The Rapidian

Bartertown builds success on vegan offerings, local food, cooperative management

Bartertown Diner's collective management style and advocacy of vegan and vegetarian cuisine provides an interesting look at the restaurant business.
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Since Bartertown Diner opened in July 2011, the restaurant has become a widely appreciated staple for much of Grand Rapids’ vegan and vegetarian community. Though Grand Rapids has slowly been gaining more and more restaurants that provide vegan and veggie options, Bartertown is only the second [after Gaia] that specifically makes a point to serve only meatless options.

“The decision to serve vegan/vegetarian food wasn’t to tap into some money-making niche,” says Matt Russell, who had joined Bartertown as a kitchen consultant and marketing specialist and is now an internet/marketing officer, bakery officer and server for the restaurant.

Frustrated by their lack of culinary options in the city, roughly five of the current employees set out in an attempt to “fill the void in Grand Rapids that was creative and substantial vegan offerings.” The staff shares a joint belief in the sustainability of vegan and vegetarian diets, which has also leant itself to the structure of the restaurant.

“We all feel that this sort of diet is the most sustainable, both economically and nutritionally, for the earth and humankind,” says Russell. “There are a few members of the collective who hold animal rights and abolitionist values dear, and the restaurant falls in line with ideas in those camps too.”

Bartertown’s commitment to sustainability is also played out through their choice to use local ingredients whenever possible.

“We live in a state with countless fruits, vegetables, grains and beans being grown year round,” Russell continues. “Bartertown tries to make the most of that in every menu.”

The collective members like to keep the larger picture in mind when it comes to what makes it onto a customer’s plate.

“We think it’s important to emphasize how necessary [farmers] are to us, and how lucky we are to live in an environment where nearly 90 percent of our menu can come from less than 30 miles away,” Russell says. A wall at the back of the restaurant showcases these local distributors for each day’s ingredients.

Perhaps the most unique thing about Bartertown is its cooperative management structure. Run by its employees as a collective, Bartertown’s origins are very much grounded in a cooperative style of management.

“The diner has always been operated through democratically-run meetings,” says Russell. “Collective members meet each week and discuss the restaurant’s issues. It can be tough with the many personality types all trying to work together, but it really makes for a cohesive staff and helps enforce the idea that we work on an equal plane without a hierarchical management structure.”

Today Bartertown runs smoothly, but according to Russell this has not always been the case.

“Getting the business off the ground took a few months,” says Russell. “It was a lot of hard work trying different investor options, buying the equipment we could afford and sometimes only paying the bills we could afford for over half a year. It wasn’t always heartening, but we are in a spot now where the diner is debt-free and looking at a few expansions.”

Co-founder Ryan Cappelletti will be leaving Bartertown to start his own venture, Cvlt Pizza, which will be run by some of Bartertown’s collective members. And Russell is launching Bread Square Bakery, which will act as Bartertown’s bakery. Although Bread Square will be directly affiliated with Barterown, both Bread Square and Cvlt Pizza will be run separately from the diner.

The collective is also meant to be used as a means to show customers that Bartertown can successfully adhere to their values through their business practices. Self sufficiency is important to the members of the collective as is empowering the community through the food they eat.

“We try to be transparent and offer educational opportunities as often as we can,” says Russell. “A few of our staff members lead cooking and nutritional classes in town, and there are cookbooks and other classes planned for the future.”

Among these classes is one Bartertown cook, Matt Wrobleski, holds at Tree Huggers on Sundays at 6 p.m. called “Cooking with a Bartertown Chef.”

Plans for Bartertown’s future revolve largely around continuing to hone the values and ideas they’ve been cultivating from the start.

“It’s our policy to raise sales and turn heads through our honest work and creative offerings,” Russell says. “So it’s a good feeling when we feel worn out after a crowded dining room every day.”

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