Cooperative enterprises gaining ground in Greece
By Ioanna Fotiadi
If you're in Ano Petralona and thirsting for a refreshing cup of iced cinnamon tea and a watermelon salad while quietly enjoying a book of poetry, 6 is the place for you, just one of the many cooperative cafes that have been cropping up all over Athens in the past few years.
Here, on a quiet corner in the off-center Athens neighborhood, a group of six residents – led by Iota, Clio and Maria – opened a cafe a year-and-a-half ago at 11 Trion Ierarchon Street with the intention of offering something different to the run-of-the-mill cafe fare. Today, this is where the neighborhood's student residents bring their laptops to study, loners read their books, singles have lunch and people who can't afford to pay for a drink get one for free, as 6 is one of the first businesses of its kind to cooperate with Schedia (Life Raft), a local street magazine sold by the homeless.
The enterprise has also offered a lifeline to its owners, who split all costs and revenues equally.
Iota is 40 and used to work as a seamstress, mainly hemming curtains.
“My business gradually declined because of the crisis and then stopped entirely,” she told Kathimerini while preparing sausage souvlaki for the evening menu. While looking for a new line of work in 2013, Iota discovered that the owners of cooperative businesses are exempt from paying social security contributions to the fund for freelancers and self-employed professionals, OAEE.
“We did some market research and rented an affordable space in Petralona, which is where most of us live,” Iota explained. “There is no point starting a business like this in a neighborhood you are not familiar with.”
She was also attracted to the idea by the fact that she has two children in their teens and does not want to work too far away from home.
Iota was one of the founders of 6 and has now taken over the kitchen as well as well as serving.
“Every morning I think about the menu of the day, two or three dishes, just as I would do for my family,” said the skilled cook, who hails from the island of Lesvos. “As far as products are concerned, I have set certain rules: We buy fruit and vegetables from our local grocers, beer from small Greek breweries, tsipouro from a producer in Domokos, raki from Crete, wine from Santorini, and so on.”
The six partners meet once a month to make joint decisions regarding the running of the cafe, while they have also hired three assistants. Each of the partners has had a hand in making 6 the success that it is.
“Putting together a small library was Clio's idea. We all brought some books from home and then some of our customers began adding to the collections,” said Iota, noting that poetry seems to be particularly popular among the patrons.
Another cooperative cafe doing brisk business is Beaver in the nearby district of Rouf (46 Megalou Vasileiou & Andronikou).
“We knew each other from older initiatives with collective feminist groups and collective kitchens,” explained Areti, one of Beaver's eight co-founders.
“Our aim on the one hand was to make a living and on the other to form a new space where people could come together,” she added.
The eight women, two of whom are architects, have created a space that is warm and welcoming, as well as wheelchair-friendly.
“A friend who is wheelchair-bound checked all of the constructions before we opened,” explained Areti. “However, it is still impossible to get here from the metro station at Kerameikos, so people in wheelchairs have to drive over or take the bus.”
The decor consists mainly of furniture that the eight women rescued from the trash and revamped. Beaver hosts film screenings, poetry nights and book presentations, while its menu mainly comprises products purchased from cooperative farmers and stores.
“They didn't know us in the neighborhood when we first started and the older residents were especially skeptical,” said Areti. “Now many of them spend their mornings here. People often come in alone and sit next to strangers. Soon they're chatting, joking around and making friends.”
The principles of fair trade, according to experts, not only benefit workers but can also work toward improving labor rules. With this in mind, a mechanical engineer, a chemical engineer, an art restorer and a telecoms engineer founded the Alternative Trade Network a year ago.
“In Greece, 94 percent of producers are small-scale and as such are at the mercy of the middlemen, while the consumer cannot check the product's source or the production process,” Lina Mourgi, one of the group, said.
The result is that no one is happy.
The aim of the network, she explained, is to create a local version of the international fair trade movement, which helps address the chaos between consumers and producers by introducing a new business and consumer culture. There are rules for businesses wanting to join the network: They must meet quality standards, there must be an equal partnership between employer and employees with the latter enjoying all privileges granted by labor rights, the production process must be transparent and promote environmental protection standards, and the business must contribute to the local community while also being viable.
Mourgi and her partner Elena Tzamouranou travel all over Greece to meet with producers and get acquainted with the way they do business.
“Ten small-scale producers have already joined the network. Just five of them are in the food production sector, while the others make toys, handbags and traditional costumes,” said Tzamouranou. The biggest challenge these producers face, she added, is that they lack the money, time and know-how. “You can't be in the office, in the store and in the field at the same time,” she said.
The network's members help the producers to deal with bureaucracy and product promotion while creating an online presence, and then buy and resell their products at trade fairs, festivals and cooperative events to help them increase their exposure.
The network's website, alternative-trade.com, is set to go online soon.