Culture

Marxist Vegan Bartertown Garden Cafe Closes After Bad Service Complaints

Yelp photo of the inside of Bartertown Diner/The Garden Diner and Cafe, which has a mural of Che Guevara and Mao Zedong.

In November, shortly after the passing of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, a Vegan restaurant in his image closed its doors. In fact, the restaurant even had a mural of Marxist leaders — Che Guevara and infamous mass murderer Mao Zedong — making and serving vegetarian food.

Bartertown Diner, which changed its name to the Garden Diner and Cafe in September, also followed Marxist ideas for its business model. Ryan Cappelletti, who opened the diner in 2011, described it as a worker-run “collective” that rejected the traditional restaurant model.

Cappelletti attacked the traditional model as contributing to the misery of workers. “Because of our economy, people are working 12- to 15-hour shifts, servers take home $200 to $300 a night in tips, the cooks are making $10 an hour and the owner takes whatever he takes,” Cappelletti told MLive in 2011. “We’re going to have equal pay and equal say across the board.” Oh, and mandatory union membership for all workers, in Industrial Workers of the World.

The mural of Guevara and Mao aimed to capture this “worker empowerment” theme (I’d love to hear how the mural depicting a human being roasting on a spit captured this “empowerment” theme), but the restaurant ultimately failed to achieve its employee business model.

“It had never been a worker-owned restaurant,” Thad Cummings, an original investor who took over in March of this year, told MLive. “That was a misnomer. We still bought locally and paid living wages.” The high-wage, no-tip model resulted in a cash-strapped restaurant, sustaining higher operations costs with a high level of sales.

Ultimately, the restaurant’s popularity among social justice warriors proved unable to sustain its rickety business model — but its 5-year run suggests the social power of virtue signaling can balance poor economic practices for at least a while.

Much of the more negative reactions to the restaurant came on Reddit.

“Good riddance,” wrote Reddit user Bikemarrow after news of the closing on November 30. “The concept was terrible. Hours lousy. Service unacceptable.”

“They were too concerned with the whole … ‘social justice’ angle, and seemed to not care if they had a viable product. You cant make payroll and your bills with Facebook and Tublr ‘likes,'” the Reddit user declared. “Now the staff is unemployed. That’s the real shame!”

Other users complained about a 40-minute wait for sandwiches and limited hours of operation (Yelp has them listed as 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.).

Next Page: Why Bartertown was able to stay open for 5 years, despite a horrible business model.

Most review sites ranked the restaurant highly. Despite a few complaints, it still has four out of five stars on Yelp, four and a half out of five stars on TripAdvisor, and 4.3 out of five stars on Google. Some said the food was good, and many appreciated the cultural aspects of the restaurant. Many praised the restaurant as the only vegan and raw food restaurant in the Grand Rapids area.

This popularity kept Bartertown the restaurant open for five years, but ultimately the goodwill of a vegan minority is not enough to overcome bad business practices. Forty-minute sandwich lines, like the infamous bread lines in the Soviet Union, are a defining feature of Communism — even on the restaurant level.

As the Reddit user said, Facebook “likes” can’t pay the bills, and communism in practice is a lot less popular than “worker empowerment” in theory. Just ask Mao Zedong (who had to kill millions of his own people just to force down the poison pill of Marxism), or Fidel Castro. Or rather, ask the millions of Cuban refugees in Miami who celebrated Castro’s death. Whoops!