Independent eateries give cities some identity
By Liz Worth
There’s a certain kind of feeling that goes along with being in a place that has been built by meticulous hands that are few but frenzied in their dedication and determination.
In these days of pre-fab everything, that sincerity is hard to come by, but in Fredericton, N.B., Underground Café and Alternative Books (UCAB) brims with the legitimacy of do-it-yourself ethics.
“Right from the beginning, those values were there,” says George Dalli, a founder of UCAB. “Right from the beginning we put this place together ourselves.”
Formed by eight people, UCAB is a collectively-run café founded around food politics, participatory economics, and the need for a meeting place for the activist and indie community.
Originally from Toronto, Dalli moved to Fredericton to attend a two-year college course. Near the end of his program he heard that the café was starting up and stuck around for the summer to help put the place together. It started with an unfinished basement and was built up out of scrap materials that were found at garage sales. As the drywall went up and coats of paint went on, the café began to take shape. Once the counters were built and tables were in place, Dalli had decided to stay.
As a teenager in Toronto, Dalli gravitated to Who’s Emma and the Anarchist Free Space, which were meeting places for punks, activists and artists. He says at the time he took it for granted that they even existed, though now admits he doesn’t know what he would have done without them.
Dalli says that Fredericton’s cultural climate is not conducive to much alternative activity. It’s hard to find vegetarian options, let alone vegetarian restaurants, and all-ages events are few and far between. Getting UCAB off the ground gave Dalli the opportunity to create the
kind of space that helped him figure out where he belonged in a city that so desperately needs a cultural identity.
UCAB offers up a completely vegan, fair trade menu, and keeps it organic as much as possible. The café’s members are all involved to one extent or another in anti-poverty, anti-war, environmental and feminist issues.
“The activist scene here is really small, but has grown tremendously since we opened and let groups use the space,” he says. “The night before a rally it isn’t unusual to have dozens of people here after hours, the floors covered with placards and people everywhere painting s
UCAB also strongly supports the arts community and typically hosts two shows a week. All money made at the door goes to the artists and if given enough notice, the café will also help with posters for out of town acts.
“The local arts scene has been really important to us as well, and again, it was something that the community here needed,” Dalli says. “We have artwork, crafts, books, music, etcetera, from local artists that would otherwise have no other way to get their stuff out to the public. [The café] has also served as a place for artists to collaborate on projects, and new musicians have emerged from here. There really isn’t any other place for these artists to play here right now.”
But for all of the successes UCAB is bringing to Fredericton’s underground community, Dalli says running it is a constant struggle. A few of the original founders have left over frustrations and conflicts regarding the direction of the café. Also, since the members range in age from about 17 to 30, a few have left to pursue academic careers in other parts of the country. And of course, money is always an issue.
“All the work we do is voluntary, as we don’t make enough to pay ourselves,” Dalli says. “With our books, food and other sales we break even on our bills and debt payments. It would be nice to someday be able to live off of our work at the cafe, but until then we are not discourage
d… I am happy with where we are headed now, with a focus on activism, D.I.Y. art, and making the café accessible to everyone regardless of their economic background.”
Money is a common thread for these types of cafés. Winnipeg’s Mondragon Bookstore and Coffeehouse has recently dragged itself out of rough times with some successful benefit shows. Its decade-long existence has earned Mondragon some very dedicated customers, both in the activist and arts communities as well as the city’s general population.
“We are functioning within the same system as other businesses, but it’s quite difficult,” says Morgan Paradis, a member of Mondragon’s collective. “We worry about keeping the money coming in just like any other business.”
The political bookstore and vegan restaurant is named after Mondragon, Spain, a town known for its strong, successful workers’ cooperatives. At Winnipeg’s Mondragon, there is no manager and everyone earns the same amount of money.
Despite the café’s financial hardships, however, Paradis cites high turnover due to burnout as the biggest challenge in running a collective.
“When it’s worker owned and operated people work really, really hard,” she says. “Everything is done by you. I’m not going to pay an accountant, I’m doing it myself in addition to working in the kitchen four days a week, or whatever. I would say burnout is a really big problem that I think probably most collectively run places share.”
Grant Horwood of Calgary’s Haymarket Café and Books agrees. He says the worker-owned cooperative is a high-energy commitment that’s like a second job. But like Dalli, he feels the satisfaction of watching it grow makes up for it.
“I can sit here in this café and look around and go oh my god, we built this from essentially nothing, and that’s a tremendously good feeling,” Horwood says.
Horwood, who helped found Haymarket, says that although the café is new, its history goes back to the G8 demonstrations in 2002. Before then, he perceived Calgary’s activist community as small and often lamented the fact that the city didn’t really have a culture that questioned the status quo. But when thousands of people showed up to protest the G8, he realized that he had felt isolated because there was no proper meeting place for like-minded people to gather.
“We can’t move toward making any sort of serious change until we start building some infrastructure so that we can actually get our act together,” Horwood says. “And it’s goin
g to sound crazy, but I think that the Internet has really damaged people’s understanding of the importance of infrastructure. There’s no substitute for face-to-face interaction and meeting with strangers. Calgary is a big, spread out city and people live in their neighbourhoods and go from their homes to their jobs and don’t really have any interaction with their community. There are all these people out there stranded in the suburbs and if they are starting to question the nature of how this society is put together, where is their point of contact? Where do they go and meet other people who think similarly to engage in debate or discussion?”
With only $216, Haymarket started by selling books at punk ro
ck shows and other events. Three years later, they had several thousand dollars saved up and in December 2005 opened a proper bookstore. In May of this year, they moved into an old café and kept building on their vision of giving Calgary’s alternative community a proper hangout.
Although Horwood says there was no shortage of setbacks in getting the place together, he never once waivers from his sense of optimism that Calgary’s headed in a new and exciting direction.
“Calgary’s got this reputation for being this really right-wing conservative place,” Horwood says. “From the outside we look like cowboys and to a certain degree there’s a strong element of that there, too, but it’s far from being a homogenous city and I’m constantly surprised by the support that’s out there. It almost seems like Calgary is going through a bit of a renaissance.”
It might not always seem obvious, but running a café can sometimes be equivalent to making a political statement. The virtues of the D.I.Y., arts and activist communities are common in other Canadian cafés, such as Kingston, ON’s Sleepless Goat Café, a cooperatively run eatery that strives to deliver a creative and diverse atmosphere, both for its employees and customers. A strong supporter of the local arts scene and committed to environmental awareness—which means a menu of organic, fair trade, local products—Sleepless Goat aims to make a difference through better business practices. Peterborough, ON’s Grassroots Café has hosted an extensive list of Canadian indie acts. By selling ethical products and providing a space for cultural happenings, the members of these cafés come closer to their goals.
In a land where Tim Hortons, Robin’s Donuts and Starbucks dominate with pastel hues and fauxhemian dreams, true Canadian culture is thriving in the places that have been built by hand and heart, not by demographics and dollars.