Nick’s Pizza and Bakery, a North Oakland favorite, is becoming a worker-owned collective. On September 1, five employees will purchase and take over the popular pizza and sandwich joint, which serves “Oakland-style pizza” on the corner of Alcatraz and Shattuck avenues.
“I’ve never owned my own business before,” said Jennifer Feinberg, one of Nick’s lead bakers. “I think it’s great for workers to have a chance to own the business that they work at.”
Founder and current owner Nick Yapor-Cox said it was always in the back of his mind to turn the bakery, which he opened in 2012, into a co-op, but he wanted to create a successful business model before transferring responsibility.
“I am in love with that restaurant and every single person that comes through the door,” Yapor-Cox said. “I didn’t want to see it disappear even if it wasn’t the right thing for me to continue to own and operate.”
Yapor-Cox got his start working as a pastry chef in New York City and said that while he learned a lot, he often questioned the restaurant industry’s treatment of workers.
“I worked for some really great chefs, but the assumptions around labor were really bizarre to me,” Yapor-Cox said. “When you’re new in kitchens, you don’t feel like you have any say or can question any of it.”
After returning to the Bay, where he grew up, he worked at Emeryville’s cooperatively-run bakery, Arizmendi, for around four years. He was inspired by the worker-owned model, and in particular, how distributing responsibility over a larger group of people with equal investment in the business led to less burnout and greater longevity, for the employees and the company.
“I think if we can create long-term employment for restaurant people, everybody benefits from that,” Yapor-Cox said. The key to helping employees stick with one restaurant for the long-haul is to give them “skin in the game,” he said.
Employees at Nick’s agree.
“I believe that this kind of business model can work better in most, if not all industries,” said Jose Villagomez, who’s worked as a lead baker in the morning for over two years. “It incentivizes workers to stay at the job and helps you have more pride in what you do.”
Yapor-Cox said that cooperative ownership in the pizza business, which is more common than other types of restaurants, makes sense because pizza shops tend to generate higher revenues, and co-ops have a greater labor expense. The decision-making process, usually involving longer meetings with more people, costs more than the traditional model of one or two people making all the decisions.
This model is also more common at bakeries like the Cheese Board Collective in Berkeley due to what Yapor-Cox, who came up in the Bay Area punk scene, believes is a connection between anti-capitalism and bread.
“Anti-capitalists tend to be kind of romantic about getting people fed,” he said. “Bread and pizza are great proletariat foods to do that with.”
Transferring the ownership of Nick’s to workers keeps the bakery in community hands, which was a priority.
“I was born and raised in the Bay Area,” said Jose Ochoa, 23, who is Nick’s kitchen manager. “Serving the same community that has raised me up is the best feeling.”
General Manager Dwight Overton has lived across the street for eight and a half years and became obsessed with Nick’s Italian-style sandwiches.
“I am really excited to be a part of the legacy,” Overton said. “Nick’s has been here for a very long time.”
The workers buying the business were selected based on the number of years they worked at Nick’s and how many hours a week they work. The group is rethinking the eligibility process for other employees to become part-owners, with the hopes of every worker becoming a part of the collective. Being an owner is not a requirement, though, Feinberg said.
In order to buy the business, the group took out a loan with a cooperatively-owned bank, Shared Capital, and started a GoFundMe to help pay the deposit.
While most of the recipes, including the sourdough, will stay the same, the group has already discussed buying a new oven, serving more pastries, and offering different pizza toppings. They’re excited to take on more responsibility and play a first-hand role in the future of Nick’s.
“We already had a lot invested in the place, but now it’s going to be ours,” Feinberg said. “We can shape it and make it grow.”