What’s in a name? At Philadelphia’s W/N W/N Coffee Bar, that name contains worlds. While also serving as an acronym for Ben Franklin’s classic maxim “Waste Not, Want Not,” W/N W/N also wants its name to conceptually set the standard for how they approach business as a whole—everybody wins here.
“We’ve all got different backgrounds in the service industry,” says one of W/N W/N’s eight co-founders, Mike Dunican, as he pours up a Kalita Wave of beans roasted from nearby Elixr. “So we know what it’s like to not have a say.” Coming from different shops and restaurants in Philadelphia has given the team of co-founders a unique perspective on the business.
Or maybe it’s more of a master class in un-business. “There’s no stacks of cash, there’s no hidden investors—what you see is what you get,” said Will Darwall, another of the co-founders. When I visited the shop to talk to Dunican and Darwall, the chalkboard read simply, “#postcapitalism.” (Darwall clarified that this is, of course, a joke. Nobody has a business degree, and there seems to be little in the way of a plan.)
But a chalkboard sign doesn’t simply mean we’ve toppled systemic roots of economic injustice. “Everyone makes the same hourly here,” says Dunican. “Kitchen guys and bar-backs and baristas and co-founders all alike.” When they start getting in the black, the shop’s system of profit-sharing will kick in. Based on hours worked, employee-owners will be compensated equally, in line with just how well the shop is doing in a given period.
After only six months of business, they’re not there just yet. But Darwall is hopeful. “It feels right,” he says. “Better than anything I’ve done before in my life.” The trajectory is on the right path, and busy lunch hours and weekend evenings are promising signs as W/N W/N still begins to make its presence known, both in the Philly scene and its neighborhood, Callowhill.
Additionally, the shop emphasizes collective decision-making and a decentralized power structure—allowing employees to win in a way that the industry doesn’t usually allot for. It’s an organic team. In order to be more efficient, the whole team is organized into subgroups that focus on decision making in different areas of the shop, like kitchen, coffee service, bar, event programming, and overall upkeep of the space.
But it doesn’t end with collective decision making, and the power sharing certainly isn’t a closed loop. “Everyone who works here is either a worker-owner or on the way to being one, pretty much,” says Darwall. There’s no secret handshake or cloak-and-dagger initiations. Nobody is on the outside looking in, rather everyone is on the inside, looking up.
Darwall’s initial concept didn’t even exist in Philadelphia—Detroit could have played host to the co-op, instead. “Land was so cheap there you could do pretty much anything, three or four years ago. But I guess everyone there had the same idea, and sometimes dreams just stay dreams.” Letting it lie for another couple years, Darwall continued his life in Philadelphia, slinging at Elixr and mulling the idea further.
A year and a half ago, things came to a head. Darwall put out the call for a veritable Avengers-assemblage of the Philadelphia service industry, and together they knuckled down to concept and execute W/N W/N as we have it now. Whether it’s business-y folk like Tony Montagnairo (whose resume includes the quirky Philly icon Pizza Brain) or more nightlife-oriented members like Dunican, the well-rounded team came together, and agreed to agree.
Alongside coffee, the shop serves a lush, rotating menu of lite fare that capitalizes on fresh ingredients from farms in and around Philadelphia, like an herb-crusted tofu po'boy with pickle pesto. Each weekend brings a new and exciting spread of slightly off-the-wall brunch options, usually accompanied by live music or other entertainment. They also play host and partner to a monthly series of Philadelphia farm-to-table dinners, taking a more basic and holistic approach to an ever-bourgeoning trend.
In January 2015, the shop officially opened its doors to the public. It got there by running a unique crowd-sourcing campaign, where the public could buy “stakes” in the project with a designated monetary value, say $25. When visiting the bar, they could redeem 25% of their purchase using money from their share as a discount, or return on investment, until the share is spent up.
And now, here we are. Six months out from launch, everything seems to be going about as smoothly as possible, all things considered. The worker-owners are pleased with the way things are headed—events are packed out, guests like the coffee and vibe of the shop. You could even say that it’s truly a W/N W/N situation.
Jeremy Zimmerman is a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist. Read more Jeremy Zimmerman on Sprudge.