Andrew Friedman has spent the last decade running the show at Liberty, a cocktail bar/café/sushi restaurant hybrid nestled along a street of shops on 15th Avenue in North Capitol Hill. Although he longed to spend more time with his family and pursue other projects like his newest café, Good Citizen, he knew he couldn’t close Liberty.
"I could not imagine just selling the bar to the highest bidder,” he said.
When he spoke with his friend and Central Co-op board chief Dean DeCrease, an idea sparked. Why not become a co-op?
“I really love the co-op model in general. I love how the Central Co-op is America's leader, really, in trying to create a whole new class of businesses of co-ops,” he said. “So I talked to staff and tried to figure out how to work with them because they are the engine that makes [Liberty] work. It'd be a shame if they weren't given the opportunity first to take it over," he said.
On May 28, Friedman quietly sent out an announcement that Liberty would shift its operation model to become, he thinks, the United States’ first cooperative cocktail bar. (After a little research, The Stranger found that Seattle is home to co-ops Flying Bike Brewery and Zoo Tavern. There are a number of other co-op bar and café hybrids across the country, too.)
As a cooperative, Liberty would be owned and managed by its workers. According to Dan Arnett, CEO of Central Co-op, the service industry could be well-suited towards the co-op model. “Co-ops can work by giving people a bigger stake in [the business]. There’s potential to unleash more of people’s abilities and expertise,” he said.
According to Arnett, Central Co-op is working with Friedman and his staff to guide them through the transition and to make the learning curve less steep. But Arnett has faith that the folks behind Liberty will be able to keep the bar afloat.
“I really think what they’re doing is really inspirational and forward-thinking. … I think what they’re doing, if they do it well, you’ll see more of these initiatives in this country,” he said.
For Liberty bartender Laura Bishop, signing on to become part of the co-op was a no-brainer. “We pretty much immediately began to meet and brainstorm the process. We have a great, close knit team that I thoroughly trust, so it was an easy choice to go forward with it,” she wrote in an email.
Aside from bartending, Bishop and her coworkers have began taking the managerial reins, too. Bishop and her coworkers will need to learn to balance doing everything from cleaning the windows to learning to do the bar’s taxes, Friedman said.
“It's a way to own a business in a less scary way to jump in,” he said.
For bartender Brandon Paul Weaver, who has also decided to opt-in as a worker-owner, shifting into the co-op model seemed like a natural fit. Before becoming a full-time bartender at Liberty more than a year ago, he was a bar regular who lived around the corner. “It was this bar that showed me what a bartender could be and why it might be a good investment in life,” he said.
Weaver, an award-winning barista, said he has been involved in several local startup efforts including Slate Coffee and Corretto Café & Bar. He thinks the structure will be similar.
“I like the idea of creative control, at least to a degree. So this seemed to afford me an opportunity in a very real way to do that at a place where I was already employed and invested in. It's kind of a win-win for me in that regard,” he said.
Regardless of the transition from business to cooperative, what’s most important, Friedman said, is maintaining the cocktail bar’s role as a community hub.
“Our strength is just recognizing that we are a neighborhood bar, that we do care about what our customers think, feel, and say. We care about quality and we do care more about the product and the people who come rather than—this sounds silly—making money,” he said.
This post has been updated to clarify that Liberty is not the first co-op bar in the U.S. The writer regrets the error.
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