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By John W. Lawrence and Ken Estey

After 34 years in the Theatre District of New York City, Rene´ Pujol, of the highly lauded Rene´ Pujol Restaurant ( decided to retire and began looking for outside buyers. Vincent Purdy, executive chef of the venerable French restaurant, and his colleagues mobilized quickly. The 22 employees of were determined to continue the restaurant and its reputation for classic French cuisine and exemplary service as it had always been more than a business but a venue for their culinary art. Many were long-time employees. Vincent has been at the restaurant for ten years and worked his way up the line. Connoisseur, Michel Poiter, has been at Rene' Pujol for two decades in an environment that he describes as both professional and familial.

A plan to capitalize the new venture and retain the primary asset of Rene´ Pujol -- its staff -- needed immediate attention. After much research and consultation, Vincent came to the conclusion that the most venturous business plan was also the most feasible - convert the restaurant into a democratic worker cooperative. This solution spread the cost among worker-owners. Each employee needs to contribute $5,000 to gain one share and one vote and thus become a full member. The hope is that since everyone has a stake in the business, the staff retention issue can be minimized. Still, most of the staff was unfamiliar with the concept of a worker cooperative and it took numerous meetings to plan the conversion. Essential to the success of the start-up cooperative was the support of the former owner in the sale.

The fledgling cooperative has faced numerous internal and external challenges. Internally, Rene´ Pujol had to create a new governance structure and train themselves in their new roles as worker-owners. To assist them in the conversion, they retained the services of Christine Hatcher, an intern from the North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO; Christine worked at the restaurant for six weeks. She helped them set up the governance structure and trained the staff in the nuts and bolts of creating a democratic work culture such as the skills necessary to run a meeting. The employees created a five person Board of Directors. A new election for a new board will be held in January 2006. Rene´ Pujol uses a committee structure to accomplish the day-to-day tasks of running the restaurant. The Membership Committee oversees hiring, firing, induction of new members, and insurance/healthcare matters. The Finance and Development committee handles marketing and budgeting. The Human Resources Committee covers personnel issues. The Food and Beverage Committee develops menu innovations and maintains the high food standards. The central challenge, according to Vincent, is the balancing act for the worker-owners between the day-to-day jobs of running a restaurant and the performance of committee responsibilities in a time effective manner. "Doing things by consensus is downright painful." Sous chef, Andrew Christianson, stated this challenge succinctly, "The best thing about being a worker cooperative is not having a boss. And the worst thing about being a worker cooperative is not having a boss."

Rene´ Pujol's restaurant conversion initiative is a pioneering effort in New York City and there are few protocols for interaction between city agencies and worker co-ops. The state returned their application for a business license as a worker cooperative three times because it was unaccustomed to dealing with a worker cooperative. Prior to the conversion the workers of Rene´ Pujol belonged to a union that had no experience in dealing with a worker owned restaurant. Thus, the cooperative and the union need to figure out their roles in their new partnership. Moreover, there are no support institutions based in New York City to help capitalize or train new worker cooperatives. Through extensive internet research and contacts made at the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy, Rene' Pujol has developed its own support network. The ICA Group (, a community economic development group based in Brookline, MA. which specializes in employee-owned businesses, has helped to finance the worker owner purchase of the shares to the business.

The New York restaurant market is one of the most competitive markets in the world and this market poses the biggest challenge to the Rene' Pujol worker cooperative. A successful restaurant operates with, at least, a 10% profit margin. There is little room for error. Business in the theater district is seasonal with the most of the revenue generated between November and January. The restaurant industry is subject to the whims of fashions -- culinary and political! -- and a number of the most famous French restaurants in New York City have closed in recent years.

The new Rene´ Pujol is poised to succeed as they are expanding their tradition of culinary excellence. We had the pleasure of dining there and the entire experience was exquisite. The ambiance is elegant but warm, inviting, and spacious by Manhattan standards. The main dining room is centered by a large brick fireplace which is lit during the winter. The staff is professional and friendly. The food, you ask? -- delicious French cuisine at its best. One does well to avoid the theatre seating hour to enjoy in a leisurely way the delightful journey from the freshly baked rolls to the chocolate blueberry cheesecake or apricot tart at dessert. In between, the chilled cucumber and dill soup was silky smooth and a perfect respite from the hot summer day. Courses from the chef's tasting menu ranged from the pan seared skate fish in a butter caper sauce, to a dry aged beef, to the potato pancake and spinach topped with bearnaise sauce, followed by the quail and risotto. Our taste buds were rewarded with the subtle flavors that each course provided. Dinner prices are moderate by Manhattan standards and the prix fixe lunches and dinners provide a way to savor regularly the joys of Rene' Pujol.

While it continues to serve great food and develop a firm footing as a worker cooperative, Rene' Pujol is considering other future business innovations. It has a tradition of accepting culinary school interns and they are contemplating starting a "culinary boot camp" for those considering a career in the culinary arts. (Potential interns are encouraged to contact the restaurant.) With a little luck and their extraordinary hard work, the worker cooperative pioneers at Rene' Pujol will succeed and maybe, other Gotham restaurants will follow their recipe.

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