Nabalom Bakery Collective Struggles to Survive

Friday May 07, 2004

Nothing seems to represent the philosophy of Berkeley better than the combination of good pastries and a non-hierarchical work environment.  

You’ll find both at Nabalom Bakery off of College Avenue, which, since 1976, has been both baking up their famous cinnamon twists and doing it in an equitable way. Over the years, the practice has helped Nabalom become one of Berkeley’s more well-known institutions. 

But not necessarily an institution on the soundest financial foundation. 

In an oftentimes cruel world, even an attempt to do things the right way doesn’t ensure smooth sailing. Mired in a financial slump recently, Nabalom has been slowly trying to pull themselves back into solvency.  

Toward that end, the bakery holds a benefit today, Friday, at the Transparent Theater in South Berkeley with entertainment, live music, Nabalom treats and a silent auction.  

Throughout the hard times, Nabalom stuck to its original philosophy. Originally started by a group of local neighbors, the bakery has been owned by the employees since the start. At that time, there wasn’t even a business classification for a worker-owned “collective.” This focus on workers’ rights and control allowed Nabalom to attract workers who both love baking and have a commitment to reform and improve the world. 

“My sense is that people at the bakery are committed to creating a more egalitarian society,” said Jim Burr, one of the collective members. “A lot of people have ingrained skepticism of the U.S. government. [There is] a certain militant pacifist streak to some of us.”  

As a collective, Burr said they’ve tried to turn their political and social philosophies into reality, creating a social niche where many of the rules of the outside world don’t apply. 

Crow Bolt, another collective member, said he’s at Nabalom because he does “work that is good, with people that I care for in an environment of mutual respect. [But] first and foremost we are a bakery. We have some really qualified people with several years of baking experience.” 

Lately, the collective has been trying to come up with healthier baked goods, a move that combines their baking and their politics. One of their newer collective bakers is an Italian pastry maker who specializes in vegan and macrobiotic products. 

Over the years, Nabalom has also established a firm clientele. While employees can’t name all of the regulars, they know who they are and exactly what they want. 

Moira Roth, an art history professor at Mills College who lives nearby, said Nabalom has been her “regular morning haunt” for years. Every morning she comes to order something tasty, read the New York Times, write, and relax. 

“The staff (always a magnificent group of highly interesting and passionate folk), the coffee and baked goods (the best in the world—and I travel a lot!), the general ambiance (changing art on the wall, the piano, the scatterings of tables and chairs…) and the regular customers (a marvelously mixed group) are very central to my sense of well being and community,” wrote Roth in a statement she prepared for Nabalom’s upcoming oral history project. 

“There is not a baked good you can go wrong with,” said Mark Nielsen, a regular who comes from North Berkeley to get his treats. Like Roth, he said he likes the ambiance, especially the swinging screen doors that lead into the bakery. He said they remind him of the corner shop in the small town he grew up in Iowa. 

Unfortunately, along with the benefits of a collective come the problems. The responsibility of running a business sits squarely on everyone’s shoulders. That means that if everyone doesn’t do their part, things quickly fall apart.  

Burr said problems are usually caused when someone doesn’t carry their load. Because the person is a friend, people often wait to confront them about the problem until it’s too late, when their slacking off has hurt the business. At that point the only way to solve things is often to let the person go. 

Burr said he once had to fire one of his best friends. The whole process was full of long, awkward silences and when the former employee walked out, Burr said he burst into tears and had to hide in the bathroom. Burr and the former employee are still friends, but he confessed that for a while it was not pleasant. 

Nonetheless, the problems with a collective are not outweighed by the perks, according to the employees.  

“I have a lot of love for collectives,” said Bolt, covered in flour, but smiling as he rolled out the dough for croissants and pizza Wednesday morning. Bolt said he is part of several other collective including a housing collective and the food program, Food Not Bombs. 

Burr said even though it’s a struggle, baking and being able to run a business he feels good about, where he can enjoy just smiling at customers, is worth it. He says the best way to describe it is with a paraphrased quote from Moby Dick: “Despite all the chaos and murderous insanity, while constellations of woe revolve around us, deep within lies an isle of silent joy.”   

The Nabalom Bakery Collective Benefit starts at 7 p.m. at the Transparent/Ashby Theater, across from the Ashby BART. $20. For more information call 845-BAKE.