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Other Avenues Grocery Cooperative

An interview with Celia LoBuono Gonzalez, Part 1.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez joins us on the show this episode to share her story and that of Other Avenues Grocery Cooperative. Part 1 starts off with Celia sharing the story of her life up to the point of getting a job at Other Avenues. From there, we pivot to the colorful and, we think, important story of food in San Francisco and the Bay Area starting in the 1960s.

From a collection of neighborhood clubs called the Food Conspiracy, whose motto was, “If you can’t walk to Food Conspiracy, it’s time for a new Food Conspiracy,” to the People’s Food System, which included Other Avenues, Rainbow Grocery, Veritable Vegetable, and other co-ops that don’t exist anymore, there’s proof all over today that cooperative models work. We like the sound of that, in fact, compared to competitive businesses.

Other Avenues’ doors opened in 1974. By 1987, a hybrid system of worker and community management was adopted. And the worker-owned model that exists today started back in 1999.

See here for Part 2 and more with Celia LoBuono Gonzalez.

Transcript

Jeff Hunt: We acknowledge and respect the first humans of the unceded land we call San Francisco the Ramaytush Ohlone. We condemn the genocide of these and other tribes across the Western Hemisphere. We honor their legacy and history, and we support rematriation and sovereignty efforts.

Hello and welcome to Storied: San Francisco. I’m your host, Jeff Hunt:. This episode is all about Other Avenues Grocery Cooperative. It’ll be the first in a little series we’ve wanted to do for some time now on San Francisco co-ops. I had the pleasure of sitting down and talking with Celia LoBuono Gonzalez, one of about 18 worker-owners at Other Avenues, which is located at 3930 Juda in the Outer Sunset. My conversation with Celia is one of my favorites in a while, not only for this podcast, but just in life. This is part one of two with Other Avenues. Here’s Celia.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: I am Celia LoBuono Gonzalez, and I’m a worker-owner at Other Avenues.

Jeff Hunt: Let’s just start quickly with your story: where you’re from, how long you’ve been involved here.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: Definitely. Well, I’m from the city, actually. I was born here. I moved to Davis, California when I was eight years old and then, when I turned 18, I moved back to to San Francisco because that’s where my heart is. I went to college at SF State, and I studied geography with an emphasis in food systems and also communications. Different than communications, but overlapping in many ways. I did participate in the radio program at SF State because my friend was doing the class.

Jeff Hunt: So I have to ask when you were there, because I went there as well.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: I was there for awhile, 2011 to 2017.

Jeff Hunt: Okay, okay. That’s not unusual, I don’t think.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: Definitely not. And I was in student government and I was a big student organizer, and I did a lot of different campaigning on food system issues there, like stopping Pepsi and Coke from coming to campus and becoming a “pouring rights” school, and just overall looking at the food system on campus. Before I was organizing at SF State I also was leading the march against Monsanto in San Francisco.

Jeff Hunt: Thank you for that.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: Yeah. Traced food system issues probably starting in 2013 or 2012. 2013 is when I really started getting involved. And it it led me all the way to here, which is exciting. And a number of other things that I’m also involved in. But once I was kind of done at SF State, I lived in the neighborhood and I shopped here, not all the time, but-

Jeff Hunt: Not exclusively.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: Yeah. And, my partner saw that they were hiring, and I was like, “well, sure, let’s do it.” So I applied and they called me back in like five minutes. And so I went through the interview process.

Jeff Hunt: And what year was that?

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: 2018 I believe.

Jeff Hunt: ’18, so you’ve been here about four years.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: Yeah, exactly. It’s hard to tell, with the pandemic and everything time is so weird.

Jeff Hunt: Correct.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: But yes, since 2018, I think since the summer of 2018.

Jeff Hunt: Can I ask what brought your family to Davis? Because I feel like this could be part of your story.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: Sure. Well, it was moreso that my mom was working for Caltrans in Oakland, and she was over it. And then she decided to try a private sector job, and it was in Sacramento, and so we moved to Davis. Of course, then the economy went down and that company went out of business. And so we basically moved to Davis for nothing. And she went back to work in Caltrans. Okay, in Oakland. But I also appreciate my time there.

I actually started working at the farmers’ market when I was in high school. And so that also really got me into the food system. And through working there at a bakery, I also got a job, working for the Bellini folks that allowed me to move to San Francisco and get a job immediately. So, my food system connections.

Jeff Hunt: So it is a big part of your story, Davis, but not directly the school. That’s what I was thinking.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: Yeah. No, I just went to like part of elementary school, middle school, and high school there.

Jeff Hunt: Got it. Yeah. Okay. But as you definitely described, I would say thinking about food systems and foodways and all this, from the soil all the way to the market, has been part of your life for a while.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: Yeah. And I’ve learned so much in different spaces, that’s all been weaved together. And it was really cool to be able to get a job here and have the agency, and to apply all of that knowledge: my food system knowledge, also community engagement, and yeah, it’s been really cool. It’s definitely a challenge here as well, just dealing with the food system through a very small corner of the world.

Jeff Hunt: The edge of the world, some might say.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: Yeah, literally.

Jeff Hunt: So, you said you already kind of shopped here a little bit. How much of the history of the place did you already know before you started?

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: I actually did not know the history of this place until I was applying and did my research. I knew that it was worker-owned, but I hadn’t necessarily engaged with worker owned co-ops really intimately until nearing the end of my time at SF State I also got connected with COFED, the Cooperative Empowerment Food Directive, and they did co-op Summer Institute for eight days where we huddled with a lot of cool folks and talk about radical economies, and racial justice, and alternative worker models, which is worker-owned co-ops and the idea with that-.

Jeff Hunt: It’s all connected.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: Yeah, exactly.

Jeff Hunt: If you look, it’s all connected, right?

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: Yeah. And so we did a field trip to Other Avenues, which was funny because then not too many months later, I-

Jeff Hunt: Here you are. You’re like, “I can’t get away!” But I think that does speak to your story and how it evolved, and then here you are. So how did it come, or how did it happen, that you were the person who, when we just kind of cast a net out, and that you responded. Do you have a specific role here? Does anyone have specific roles?

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: Yes and no. So we all share pretty much in everything. We share in the shift work, so everyone has some kind of role, like on the floor cashiering, or restocking, or taking turns running the retail floor. We all have roles as buyers for different departments. But we’re all in different departments. Some departments have more than one buyer, some are like two. And then we also share in administrative work. I am starting to do payroll now. I do a lot of the promo stuff, the marketing, the billboards. And there’s different committees. We have a DEI committee, we have a refrigeration committee, store improvement, a lot of different things. So everyone shares in that as well and whatever they feel called to.

But I have been excited too by events and promoting co-ops, and talking to people about co-ops, and what kind of resource or tool they have to offer. Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff, who maybe you’ve heard of, she is a big part of Other Avenues. She no longer works here, but she visits us and cooks us meals; she is a legacy of Other Avenues. And so I’ve become really close with her and learned a lot from her. And her and I have, participated in doing different, events, talking about Other Avenues, talking about co-ops in the Bay area. We recently did a little workshop with the Essa Public Library and the Oakland Public Library. So now that the pandemic is still around, you know, it’s-

Jeff Hunt: It’s doing something.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: -hovering. But with a little bit of more space we’ve been a little more active, and kicked up also our community events here at Other Avenues. So we were doing some in-person activities.

Jeff Hunt: Cool, we can talk about that later. So can you go over the history of this place? I know it dates back almost a half a century now. It’s slightly younger than I am. But it’s not like this place just popped up overnight.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: No.

Jeff Hunt: It’s definitely here now. And also, congratulations on surviving the pandemic, because that wasn’t a given a few years ago. So, can you, go over the history in whatever amount of detail you’d like?

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: Sure, yeah. So the history is so interesting because not a lot of it is written down per se, so I’m still learning all these bits and pieces, and how it was all connected and different things.

Jeff Hunt: It’s lore.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: Yeah, it really is. I might be getting things wrong, but this is the best I got so far.

Jeff Hunt: There’s no journalism here.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: I’m sure people have different perspectives as well, but from my understanding, a lot of it goes back to even the summer of ’69. You know, people are starting to arrive in San Francisco and there’s people that are hungry, we have to eat food. And there was neighborhood folks in Haight specifically who were making relationships with local organic farmers and farm workers and, connecting the pieces around food access. And how do people get fed? How do we have nourishing food that’s by the people, for the people? That was kind of the motto.

And so they were able to put together this neighborhood buying club. But then they were like, “well if we’re the only one doing this, then we’re only just replicating this inequity, this lack of access. So that was what spilled into what was known as “the Food Conspiracy.” And that was in the ’60s and early ’70s, where there was this amazing movement of community members – neighborhoods – organizing themselves in food buying clubs. So a coalesced group in a block or something would get together once a week and they would share a meal, they would place orders, pick up the food that was delivered, and place orders for the next week of, you the supplies that they would need. And they had it all organized, just people-to-people. And their slogan was, “If you can’t walk to Food Conspiracy, it’s time to start another Food Conspiracy.” So these were just popping up all over the place. And it was a beautiful thing.

Jeff Hunt: And who were they buying from, or I guess who all?

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: I think that exactly who I can’t answer.

Jeff Hunt: But, you know, generally.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: Yeah, I would say local producers in and around the Bay area, even going up the coast line. My dad, actually; I remember he told me he worked trucking organic produce up and down the coast, from Oregon down to California. But so in the early 70s also there was an economic shift and a wave of evictions that disrupted and uprooted a little bit of these community neighborhood buying clubs.

Jeff Hunt: Were they sort of all over the Bay area?

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: Yeah. From my understanding they spread mostly in San Francisco, but I think way past into the East Bay in different ways.

Jeff Hunt: Right. That makes sense.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: And so after that disruption there was definitely a need to transform the way that it was working into more of a brick-and-mortar situation, and so that’s where the People’s Food System was born out of. And that’s where Other Avenues comes in. So Other Avenues, Rainbow Grocery, Veritable Vegetable, which does distribution, and many other worker-owned co-ops that sadly no longer exists anymore-

Jeff Hunt: But some do.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: -but have been replaced by other worker-owned co-ops in a way. We’re working together at that point to- you know, all food things. So it was food co-ops, stores, distribution warehouses, chef buying clubs. You name it, everybody had a role. And they also were putting a lot of effort into governing themselves in a radical democratic way.

Jeff Hunt: Just rethinking all the systems top to bottom.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: Right, and trying to form relationships.

Jeff Hunt: Including the top-to-bottom systems, like hierarchies. Let’s rethink that.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: And so when we started we actually were completely volunteer ran. So a lot of these systems relied on volunteers. And originally we were across the street, just next to where Trouble Coffee was, but not long, I think, we moved over into this building, and then got the other side of the building.

Jeff Hunt: I wonder if Celia’s was already there, because that would be quite a contrast. I love Celia’s, but that’s way different.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: Yeah, I don’t know. But I know that it was not uncommon for there to be signs on the window that said, “Sorry, we couldn’t open up today, our volunteers didn’t show up.”

Jeff Hunt: The messiness of doing things that way.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: Yeah.

Jeff Hunt: Which also I think speaks to the artificiality of “always open.” Someone’s probably suffering, or being overworked or exploited

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: Potentially, if you don’t have a good system where the workers are able to create boundaries for themselves. So eventually the co-op, after running volunteer for a while, it became a hybrid because this is a community store, right? Without the community, we wouldn’t be here, in many different ways. And it transitioned into a hybrid worker-owned, but community-owned, kind of like consumer-owned model of sorts.

Jeff Hunt: Membership kind of thing or-?

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: Yeah, the shoppers had a role in decision making to a certain extent. And I don’t exactly know how that all functioned meeting-wise and things like that, but it was a kind of a hybrid situation. And. I think that was – I should get that date correct – 1989, I believe. So ’74, we opened.

Jeff Hunt: The doors opened in ’74. So about 15 or so years later.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: 1987, my bad.

Jeff Hunt: So 13 years.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: Yeah, 1987 became a hybrid consumer co-op. And in 1999 we became a worker-owned co-op.

Jeff Hunt: So that model, the hybrid model, was experimented with for roughly a decade or so. And then do you know the decision making behind going…?

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: I don’t know all of the details. But I think that, ultimately, power dynamics is a thing that always has to be watched. And I would say that there’s still even some power dynamics, but you have to name them and work through them. This is just me making assumptions here, fully I’m assuming that that model- Because of the way the store was originally ran as volunteers and the people who are really doing the work, I would say that the store was always ran with a worker-owned kind of mindset. But yes, I think by that time it probably made sense to fully move into a worker-owned, even though it’s still part of the community. You know, honestly, there’s been times where we almost had to close the doors and the community had loans we were able to take, pay them back even before they were due. We were able to buy the building because of that. We’re still paying the bank, but in theory [laughs]. And even before that, one of the volunteers who worked here had bought the building when it was going to be sold to an architect who wanted to double the rent.

Jeff Hunt: Oh, wow.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: But the the way that the rent was structured was a percentage of sales, so we always knew that we would be able to pay the rent. Okay. Because it was relative to how much income we were having. It was great.

Jeff Hunt: Yeah, that’s important.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: So there’s always been a community effort around how things have been working. I don’t know what year we officially bought the building.

Jeff Hunt: That’s ok. But the model of worker ownership – which you said ’99, or so – I mean, that’s right around half of the entire life of the store. So I think it’s significant that of all the different things that have been tried, this is the one that – at least up to now – has stuck.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: Right, yeah. And I mean, I think it shows- So we’re worker-owned. There’s currently right now 18 of us. We consolidated – we were 19 when I started – we may go back to 19.

Jeff Hunt: Did two people become one, somehow [laughs].

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: Basically one person left and we were like, “Oh, sales are down after the pandemic. Maybe we can tighten up a little bit.” But we also have people on parental leave now. It’s an ebb and flow. You don’t want people to get burnt out, but you also want there to be enough resources to go around so people can raise their families, and do the things that they wish to do.

Jeff Hunt: Live their lives.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: Exactly.

Jeff Hunt: Well, for me, another sort of theme here or idea is that this is not radical. A lot of people might not think about these things: they go to work, they shop. But the idea of any business – this can be replicated. Other Avenues – there are other examples as well – show that this is not far-fetched.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: Right. And there’s some great resources for transitioning workplaces. I would say the US Federation of Worker Co-ops has a lot of great resources that they’re expanding to support businesses in transitioning into worker-owned. And I think worker-owned, to a certain extent, even makes unions obsolete. Arguably there’s different types of unions, and there’s different ways to weave it all together. But if you’re not negotiating with a boss, you’re negotiating each other.

Jeff Hunt: It’s already kind of built in.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: Exactly. And I should say also in a unique way around how we make decisions to – or maybe not so unique – but we actually run on a consensus model.

Jeff Hunt: Okay.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: So that means that everyone has to agree also for anything to pass, one person can block an item. And even if there’s several people that are not feeling it – have reservations, or feel like they might stand aside – and if there’s enough folks who feel that way, then there also isn’t consensus and a vote wouldn’t go through. So it really does take having strong relationships with each other and being able to communicate your ideas.

Jeff Hunt: I was going to say, “to sell.” Is that weird to say, “to sell your ideas?” That’s it right? Around conversations and advocacy.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: And receive feedback, I think that’s the biggest part.

Jeff Hunt: And be open to other people.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: There’s different perspectives in the room, and they’re all valuable. And that’s why I personally like this form of work, because I work a lot better collaboratively. I don’t assume that I have the best idea, or that my idea is perfect the way that I’ve conjured it, and so I rely on everyone else’s understanding to see “is it relatable, is it impactful, is it meaningful?” And this kind of work system really supports that and encourages that.

Jeff Hunt: Again, not a lot of radical ideas, to my mind. I’m sort of steeped in 30 plus years of alternative thinking, so… But really, I think the point is it’s not far-fetched. I already said it, but these systems of cooperation and collaboration, these models work.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: They do work.

Jeff Hunt: It depends on what your motivations are.

Celia LoBuono Gonzalez: That’s true, exactly. And that is a really important point. Why are we here? I think that’s a conversation that cannot be overlooked, and has to continue to be maintained to be had. Because we start with these moments in time where there’s a need, and people are coming together around it. And then things shift and it’s important to remind ourselves why we’re here, because otherwise we’ve become too rigid, or we fall into the space that is given to us to fall, when really the goal is to expand and change the way that we’re thinking and engaging with each other as a society. Even with that, I feel like co-ops are a good tool within a set of tools, because they allow us to have more autonomy and agency in our workspace. But to a certain extent, they’re still operating within capitalism, so there’s more to think about there too, where potentially maybe they can only take us so far. But through these practices of working within community, having discussion and dialog and consensus practices, we can work through where we need to be continuing to aim.

Jeff Hunt: Next week on the podcast, we’ll hear more from Celia, one of several worker-owners at Other Avenues Grocery Cooperative. Please join us next Tuesday for part two. Music for Storied: San Francisco was produced, performed, and curated by Otis McDonnell. Michelle Kilfeather does original photography for us. Erin Lim of Bitch Talk Podcast is our contributing producer. And the show is produced and hosted by me, Jeff Hunt:. Now, in our fifth season, we have more than 200 episodes available on our website. StoriedSF.com, or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you’re able to, please rate and review the show and drop us a line at storiedsf[at]gmail.com. Thanks for listening. Stay strong, weird and healthy, and we’ll see you next time on Storied: San Francisco.

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