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Former Darwin’s Workers to Launch Co-op Coffee Shop

A group of former employees of Darwin's Ltd., which closed its four storefronts last year, launched a GoFundMe to fundraise for a new worker-owned cafe at the former Cambridge St. location.
A group of former employees of Darwin's Ltd., which closed its four storefronts last year, launched a GoFundMe to fundraise for a new worker-owned cafe at the former Cambridge St. location. By Truong L. Nguyen
By Caroline K. Hsu, Crimson Staff Writer

Following the closure of all four locations of Darwin’s Ltd. late last year, a small group of former employees has announced plans to open a worker-owned cafe at the former Darwin’s location on Cambridge St.

The proposal for Circus Co-op was conceived in November, when it was announced that Darwin’s would be closing its first location. Since then, the group of ex-Darwin’s employees has focused on fundraising and learning more about a possible future location on Cambridge St.

Kvêten A. Nerudova, a former Darwin’s employee and member of Circus Co-op, said the name of their group “honors what we saw Darwin’s as.”

“Darwin’s is sort of like a circus,” they said. “People come in from all different backgrounds. People come in because they’ve got to work.”

“It was always busy. It was always fun. It was always bustling,” they added.

Nerudova said the cooperative will seek to advance many of the same goals as Darwin’s United — the former employee union for Darwin’s Ltd. — which was founded on the principle of giving employees a “greater say in the way our workplace is run,” Nerudova said.

“We’re trying to take a look at what the union was aiming for,” Nerudova said, though they added that “the union is definitely in the past.”

Caleb S. Zedek, a member of Circus Co-op, said though a full menu has not been built, the new cafe would likely serve breakfast sandwiches and coffee.

The Circus Co-op also has “aspirational” plans for the cafe to become a “community space,” Zedek said, mentioning the possibility of poetry nights and study sessions.

Currently, there are four people who are involved in the “heavier work” of the cooperative, Nerudova said, adding that the cafe would need 12 to 15 workers to be fully staffed.

Zedek said the Co-op’s organizers expect more employees will join the cooperative as business operations pick up.

“Members of the cooperative have sort of been just in a transitional period,” Nerudova said. “It’s a month out from a job that many of us saw as being something we could hold for a lot longer.”

As part of their fundraising efforts, the Circus Co-op launched a GoFundMe campaign on Dec. 16, which had raised more than $10,000 from supporters as of Sunday night.

The cooperative’s organizers will match up to $10,000 in donations, according to the GoFundMe — money which would come out of members’ savings, Zedek said.

Ahead of its launch, the Circus Co-op is undergoing the loan application processes for two organizations that help finance worker-owned businesses — the Cooperative Fund of the Northeast and the Fund for Jobs Worth Owning. The organizers have also talked to nearby cooperatives, including Providence-based White Electric Coffee.

“Worker-owned co-ops can vary based on their size and structure, but at the foundation there should be democracy and transparency,” Chloe Chassaing, a worker-owner at White Electric, wrote in an emailed statement.

“Worker-owned cooperatives have a potential to be an alternative business model toward a more sustainable economy,” Chassaing added.

While steps remain toward incorporating and financing the new cafe, Zedek said, he is confident Circus Co-op will be able to attract many former Darwin’s customers.

“I imagine that many of the folks who were excited to see us at the register making our sandwiches are still the folks who would be excited to see us come back into the same space,” he said.

—Staff writers Sally E. Edwards and Madeleine A. Hung contributed reporting.

—Staff writer Caroline K. Hsu can be reached at caroline.hsu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @CarolineHsu_.

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