When Pagoda Café reopened last week, Brandon Duncan got his old job back and also a chance to become a restaurant owner.
Duncan is one of 10 employees there who are now in the process of turning Pagoda Café into a worker-owned cooperative.
If successful, they will collectively take over ownership from founder Shana Mae Sassoon and operate the small Seventh Ward cafe together, sharing management responsibilities and whatever profits it generates.
Duncan said he’s excited for the future prospects of Pagoda Café.
“It’s coming from the trust that the team here has for each other, the loyalty,” Duncan said. “That’s a really good feeling to know people are on your side.”
The move comes at a time when many in the hospitality field are assessing different business models after the pandemic so quickly and drastically impacted the industry.
“I think this is the time to try new things,” said Sassoon. “So many people love this industry, but burnout is real and it’s partially because of wages. If you have more investment in it, maybe some of the skills stay in the kitchen, on the line, in the restaurant.”
Pagoda Café is a small operation holding down a verdant corner of Bayou Road, housed in a former laundry with a pagoda-style tile roof. It has always been an outdoor restaurant, with just a kitchen and service counter inside and all seating on various patios outside. It’s known for its breakfast tacos, pastries and coffee drinks.
Back in March, it was among the first businesses to close down as the coronavirus crisis arrived in New Orleans, with Sassoon citing concern over community spread. The day after her decision, the state issued its order temporarily limiting all restaurants to takeout only.
As she contemplated how to reopen, Sassoon concluded that business as usual had not been working before the crisis.
She started talking with Pagoda Café staff about different models. They agreed on a worker-owned cooperative as a way to build sustainability for the business and equity for the staff and, as Sassoon put it, to recognize that the staff were “co-creators” of the cafe.
“The experience of living in New Orleans has shown me that we need more mutual aid and support to get through the tough times we face here,” she said.
“When I realized this was something we could do, it was a tremendous sense of relief. When a restaurant is owned by one person, you think about how a change in that person’s life could mean losing everything that’s been built up in the restaurant.”
They are now working with Cooperation New Orleans, a group that supports and promotes worker-owned cooperatives.
Tamah Yisrael, a project officer for Cooperation New Orleans, said Pagoda Café is the first restaurant in the New Orleans area she’s seen pursuing worker-owed cooperative status, and she believes it’s well suited for the task.
“They’ve laid the groundwork by building a lively community of people who are supportive of them,” she said. “Those types of values and the dedication and commitment of the staff are key.”
Their plan is currently in the development phase. The staff are learning about the process and also about the business. They’re holding weekly video conference meetings with Cooperation New Orleans as they work through issues like legal structure, an operating agreement, establishing roles in the cooperative and financing, which Yisreal said may come through organizations that support worker-owned cooperatives.
At the end of the path, the goal is to form a limited liability corporation that would buy Pagoda Café from Sassoon.
The model that Pagoda Café is pursuing as a worker-owned cooperative differs from some of the well-known cooperatives around town, like the New Orleans Food Co-Op grocery store, which is membership based and owned by its customers. The Neutral Ground Coffee House (previously called the Penny Post) was for many years a member-owned cooperative as well.
Still, Sassoon said the model feels intuitive in some ways.
“I think we have a leg up here because we have this tradition of krewes and social aid and pleasure clubs that work cooperatively,” she said. “It’s not an entirely foreign idea.”
Duncan, 30, is a New Orleans native who has worked at Pagoda Café for five years, and has been a supervisor for the past three. He’s a graduate of Liberty’s Kitchen, a nonprofit youth leadership program based around hospitality. He’s worked at fast food restaurants, and he’s cooked for school lunch programs before joining the staff at Pagoda Cafe.
Duncan, who is Black, said he’s excited to take an ownership stake here and join the Bayou Road business community, which is lined with Black-owned businesses. He’s also hopeful about continuing what he loves to do.
“I just love the work,” he said. “I love cooking. If it’s good food, it makes people happy. That’s satisfying.”
Pagoda Café reopened for takeout only and with a smaller menu focused on a handful of its signatures (including the breakfast tacos, of course). A custom-designed, walk-up takeout window minimizes contact.
1430 N. Dorgenois St., (504) 644-4178
8 a.m. to 2 p.m., Tuesday to Sunday
Takeout only, call for preorders or order in person