Nature’s Bakery in downtown Madison, WI, makes bread, granola, trail mix, pita, veggie burgers, calzones, and something more. They make an example of what a cooperative business that enriches its surrounding community can look like. They make eight good jobs for their worker-owners. They make an opportunity for people to participate in a local food system, right in their own neighborhood.
I spoke with Nate Olson, one of eight worker-owners at Nature’s Bakery. In a worker cooperative like Nature’s Bakery, the business is entirely owned by its employees, who each own an equal share. Potential new members apprentice for six months before being voted in by the existing members. Nature’s Bakery has been around for 44 years and all the original founders have moved on. The most senior worker-owner has been there for 20 years. Nate joined four years ago. The co-op operates on consensus decision-making. Each worker-owner knows how to do everything from deliveries to making each product to packaging. There’s some division of labor — Nate is the Marketing Coordinator — but in general, the worker-owners help each other out and can cover for each other if needed.
While many businesses feel a need to grow and expand and find new markets, Nature’s Bakery resists what Nate characterized as the capitalist view that you have to expand all the time to survive. By remaining local and keeping appropriate and reasonable goals, Nature’s has sustained over decades as an example of a worker-empowered business. The co-op has had around eight or nine members since its founding. Nate said that with more people, it becomes harder to maintain a democratic, community-oriented, accountable workplace. That workplace is very important to the people who own and work in it. Nate said, “My own life is very full of purpose. I feel happy about who I am and where I am. It’s not based in material possessions or some idea of climbing a ladder. I’m content. I think a huge part is because I work here. We’ve built in that we have time to pursue our own interests. If one of us wants to take a vacation for three weeks, we pick up the slack and support each other. There’s a bond and understanding among the workers that we all want to be living happy healthy lifestyles.”
Nature’s Bakery is also an active participant in its local food system. The co-op strives to buy local whenever possible. Nate explained that, if you’re willing to take the time to deal directly with local producers, you can often get a higher quality product at a lower price than if you go through a big distributor. He gave the example of the maple syrup Nature’s Bakery uses to sweeten its breads and granolas. They buy from Kickapoo Gold, which is a certified organic vendor at the Madison Farmers Market. Worker-owners from Nature’s Bakery can walk down the street on Saturdays to pick up a five gallon jug of syrup for the week. They get a great deal and all the money goes straight to the producer.
Nature’s Bakery buys their organic tofu for their tofu walnut burgers from Simple Soyman, a local business out of Milwaukee, and gets their barley malt syrup from Briess Malt and Ingredients Co. Just as they encourage their customers to vote with their dollars by choosing Nature’s Bakery, Nature’s Bakery votes with its dollars by choosing local and small producers.
Buying local benefits customers too. Instead of buying bread from across the country that had to be frozen, shipped, and stored at the grocery co-op, customers can choose something that was baked close by, has a smaller footprint, and quite possibly costs less. That’s setting aside the benefits in taste and freshness that come with buying local.
Nature’s Bakery products are labeled P6 at Viroqua Food Co-op, Eastside Food Co-op, and Seward Community Co-op. Their storefront, which is open six days a week, is at 1019 Williamson St in Madison. They welcome people to come shop at their storefront, meet the bakers, and see the bakery. You can buy granola and trail mix on their website.