Looking Back on 5 Years: A Conversation with Two of the Co-op's Founding Workers

Few workers at Black Star Co-op have dedicated themselves so completely to the Co-op as Dana Curtis and Johnny Livesay, the Business and Kitchen Team Leaders respectively. Both as founding workers and former directors, the past five years at Black Star Co-op is as much their story as it is the Co-op’s. So we asked Dana and Johnny to share a few of their thoughts on the past, present, and future of Black Star Co-op. 

First off, can you tell me how you first got involved with the Co-op? 

Johnny: Back in January of 2006, I was working as a Floor Manager at Wheatsville. That’s where I saw the crudely made flier for the inaugural meeting of Austin’s first co-operative pub, in our staff bathroom—The Black Star Pub.

The flier promised free fine craft beer and discussion about what Austinites really wanted in a beer bar. The meeting wasn’t largely attended, about fourteen of us in a field. I met Steven, the man with the vision for a co-op beer bar, Jeff, the home brewer transplant from Alabama, Jon Airheart, the now brewer for Rogness Brewing, Jason Lively, Millie, and some other beer nerds. There was a kegerator painted with orange and red flames dispensing goodies. We took an iconic photo. 

I was serving my second term on the Wheatsville board, and was pretty into co-ops at the time. We talked about serving temperatures and proper glassware. Jeff said we should be a brewpub, and I brought up the recently adopted co-op statute of the Texas Business Code. 

After that meeting we started a listserv, and the arguments, compromise, progress, and innovation began. 

Dana: My friend, Don Jackson, was a board member and invited me to the location unveiling party. I had been working as a union organizer, so I wasn’t used to attending an event without bugging people to join. So I grabbed a clipboard and signed a bunch of people up for the Co-op! I met Steven Yarak and he asked me to move to Austin and work with him, Jeff, and Karinne to get this place open. 

Black Star Co-op is frequently sought out for advice from fledgeling co-ops on how to start a successful business. Reducing a very broad question into something more specific, what sage advice would you like to offer young co-op businesses?  

D: Well, I think we’re still a pretty young co-op ourselves. But some advice for co-ops just getting started is to make sure you have a good group of committed, caring individuals. When you don’t have much financial capital, all you have is people capital. It’s a lot of work for a small group of folks, but with a good group of people working together, you can make it work!

J: Remember that things take time (TTT!). Getting people behind your vision will take time. Raising capital will take time. Finding your space will take time. Figuring out what the hell you’re doing will take time. Don’t get discouraged, squad up, and kick ass. Surround the baby co-op with the village that will raise it. Be true to your vision, but be flexible, and adaptive; expect bad things to happen and good things to come from them. 

Which of the Co-op’s accomplishment’s do you feel the most proud?

D: There are so many! But I’m really proud of the national recognition we get for our Ends policies. We’re a LEED Gold certified brewpub with zero waste. We’ve been recognized by the White House for our training for frontline workers. We’ve been recognized for our commitment to paying a living wage and not accepting tips. We’ve won two GABF metals! 

JThere have been so many things to be proud of. I guess if I had to say one thing, it would be providing good, living wage paying jobs in a democratic workplace with solid benefits for a couple dozen people in Austin. That, and making great food and beer. 

How do you feel your personal successes are reflected in the Co-op? 

J: I have personal successes? I guess I consider some of our early compromises on structure and vision in the primary architecture of the Co-op stand out as true personal successes. As time has moved on and the days of working boards, and beer socials have turned into burgers and gold medals at GABF, some of those things are lost to the history of the project, and don’t (other than fundamental structure) get recognized on the daily, I wonder if they are as important as having a great team of people that stay inspired and dedicated to serve our members? These are the days of the humble brag. Is it right to say that I feel successful because we are often on lists that recognize positive aspects of what we are doing, whether it be food or drink or wages? Started from the bottom, now we here. 

D: This is tough. I was hired to raise the money to get Black Star open, and I did it along with help from other workers, Board members, and committed member-owners. I didn’t do it alone, but I get the credit. What I like most about the co-op structure is that it’s really difficult to look back and identify personal successes. We really work together. I might come up with an idea, but other people have valuable additions and changes that make the original idea that much stronger. That’s what the cooperative is all about–people working together to accomplish a shared goal. 

What are you excited to see Black Star Co-op accomplish in the future? 

D: I would love to see us open a second location, which would mean more quality jobs in our community, more locally sourced products, and more examples of how a business can support the planet and people.

J: I think our story is far from finished. I think we have a lot of potential to make it easier to get our beer in peoples’ lives. I’m excited to expand at some point, and to keep making beers that win awards and get recognition for how great they are. I’m excited to keep getting better at running our business, and show others that even though you have to make your hard decisions as a group, that a democratic workplace is a viable option as an alternative business model. To cultivate a new generation of Black Star Co-op leadership that will take us there. 

Would you describe your most cherished Black Star Co-op memory?

J: Ten years are filled with a lot of memories, and a lot of lost memories. So many good times, the Beer Socials, liberating our beer cellar from storage, the fig leaf and keg after the first ever Members’ Assembly Meeting, Steven and I driving cross country in 2007 to be young co-op rock stars drinking beer across the Midwest. I don’t know. If I had to pin it down to just one memory, it might have to be the Halloween 2007 Beer Social at the Compound where I dressed like a young Jerry Garcia. We had too much fun that night. Matt Herpin and Chris Apperson showed up in kid’s Ninja Turtle costumes. I’m pretty sure I had a blast that night, no one threw beer at me, and we drank all the Double Dee. 

D: I’ve been working here since January of 2010, so I have a few. I should probably say hiring 16 people and opening the doors for business, but if you’ve ever started a business, you know opening is crazy. Experience is a powerful teacher and I feel like we’ve just really figured out this whole self-managed business thing. 

All my memories here are cherished! It’s like asking me to pick a favorite child. (To be fair, I also don’t have a favorite color, book, food, movie, or band.) I love my job, my co-op, my co-workers, and all the amazing people I’ve met through Black Star and the larger cooperative community. I’m so glad to call Black Star home.