The Moosewood Collective

The Moosewood Collective is a crew of fourteen women and five men. Some of us moonlight from Moosewood, and among us we have a broad range of interests and avocations. Our group comprises musicians, singers, dancers, actors, performers, mediators, meditators, activists, teachers, trainers, consultants, writers, gardeners, editors, poets, artists, quilters, calligraphers, martial arts instructors and enthusiasts, health advocates, parents, grandparents, good cooks, and really good eaters.

Working Collectively – flat, fluid & functional

The Moosewood Collective is a group of nineteen people who own and operate Moosewood Restaurant and write cookbooks. “Collective” is our group’s philosophical identity, not a legal term. Most of us have worked together for more than twenty years and some of us have worked together since Moosewood opened in 1973. Our membership has changed over the years, but basically we are a stable group. When all is said and done, Moosewood is a hard place to leave.

We’ve tried not only to feed people well, but also to treat people well. Over the last thirty years our company has come to represent something bigger than we ever anticipated, and something better than the usual business. We struggle to hold on to the best of what we’ve been, and to mature into what we can become, periodically checking in with each other. We fret and sometimes doubt ourselves, hoping always to find safe harbor. We’ve tried to live up to the expectations people have invested in our image. Sometimes we fall short and sometimes we resist being the least bit famous. Most of us experience the Collective as a kind of second family. We’ve shared a significant portion of our lives with one another and find Moosewood a loving and supportive place that can drive us crazy too. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard.having so much good food around sure doesn’t hurt.

The corporate world is just now being transformed by the realization that cross-training and shared responsibility produce better results. Working collectively at Moosewood has meant a flat, fluid, functional way of sharing work. The experience is like having no boss, or like having nineteen bosses, depending on how you choose to look at it. Both the restaurant and the cookbooks are primarily collective endeavors.

Much of the romance about groups that resist a hierarchical structure rests on the mythology that a group without a boss is a group without leaders. The “leaderless group” is a popular notion, especially among academics exploring ways to organize committees and teams. We can testify that leadership has little to do with title or chain of command. It is a quality that exists within every successful group. Several leaders among us with courage, creativity, self-discipline, principles, and willingness to learn, teach, support and share, have kept us going. Leadership emerges in the unplanned heroism and grace under fire that every one of us has shown at times. Leadership is irrepressible. It gets passed around depending on the task. Collective work doesn’t automatically generate equal voices. When some of our voices dominate, it’s important that others speak up to add balance. The accommodating ones among us have to resist always going with the flow because it’s easier. Sometimes we need to be active and raise conflict. We’ve had to work at developing diplomatic ways to express ourselves so that interpersonal disagreements don’t turn into a test of skill and endurance.

Our meetings, and we do have quite a few, have gotten a lot better over the years. We delegate more responsibility to our boards, teams, and committees. But we still rely on the whole collective to reach major decisions and support big changes. Our tradition has been to strive for consensus. Simple majority is fast and useful, but it’s only reliable for less significant issues. Going for high majority or for consensus keeps us together.

Consensus is a widely misunderstood process, and we’re still learning how to best use it. It’s not just another word for unanimity. The discussions that happen on the way to consensus raise lots of alternatives and disagreement. People have to keep paying attention. Someone has to summarize once in a while to keep ideas alive and available. When someone objects to a proposal, it’s not always easy or popular to say so or explain why. We’re constantly learning the importance of dissent, listening to each other, and being patient. When we reach agreement, we may not have found the ideal solution, but we believe it’s the best we can do for the time being. And when the decision doesn’t reflect our personal opinion, the hard part is having the self-discipline to support the group decision and to consciously avoid undermining it. This is a more challenging lesson.

We recognize that we’re not all equally good at everything, nor do we have to be. We find ways to accommodate our differences and play to our individual strengths, while keeping opportunities open and accessible. Since the climb up our corporate career ladder isn’t very steep, we find ways to stretch out and around. The shy and cautious push through being uncomfortable. The control freaks work at being patient, accepting the influence of others. The self-directed independents strive to be open to shared responsibility. It’s been quite a dance.

We think a lot about how to support personal development without sacrificing quality. Exchanging roles and functions was easier years ago when the only choice was between working as a busser, “waitron,” cook, or “omni” (someone willing to prepare the fish). Anyone might competently play all of those roles in one week. Writing books, editing, managing, consulting, developing products, doing publicity tours, starting new ventures-these roles are a different story. The nice part is that we can learn from each other. We’re a real do-it-yourself kind of group. We’ve had to learn to establish standards and then hold ourselves accountable to them. We’ve had to pioneer in brand-new jobs without the benefit of support or supervision. We’ve learned that when someone turns out to be good at something, it makes sense to let them keep at it. Or, when they’re ready to move on, that we learn from them first. We are individually neither interchangeable nor dispensable. And as we diversify our business, we wrestle with how to value all of the different kinds of work we do.

There are many benefits of working collectively. There’s the broad base of support-getting over a hump because people put wind under your wings by pitching in and lifting. We have steady people who come in early, or stay late. Some are calm and level-headed in a storm. Others help us remember our values. There are sensitive ones who speak up for people who aren’t present. Those who remember to appreciate and acknowledge others. The explorers, who take risks and step out in front. Those who take on the unpopular and difficult jobs. We feel tremendous gratitude for our collective perseverance and staying power, the incredible commitment to just keep contributing.

Reprinted from Moosewood Restaurant New Classics © 2001, Moosewood, Inc., Clarkson Potter/Publishers, New York, NY.