64 Wellinton Street, Stratford | 519-722-7296 | redrabbitresto.com
Passion to Share: A worker-owned restaurant with a unique financial model
“Embarrassment of riches” sums up the Stratford food scene, with over a dozen entrepreneurial, chef-driven restaurants within two blocks of City Hall, plus culinary events and organizations reaching out into Perth County’s prodigious farming community. One of the most recent, and most anticipated, additions was last summer’s opening of Red Rabbit.
Although co-founder Jessie Votary and 20 full and part time staff eschew formal titles, she is the driving force behind the business and front of house, while head chef Sean Collins leads five other chefs exercising creative license. “Sean describes his food as what he wants to cook and eat,” says Jessie. “It’s familiar comfort food with a twist and punchy flavours.” That would include duck poutine, Colonel Collins’ fried chicken (in a paper bucket for takeout), sous vide short rib burger, and deconstructed carrot cake.
A native of Brunner, Jessie started work at The Church Restaurant as a 16-year old busboy, then Kitchener’s Charcoal Group where her anti-establishmentarian view of employee relations was forged. “The corporate model did not sit well with me,” she says. “Restaurant work is not easy work, and I wanted a better deal for these people who work so hard.”
In early 2015, that conviction drove a handful of local talent to band together and re-engineer restaurant ownership with a different culture and financial model. “We had no name, no concept, no premises, no contractor, no rich uncle, just talented people with a passion to share food experiences in a way that is genuine, and then share whatever success we could achieve.”
There are high-profile worker-owned eateries in San Francisco, New York and Vancouver, but Jessie and the team saw an opportunity to create something unique. “We are not a co-op, and we are incorporated, but we’ve kept our lawyer very busy devising our corporate structure and regulations,” she laughs.
To raise capital, the team created a hundred $1,000-shares, most of which were purchased by the staff and a few local supporters. “We started with 10 shareholders with holdings range from 1% to 51% – profits are split 50:50 between the workers and shareholders, and employees can buy in anytime. This way, we have shared responsibility, shared motivation, shared attention to detail, greatly reduced waste, and employee theft is nil … they own the place, so why would they sneak out a bottle of wine?”
It was a novel and successful approach, but they needed cash to open with inventory, starting wages, and such. “We were pointed to Perth Community Futures and we immediately saw a non-traditional lender would be a good fit for us.”
Armed with a track record, a 20-page business plan and credible financial projections, the team found the process with PCFDC “painless and quick” and opened July 14th. “We were late to the tourist season for 2015, but our local clientele supported us and we saw tourism kick in around September. We’re looking for a big lift this season,” says Jessie. “And already our numbers are shocking – we’re already exceeding our third-year monthly targets by 40 and 60%.”
And that’s worth sharing.