Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Why would a business run a fund raiser??

Business is shorthand for profit-making-machine, right? So why would the Coffeehouse run a fund raiser? Are we just greedy? Do we not know how to run our business? Some of the reasons may surprise you.

Historically, businesses were not just seen as the profit-making-machines that they are defined as today. This definition is just one example of how competitive corporatization has become the only lens through which we view business. A corporation, by definition, exists to make a profit and must make more this year than they did last year or they are seen to be failing. Having run a business for the past 6 years, we are constantly dealing with the way that the entire field of business is being defined solely in corporate terms. Businesses do not have to make more this year than they did last year in order to be a success, and indeed a good many successful businesses do not. For example, a neighbourhood barber shop may make the same amount year over year with small increases that immediately get eaten up by the rising cost of living but they are nonetheless a resounding success. There are many ways that business owners measure their success as opposed to the profit measure of corporate entities. One measure we can use is the amount a local population changes its lifestyle choices to support local arts, artisan products, or healthier consumption. Owners may see our business as having an educational role, or a social building role, that supersedes profit as a motivator. We may see our business as a contribution toward building a more livable city, or as an essential service that is not a big money maker, but is something we can do well -- a contribution.

Our decision to open a coffeehouse from the get-go was underlined by the understanding that we were not launching a profit powerhouse. At $2 per large coffee, it was going to take a lot of sales just to pay our rent. Community commitments such as sustainability (the recycled packaging that Tim Horton's does not use) and full service (dairy alternatives and natural sweeteners such as honey) immediately drove down any profits we might make. On top of that, we chose the coffeehouse concept over and above the cafe, bistro or coffee bar concept because we wanted to physically build community space into our premises. We built a little stage and invited community members to hold arts, social and political events -- for FREE.
Yes, we have never and will never charge to use our premises for public events. In the new EVC, we have expanded this concept by devoting even more space to our new stage and adding an in-house PA system. We exist to facilitate community development, not to fill our bank account. By the corporate measure of profits, we are an utter failure. By the community measure of local support and development, we ourselves are surprised at the success of the EVC.

Given our formative decisions, it was quite a blow to have to sue our past landlord in order to keep our doors open for our first five years. Our landlord, who owns S&M Restaurant Equipment next door to the old cafe, sent a bailiff in to seize our premises directly after we had completed the renovations to open. He claimed non-payment of rent even though he had the whole year's post-dated cheques in his possession. What ensued was over five years of legal battle, which he lost bitterly, but which cost us every cent of the little money we made plus more. The record of this battle is public and can be seen at the court house by searching East Village Coffeehouse vs. 1690416 Ontario Inc. There you can read what a number of Supreme Court judges thought of our landlord's time and money wasting tactics.
Even though we won, he has yet to honour his legal obligation to pay us and it will be a further fight, and further expense, to see a single cent of the money the court system has awarded us. We had the option of walking away from this fight, of letting the cafe close, of moving off the Dundas corridor and perhaps away from the EOA area. But if we capitulated to this bullying, what kind of message would we send to community members who were engaged in even bigger fights, for indigenous rights, transgender rights, workers rights, the fight for water sovereignty, food safety, environmental protections? A corporate entity would have seen profit loss and walked, as a local business our decision was to fight to both send out a message that small businesses would not just capitulate to this type of commercial landlord and to protect the community space where other groups could organize around even bigger challenges.

That brings us to the present day. Its a struggle to do things differently, to offer opportunities to folks who have little power or money, to step outside of dominant norms which serve that power and money. We've been closed for a year this week to renovate our new space which marks a year without income, but also a year filled with exciting plans on how to expand all that we had been doing at our old premises. There are patrons who have supported us all through this and to you we give our deepest thanks. In many ways, its not a business you have helped, but some other category of social justice entity that is otherwise self-supporting.
We don't have much leeway in our current system to redefine ourselves, especially economically. We are funneled by banks and other watchdog institutions into the same old formats which -- not surprisingly -- turn out more of the same. If we really want to make change, we need to be that change, break through the profit-driven corporate definitions that have killed the community soul of business, build new types of relationships between local business and the folks they serve and return to some ideas that have worked well in the past. Consider Ebenezer Scrooge when the spirit of Christmas past takes him back to the generosity of his first employer, Mr. Fezziwig. Perhaps Fezziwig should have run a fund raiser to keep his doors open, asked for help from the people he helped so he could grow into the new economy and keep giving. Its a community-focused redefinition of business, one that acknowledges that everyone wins when we help each other.

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