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Meet the Disruptor: W/N W/N Coffee

Can a democratically run, all-purpose coffee shop/restaurant/bar in the Eraserhood be ethical and sustainable...while making money?

From the sunny strip of sidewalk at the corner of 9th and Spring Garden streets, W/N W/N coffee shop, with it’s simple freestanding sign—Coffee, Food, Beer—looks like just another upscale coffee shop on the rapidly changing Spring Garden corridor. But even a few minutes with co-owner Tony Montagnaro, hard at work kneading bread in the back room, and it’s clear that W/N W/N is a different animal entirely.

W/N W/N, a play on “waste not, want not” and “win win,” has been open in the Eraserhood neighborhood since January. It is a democratic workspace, run by consensus and collectively owned by a “core five,” a motley crew of Montagnaro’s friends and acquaintances from his time in the food and beverage industry. One owner is formerly an employee of Elixr Coffee; another has legal experience and has worked in craft beer bars; another comes from a farming and microbiotic lifestyle and brings a passion for international cuisine. Montagnaro, who used to work for Fishtown’s Pizza Brain, grew up in a restaurant, and uses his biology degree to express his passion for food science, health and nutrition.

They are the worker-owners, who all hold equal shares of the profits. But so do the small stable of employees. That’s right—every person is paid the same hourly rate, and they will eventually all share the profit, too, split evenly according to the hours worked. The same with the tips; those who work the higher volume shifts like Saturday nights split their tips evenly with those working slow morning shifts. The only difference between owners and employees is that owners take on equal shares of the debt, carry legal responsibility, and have the right to block consensus when making decisions.

“It’s cool that Philly is enjoying this food renaissance, which is one of the things that’s really bringing the city forward,” Montagnaro says. But years of working in the food industry made clear to him the inherent inequity in the business: A need for increased profit often leads to low wages and poor working conditions, especially for servers and cooks who don’t get tips. “The person in the kitchen does not have a smile on their face, is not treated well, and is not protected.” At W/N W/N, Montagnaro says, they’re hoping to upend that system.

W/N W/N is a more radical version of what is a growing trend nationally towards treating food service workers more fairly—from giving fast food workers a raise to implementing sick day policies to no tip restaurants like West Philly’s William Street Common and Bella Vista’s Vegan Commissary, which have slightly higher menu prices to allow them to pay all their workers a decent hourly wage. The pressing question for all of them is: Can this work?

At W/N W/N, their beliefs made raising the necessary startup funds more difficult. They opened the space with funding from one of Philadelphia’s first Kiva loans (the domestic arm of the international aid organizations that microloans to those in developing countries) and their personal networks. They raised about $8,000 through a crowd-sourced model all their own: Rather than using Kickstarter, which typically offers supporters physical rewards like t-shirts or posters, they sold pre-paid credit that customers could redeem only by reaching a certain threshold of purchase, much like a frequent buyer card. They were approached many times by larger pockets looking to invest in the traditional sense—a big influx of cash upfront in exchange for equity, or an ongoing piece of their profits. Every time, they passed on the offer.

“There were a lot of times when we really needed money, but we had to be like, ‘Sorry, that’s against everything we’re doing,’” Montagnaro says. “If you own your own work, you’re much more likely to be involved, stick it out, change things, experiment, and dismantle the systems of oppression that exist in restaurant life.”

W/N W/N serves no processed foods, and nothing with chemicals or preservatives; they source exclusively from local farms and companies. They compost all their food waste, down to scraps, and use everything: Pulp from their juices goes into apple butter or other spreads. “This is literally all I’m going to have for garbage today,” Montagnaro says, pointing to a plastic grocery bag about half filled with paper towels. And when he says they source locally, he means it— they purchase no prepared foods, and everything (except the coffee beans) is grown in the area. (The coffee comes from local roaster Elixr.)

“If you say you’re doing things locally, no one’s gonna come and check that you really are,” Montagnaro says. “We’re speaking with our actions, not our words.”

During the day, W/N W/N sells coffee, breakfast and lunch, as well as local craft beers and cocktails. After five PM, they offer “bar snax,” like kraut cakes with tempeh or bacon and pickled peppercorns, as well as one menu item that can constitute “dinner,” like a plate of rice, beans, and vegetables. In addition to the streamlined menu, they keep costs low by using bare bones staffing—one person in the front and one in back at all times except for weekends, when they have two people up front for brunch and an additional bar back at nighttime. It’s a different vibe, perhaps more like the laidback cafes in Europe or visiting the communal house of friends.

Montagnaro acknowledges that W/N W/N’s strict adherence to its own rules may alter the relationship to their customers. Having a single cook means people wait longer for their egg sandwiches. All-natural, local bread may be browner and denser than you’re used to. There may be no ketchup because they haven’t been through tomato season yet. There is no Sweet n Low because they believe it’s unhealthy. If you come in with a large stack of event flyers, Montagnaro may email you to come back and pick up the unused ones.

“We’re trying to take care of everybody instead of just pleasing the customer,” Montagnaro says. “If you’re taking care of the earth, the farmer, the customers, the community, and yourselves, that’s five pieces of the pie. Instead of 100 percent of the pie going to the customer, only 20 percent goes to them.”

But the big challenges are financial. Restaurants take years to be profitable, and W/N W/N has only been open six months, too soon to predict when they will “get out of the hole”—about $150,000. “It’s been harder for us than we expected to stay affordable and stay accessible to poor people like us,” Montagnaro says. One of W/N W/N’s biggest goals was to be a place that they, their friends, and people in their neighborhood could afford, but their no-compromise model makes that even more difficult. They are neither quite high end or quite low end. A Walt Whit beer costs $4, a Tofu Po Boy $6, and a bacon cheddar scone $3.50—all reasonable prices. But even when they keep prices low, many in the neighborhood assume they are a fancy spot, Montagnaro says, while people from the industry visit and are confused by their relaxed, DIY aesthetic.

But Montagnaro and his team remain steadfast. “It’s not a joke,” he says. “We’re not trying to impress anyone, we’re just doing this the way we want to and the only way we know how.”

Photo credit: Will Strathmann

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