by gavin dahl
Austin has a reputation for fitness: great weather, great hike and bike trails and a zillion healthy food options. But Austin's rep as a party spot is even larger. Steve Earle famously said he couldn't live in the city because "the weather was too good, the girls were too pretty and the dope was too cheap." Now some young entrepreneurs are launching a new option for partying with your thinking cap on. They are building a brewery and restaurant with a totally alternative business model.
Black Star Co-Op Pub and Brewery aims to be the world's first co-operatively owned and worker self-managed brewpub. Founder Steven Yarak says city permits are the the final hurdle before their construction crew breaks ground at their giant brand-new location in north-central Austin. Construction of the inside of the brewpub will only take a few months, so opening day is expected Summer 2010. There will be six taps of house beer, brewed with a 10 barrel system with an annual capacity of 1000 barrels. Brewer Jeff Young has 12 recipes ready to go, including a summer seasonal using Texas peaches.
As South by Southwest wraps, the new Austin commuter train, known as MetroRail, officially starts carrying passengers. Black Star will be the anchor institution for the train's mixed-use Crestview station, built on a remediated brownfield. The train is making test runs during SXSW, snarling up traffic for the cause. A large pedestrian mall sits outside the Black Star's front door.
Yarak says the ownership model is cribbed from Wheatsville, the successful Austin grocer owned by its customers. Black Star is democratic, governed by a 9-seat Board of Directors elected by its membership. Dana Curtis, who heads the business team, tells me there are already well over 1400 members. For $85, Austin residents become members and own one share of membership stock. At that point, folks can put in more money and become member-investors, which pays dividends.
The project began in 2006 and after four years of planning and outreach, the worker's assembly began earning wages last summer. Now four staffers are on the payroll. I asked Yarak if there are examples of this kind of brewery that have tried and failed. "Not that we know of," he replied. "There is no book to pull off the shelf. The main point of reference for our principles is the cooperative identity statement from the International Coop Alliance."
"We are structured like People's Grocery in Portland (Oregon), as a hybrid consumer and worker cooperative," he said. "In the US, you either have absentee ownership or an engineered environment, like Buffalo Wild Wings. We will have no TVs. We don't want to have an environment where there's just stuff moving on the walls all the time. Pub is short for public house, which is a gathering space for the local community."