Alchemy Collective empowers its baristas with ownership, quality coffee

BERKELEYSIDE — Alchemy Collective Cafe and Roaster opened eight years ago with the goal of serving a delicious product and empowering its worker-owners through a cooperative business model. In that time, its team has begun to redefine what it means to hold down a job, and made it possible for young creatives and service industry professionals to own a business crafted on their own terms.

The sunny little shop is majority run by leaders who identify as queer or people of color and operates out of South Berkeley’s Lorin District on Alcatraz Avenue, tucked in between a sparkling array of neighbors who deal in vintage goods, records, hair care, tattoos, and eateries. Alchemy began as a coffee cart at local markets, got its first storefront down the block on Alcatraz and moved into its current address about six years ago. Miel Amial-Dominguez, Charles Glover, Jasmine Reynolds, Shante Robinson, and Chris Taruc-Myers are its full members, with two more in the process of joining the group. The minimum requirement for member-owners is one coffee bar shift a week, but nearly all work full-time or more on their own accord.

A customer orders from Charles Glover during a busy day at the Alchemy café. Photo: Pete Rosos

“It’s so different from coming in, clocking in, and hanging up a part of yourself so that you can go listen to someone else, make your money and leave,” Amial-Dominguez said, describing a traditional, hierarchical workplace. “At Alchemy, you really have to rely on new ways of working with people, ways that you may not realize are so ingrained in us from the get-go in the U.S.”

The baristas at Alchemy know each other, their capabilities and limitations. They can call in sick or arrive a little behind schedule without being worried about sanctions or punishment because their ownership in the business drives both understanding and personal responsibility. Amial-Dominguez explained, “Especially working in the service industry, that’s not something you’re gonna find a lot, and even if you do, it’ll be under the guise of ‘Oh, at least my manager is cool,” but never ‘this is all of ours, and these are all of our responsibilities.’”

It takes a lot of work to create this environment — evidenced by a shared Google Drive filled with dozens of conflict resolution documents — but the team prioritizes interpersonal and emotional dynamics, by necessity, to create a thriving business.

“Not to sound corny, but it has to feel like a family here and it totally does,” Robinson said. “I spend 80% of my time with the people I work with here, and I’m not upset about that.

“It sounds really foreign to anyone who works in a traditional business, but it is a relationship. Like any relationship, it takes some work, but also is organic. You find people that you can build a relationship with,” Taruc-Myers added.

Alchemy tends to attract workaholics, but experience in coffee isn’t a prerequisite for membership. Reynolds came into Alchemy from a desk job four years ago, but fell in love with espresso and became the lead roaster.  She now attends conferences and conventions to grow her knowledge of various coffees, which Alchemy sources from farms or distributors in Brazil, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Chiapas, Uganda, among others.

Jasmine Reynolds (left) and Shante Robinson (right) discuss the details of a roast. Photo: Pete Rosos

Craft and small-batch coffee has come to be recognized as a specialty in the last several years, fueling a boom in the industry, and the group behind Alchemy believes everyone should have access to a little bit of luxury. They try to keep their prices low but ethical, considering the extensive and labor-intensive process involved in coffee, and utilize a “pay-it-forward” box that fills up throughout the week with donations from customers who can afford to chip in a bit more. On a recent week, for example, the member-owners applied some of the pay-it-forward funds to provide coffee to an unhoused man. Many customers even choose to pay it forward instead of tipping, which the staff appreciates, but the group said tipping is an unfortunate, and helpful, necessity for a business that’s trying to support its employees and maintain accessible prices. In a thriving industry, the members acknowledged that someone with expertise in coffee, like Reynolds, could get paid much more at a large corporation, but said it doesn’t feel like exploitation because of their equal pay, mutual love and respect.

This respect extends to their customers, several of whom are regulars. One of their original customers even offered the loan for Alchemy to move into the bigger space, and the group said it feels loved and supported in the Lorin District, describing it as a strong cultural and commerce center for Berkeley. In fact, Alchemy’s values align well with those of the district, which recently unveiled a new mural on Alcatraz Avenue and Adeline Street designed by a local artist, R. Black, that display’s the Lorin’s heritage, diversity and businesses, paid for by the City of Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development.

In a further effort to enable daily clientele and community members to participate in its future and invest locally, Alchemy will be seeking small investments (of up to $1,000) from non-members at their 10-year anniversary and investor party this Thursday, Feb. 27. Community investors won’t have control over Alchemy’s day-to-day operations, but will own a part of the cafe that contributes to their neighborhood’s vibrancy and join a growing movement of at least a dozen employee-owned businesses in Berkeley.

Shante Robinson reloads the roaster at Bay Area CoRoasters while Jasmine Reynolds takes a sip of coffee. Photo: Pete Rosos

The cooperative brims with pride in its product, which is roasted along with 20 or so others at Bay Area CoRoasters. Filled with DJs, podcasters, musicians, and artists, the group envisions the future Alchemy as a cultural hub, a gallery for local artists, a venue for local fundraisers, and a business that has the flexibility for members to take breaks to focus on creative pursuits.

Alchemy Collective members (left to right) Maya Simone, Shante Robinson, Mariela Lua,, Miel Amial-Dominguez, Jaime Olivia, Chris Tarus-Myers, Jasmine Reynolds, and Charles Glover. Photo: Pete Rosos

In general, members’ personal goals have as much influence on the trajectory of the company as their professional ventures. “If Alchemy is going to branch out, [we’re focused on] really letting the eclectic collection of people we have in here shine in their own way, and using Alchemy as a way to augment what everyone brings to the table, beyond coffee and service,” Amial-Dominguez said. “Everyone here has that, and if it’s with Alchemy, they don’t have to divorce themself from that completely just because they’re at their job. You can be all of who you are.”

This story was paid for by the City of Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development which helps new and established Berkeley businesses build strong connections to the community, navigate local policies, find affordable financing and real estate, and become more sustainable. OED staff help entrepreneurs, artists and community organizations feel welcome in Berkeley. 

What Next

Visit Discovered in Berkeley to find more stories about innovative local businesses.

Visit the Lorin District, or join the group if you are a business along Adeline Street from Ashby Avenue to the Oakland border.

Learn about the ways OED supports worker-owner cooperatives through its Revolving Loan Fund, or its partnership with Project Equity to help businesses evaluate the feasibility for co-op conversion.