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New coop in Spokane aims to strengthen existing small businesses

Jason Gerstner.Tim Stoltz.Golden Handle Brewing
Doug Nadvornick/Spokane Public Radio
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Jason Gerstner and Tim Stoltz sold their Golden Handle Brewing to the employee-owner coop. Now they're playing different roles at the company.

The Spokane Workers Coop says it's using a new model to help local companies and workers.

One of Spokane’s most well-known bakeries, the Great Harvest Bread Company, recently changed hands. The new owner is a firm called the Spokane Workers Co-op, co-founded by Luke Baumgarten and Joel Williamson. It recently announced it had also bought four other Spokane businesses.

Now, Baumgarten says, all five firms have a stake in the co-op and, if they choose, in any of the other companies.

“The hope is can we do this for a lot of businesses over time and get a lot more people in Spokane in the employee-ownership class, giving them access to the profits and the workplace autonomy and democracy that’s usually reserved for owners," he said.

In the case of Great Harvest, Baumgarten says the owner was ready to retire and the co-op saw an opportunity to preserve a well-liked local business, inject some life into it and give it support that it might have lacked.

“We’re trying to implement a relatively progressive management structure called holacracy that seeks to take the decision making at any individual organization and put it as close to the problem and as close to the people who are actually dealing with those problems as possible, rather than having a top-down hierarchy. That’s very, very different from most businesses," he said.

One of the co-op’s other purchases is the Golden Handle Brewing Company. It was founded in 2019 by Tim Stoltz and Jason Gerstner. Stoltz manages Tin Roof Furniture. Gerstner is a researcher in the WSU College of Medicine. They released their first beer shortly before the pandemic hit. They navigated the societal ups and downs and managed to keep the company afloat for two years. And then someone told them about the co-op.

“We had always wanted to have an employee-owned brewery anyway. And so we approached Joel with the notion of ‘Hey, what would you think if we became a part of this cooperative?” Gerstner said.

“Our outside jobs, full-time jobs, got much more intense and so we were much more busy and so we didn’t have the time to put into it as we wanted to. When we started talking with Joel, we just started realizing was the opportunity, it was awesome," Stoltz said.

Now Golden Handle has a new taproom with a kitchen, a new brewer, a new logo, new partners and new roles for themselves.

“We want to focus on a lot of the outreach. I want to work on doing some collaborations with my friends from Portland. I think Jason wants to focus on trying to find some more fun events to bring in there and just kind of make it more where we can do the things that we feel we’re the best at and have time to do and put energy into that, rather than the day-to-day operations," Stoltz said.

The co-op’s other three businesses are media and marketing companies. One created the new logo for Golden Handle.

Baumgarten says the co-op will continue to seek out other entities that might be a good fit. Williamson hopes business owners consider it as an option as they develop their succession plans.

“There’s a lot of business owners looking to retire now, a lot of baby boomer-age folks that own small businesses," Williamson said. "If they’re looking to retire and want to sell their business and they know nothing about cooperatives, then let’s just create an organization that buys the business from them so they can exit, they can move on. And in doing so, when they join the Spokane Workers Coop, then they become a worker-owned cooperative and then we have all of the support and the training and other systems in place to make that successful.”

“Really what we think we’re creating here is a community good, really benefit people in the co-op, but then also just be a place where these really tangible community assets are really preserved, maybe forever," Baumgarten said.

Those assets now include Great Harvest Bread, a 40-year-old company with a new life in an employee-owned cooperative.