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Business: East End Food Co-Op cafe downplays vegan menu 

 

The café at the East End Food Co-op is getting a makeover, in the hopes it can become a profitable part of the store, instead of a financial drain. But the change, along with a shift in management philosophy, is leaving a sour taste in some people's mouths.

"We are trying to reduce the amount of vegan options," says Rob Baran, the co-op general manager. The salad bar, hot bar and smoothie spot will be moving away from their emphasis on vegan fare -- meatless food that doesn't include any animal products like eggs or dairy.

While "vegans have supported our café as [well] as they can," Baran says, "there aren't that many vegans -- it's probably not 10 percent of shoppers. ... By being predominately vegan, we aren't serving a large number of people that shop here." For the time being, the café will expand its menu only to include more eggs and dairy, but meat dishes may be added to the menu next year.

The menu will also be getting more expensive. Currently, patrons can purchase food from a buffet table at $5.99 a pound; the comparable options at Whole Foods are $7.99 a pound. "Our café has been a loser for us over the last few decades," says Baran. "It's obvious we're not charging enough. We've lost so much in the café. We're trying to improve the quality, service and profitability."

Twice-weekly co-op shopper Marie Jensen, putting together a green salad from a selection that included kale, tempeh and spicy rice, said she's a fan of the café as it is. "I'm not a hardcore vegan, but I like the bar. I hope they don't stray too far from their roots. I hope they don't eliminate stuff."

Co-op board president Mike "Q" Roth, himself a vegan, says that the café will still provide ample vegan options. "Vegans [and] people with wheat allergies or other special dietary needs are a major reason why the co-op exists. It's not like veganism at the co-op is in danger of being wiped out," he says. "But some people obviously like cheese."

Still, Roth says he has received some complaints about the change -- and Baran admits the staff, which includes many vegans, isn't happy either.

The menu changes aren't the only source of discontent. Initially, when Baran introduced the changes, he did so in a letter headlined "Café Transition Vision." The letter spoke of a need to make a "cultural change [that is] dramatic and fast," and suggested that a more top-down management model was on the way. "In time, there will be plenty of room to make suggestions and participate in decision-making," the letter continued. "[B]ut initially, we need all of you to ... do what you are asked and directed to do." The letter ended with a "Café Transition Personal Promise" employees were expected to sign, or be "laid off at the time that best suits the business interests of the co-op."

One staffer characterized the "promise" as a "loyalty oath," and seven staffers signed a letter to Baran refusing to sign it. "We have been instructed to sign a document outlining ... our willingness to cooperate with a 'new vision' for the café, and drastic 'cultural changes' ... which are insufficiently clear," the letter reads in part.

"I got a lot of complaints about that document and I withdrew it," Baran says. "It wasn't really meant to be an ultimatum, it was meant to give people an option to be able to get laid off and get unemployment. The only reason we did it was to give people an option, because it is a big change."

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