The Leaning Tower of Pizza And How T.J.’s Came Tumbling Down

By HANNAH E. DOBBZ

Nobody likes to have a boss. And the former employees at T.J. Scallywaggle's Vegan House of Pizza in Boston, Mass., were no exception. Luckily, they did not have a boss. From January 2008 until the restaurant's close in July 2009, T.J.'s operated as a collective, making consensus-based decisions and rotating responsibilities.

Before 2008, however, the pizza joint was under its old management and run like any other business. Eric Carrico began working full time at the old T.J.'s in May 2007. He quickly became frustrated with his incompetent manager and petitioned for changes around the workplace.

"We started having meetings in the summer of 2007," Carrico said, "but basically our boss was talking at us and not really having a meeting. Every week for a couple months, it was the same thing over and over. So we just decided among ourselves that we wanted to have collectively run meetings so everyone could voice their opinions." The boss agreed to this and, after two months, decided he didn't want to be a part of the restaurant at all.

After that, the T.J.'s collective chose to offer strictly vegan pizza and pizza-related options. The place soon became a favored hangout for local anarchists, including members of Boston Food Not Bombs, Anarchist Black Cross and the Boston Anti-Authoritarian Movement. Internally, all tasks were divided up evenly. While seemingly ideal, there was but one problem: The former manager had neglected to pay or even file taxes for the previous year, accumulating $20,000 in back taxes and fines. What's more, the space itself was in abominable condition.

"When we first got the restaurant," Carrico said, "everything was ramshackle. The owners before us were very penny-pinching, so our basement was a dump and the equipment was breaking down all the time. When we got the restaurant, we knew things were going to be tough."

Workers at the new T.J.'s created a payment plan for themselves in which the store would pay $2,000 a month toward the debt, which they finally paid off shortly before shutting their doors in July. This added expense every month made it impossible for the restaurant to save money. In fact, many months the collective had to choose whether to pay rent or pay bills, as they were often unable to do both. "It was forcing everyone to work non-stop for something that was slowly grinding away," Carrico said. "It was completely volunteer for the last six months."

Carrico blames the majority of the restaurant's financial problems on their inherited debt. After all, other collectively run businesses in the area never appeared to be falling apart in the way that T.J.'s did. The Boston-based cooperative Red Sun Press was founded in 1974 with only $350. Collective Copies in Western Massachusetts collectivized their workplace in 1983 and is still functioning. The South Mountain Company, also in Western Massachusetts, which designs and builds energy-efficient homes, has been doing so cooperatively since 1975. With these small businesses having made it through both the Reagan years and the current so-called "economic crisis," surely something must be said for the stability of a collective structure.

While co-ops frequently adopt transparent or "sunshine" bookkeeping to avoid the mismanagement of funds that is experienced by some hierarchical businesses, potential co-ops often lack start-up money. Because of this, many regional collectives turn to the Cooperative Fund of New England (CFNE), a socially conscious lender that makes loans to groups without the money to put down on their business. According to Rebecca Dunn, executive director of the CFNE, of the 400-plus co-ops that the lender has financed over 35 years, about 75 percent of them are still in business.

"There are debt-to-equity ratios, but typically co-ops do tend to be under-capitalized," Dunn said in an e-mail, "hence the need for CFNE and our new patient equity capital pool, the Cooperative Capital Fund."

The past three decades have seen an increase of thousands of co-ops worldwide, though the United States lags noticeably. The U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives boasts close to 100 worker co-ops in the country, at least 14 of which are in the tiny state of Massachusetts.

"I like to think there is a trend toward cooperatives," Dunn said. "Particularly as the economy is tougher, people tend to work together cooperatively to meet economic needs."

Even when money was tight at T.J. Scallywaggle's, the collective managed to pull through on a shoestring. "It was more like you got paid what you needed to get paid," Carrico said. For example, if someone was short on rent that month, that person might get paid before others in the collective, and everyone understood that.

People were selling their blood and doing medical studies to keep T.J.'s open, according to Carrico, but he also admits that when the end came, it was as much of a relief as it was a disappointment. After all, he had been working 60 hours a week without pay. He described the closing of T.J.'s as more like a celebration or a party than a funeral.

"It was really wonderful and really awful at times," Carrico said. "Probably some of best memories I'll ever have. I also started drinking again because of T.J.’s – but that's restaurant jobs in general...There were times where we were put on the spot to rise to really absurd challenges."

He recalled the week that everyone went to the Republican National Convention demonstrations in St. Paul, Minn., in 2008, and only two people were left at the restaurant. Carrico claims he worked 110 hours over nine days. After that, he says, his co-workers forced him to go on vacation for a week.

"If I could do it again, I would," he said. "I'd prefer to have a restaurant that's not sinking from the get-go. And if I were going to work in a restaurant again, I wouldn't want it to be in a structure that's not collective. When I went to my new job, it was disturbing."

Table of Contents