major fires in as many years, and as a 1985 edition of the Ohio University Alumni Magazine would put it, contributed to Athens adopting “the bombed-out look that was characteristic of post-war eastern European cities of the mid-twentieth century.”

Until 1982, the parking lot on North Court Street between Lucky’s Sports Bar and Attractions Hair Salon had been Belk’s Department Store.  The building was erected in 1902 as Zenner’s Department Store and would later change hands as Butler Brothers.  Eventually, the Belk’s chain bought the store, which would become their northernmost franchise.

In May 1982, the store would cease to be the chain’s northernmost franchise, as the store would cease to exist.

The wreckage of Belk's Department Store, 1982 -- photo courtesy of The Post
The wreckage of Belk’s Department Store, 1982 — photo courtesy of The Post

Fire erupted in the wee hours of the morning, with students still patronizing the Uptown watering holes.  One such student was at the adjacent Cat’s Den tavern and would later tell Messenger reporters that he witnessed lightning strike the department store. The claim was never confirmed by firefighters’ examinations, as the cause of the fire is still unknown.

However, no one disputes that the building was completely destroyed.  Belk’s Department Store, with its oiled wooden floors and textile inventory, was quickly consumed by flames.

Firefighters battled the flames for hours and the spectacle drew a crowd as spectators watched in trepidation as the fire department worked to contain the blaze as it threatened nearby apartment buildings.

One such spectator was then-student Karrie Kalail, now an Ohio University alum, who remembers the event vividly.

“At the time, I was a freshman living in Tiffin.  We could hear the sirens and commotion from the dorm so we headed Uptown to see what was going on.  We caught sight of the flames leaping into the sky.  It was horrendous.  I had never witnessed such a terrible fire before.”

The inferno was eventually put out by the firefighters’ efforts, but the building was utterly destroyed.  The front of the building had collapsed onto a car parked out front and rubble spilled into Court Street.  The lot remained vacant for years to come, with a fence erected to cordon off the rubble.

Almost two years later, disaster returned to Court Street.  This time, the flames returned to the Phoenix building, now known as the Carpenter Building for the family-owned hardware business that had occupied the space since 1944.

In March 1984, the building caught fire.  Firefighters would never determine the cause.

The blaze destroyed the hardware store and five neighboring businesses as the flames swept through a shared overhead crawlspace.  The fire destroyed Carpenter’s, Beep’s Video Arcade, The Parthenon Greek restaurant, the Athens Flower Shop, Paulinda’s Small World gift store and Your Father’s Mustache barbershop.  The fire also displaced several students living in the apartments above.

Initial estimates of the damage were figured to be in the $6 million range, but that figure was later reduced.

The building was later restored and now is home to Ginger, CVS pharmacy and Brenen’s Cafe.

Firefighters battle a fire at the Athens Hotel in 1985 -- photo courtesy of The Post
Firefighters battle a fire at the Athens Hotel in 1985 — photo courtesy of The Post

The last of the 1980s trio of Court Street fires came in January 1985, when the old Athens Hotel was gutted by fire.  It is now the site of Subway and Insomnia Cookies, and the apartments situated above.

The fire’s cause was determined when Gary Lee Gilkey, a one-time Ohio University student and resident of the Athens Hotel, turned himself in for intentionally setting the blaze.

Contemporary Post articles reported that Gilkey had started the fire because “he had a grudge against the landlord.”

Since the 1985 Athens Hotel fire, Uptown has not experienced such a destructive fire until now, with November’s Union Street blaze putting an end to nearly 30 years without incident.

Fires have dotted Athens’ history for almost 150 years and Athens has always rebuilt.  Now is no different.  The Athens community has vowed to return to normalcy.  The displaced students have been provided with temporary housing and Jackie O’s Pub is already back to business as usual.  Benefit events are already being planned to help The Union and other affected businesses recover.  The process may seem daunting, but history has shown that Athens will always rebuild.

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Dan Shisler is a junior journalism major at Ohio University’s Scripps School of Journalism.  Hailing from Akron, Ohio, Dan is a self-described bon vivant who enjoys international travel,  gourmet charcuterie and fine cigars.  Dan can be found relaxing at his home with a good book and his nose in a glass of vintage port.

 

 

Union Street fire sheds light on Athens Fire Department

Athens Fire Department had a busy few days last month responding to the fire that affected nearly half a block of West Union Street on Nov. 16.  The fire displaced nearly 40 Ohio University students living in the block’s second-story apartments and gutted The Union Bar and Grill.

The fire had all available resources responding to the blaze, requiring assistance from nearby communities’ fire departments.

The Union Street fire was a standout incident in the fire department’s already busy year.  The Athens Fire Department currently averages over 800 responses, or runs, annually, with the department on pace to exceed that figure this year.

The current average has increased dramatically within the last decade. Ten years ago, the fire department averaged about 300 runs per year.  Fire Chief Robert Rymer says he doesn’t know what accounts for the large increase.

Athens Fire Department maintains two fire stations in the greater Athens area.  Station 1 is located north of town on Columbus Road and Station 2 is to the south on Richland Avenue.

The fire department is staffed by 22 firefighters, with seven firefighters on staff every shift.

Rymer says that nearly 35% of all runs are made to Ohio University buildings.

No data is kept for residential runs that distinguishes between university students living off-campus and local Athens residents.