Redlands’ Slow Bloom Coffee rises organically from fired Augie’s staff – San Bernardino Sun

At one point late Wednesday morning, nearly 30 customers are at Slow Bloom Coffee, lining up to order, awaiting their drink or sitting inside or on the patio. Five crew members pitch in to handle the surge until, like a cresting wave, it gently subsides.

It looks like a triumph, one nearly two years in the making.

Slow Bloom arose from the ashes — or is that coffee grounds? — of Augie’s Coffee, the Redlands-based chain that fired its entire staff as they sought to unionize, and later closed for good after the National Labor Relations Board sided with the workers.

Fifteen baristas formed Slow Bloom, a worker-owned cooperative. Now they have their own shop, at 420 W. Colton Ave. in Redlands.

Its grand opening is Saturday, with food vendors and a vintage clothes retailer in the parking lot, a latte art competition among local baristas and a disc jockey.

As employee Jina Edwards fills me in at a table in the bustling shop, I ask her, a la Bob Dylan: How does it feel?

“It feels surreal and epic and gigantically amazing!” Edwards exclaims, throwing her hands in the air.

I can believe it.

I’d been following the Augie’s/Slow Bloom saga vicariously since news of the mass layoff broke in July 2020, a few weeks into the pandemic. It was a story I wanted to tell at whatever point it made sense to do so. And this is it.

First calling themselves Augie’s Union, employees roasted coffee at a like-minded shop in Burbank, Reverse Orangutan, and sold bags of beans at events by The Artlands, a Redlands art hub on whose board Edwards sits.

Those sales raised cash for former Augie’s staffers who weren’t yet getting unemployment and provided seed money for the future shop. A Kickstarter campaign raised $36,000. That and a loan allowed them to lease a building — a former glass shop with a Midcentury Modern look — and buy equipment.

The workers hired a contractor but did some of the labor themselves to cut costs, including demolishing the interior and putting up drywall after watching YouTube tutorials.

In a coffee-deprived neighborhood on Redlands’ sleepy north side, the shop opened late last year for weekend pop-ups but formally opened March 7 with regular hours: 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week.

Things have gone great — mostly. Before the first week was out, someone heaved a rock through the front window and stole the cash register.

“We just opened and already had a break-in,” Edwards laments. Customers, chagrined, gave the staff lemons and oranges as moral support. The boarded-up window was replaced four days later and everything continued as before.

“We have the rock. We saved it,” Edwards says, smiling. “We named it Dwayne. Like Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.”

How does Slow Bloom operate as a collective? The 15 workers who stuck with it are automatically members; any expansion of the staff will require a buy-in. The 15 hold regular meetings and make decisions as a group. If push comes to shove, a three-member board — Kelley Bader, Evan Costello and Edwards — will have final say.

Everyone makes $15 an hour and all tips are pooled and shared. That eliminates the competition for busier shifts.

“We want everything to feel even,” Edwards explains. At last, the workers’ paradise is here, and it’s in Redlands.

Slow Bloom has been an inspiration to baristas and food service staffs across the country. The New York Times featured them, and the staff has done podcast interviews, spoken at union conferences and fielded questions on Instagram.

Will this work permanently? Food service is known for high turnover. United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers Local 1011 helped the staff unionize and provided crucial support in creating a model for a co-op indie coffeehouse, but it’s unproven territory.

Regardless, few things are permanent in life. Case in point: Augie’s, which seemed solid with six locations by its 2019 10th anniversary, and then collapsed. C’est le bean.

Edwards, at 42 the oldest crew member, is thrilled to be serving customers again and having a say.

“Just walking into a space knowing that you’re valued,” Edwards says. “You can talk about what’s going on and know you’re being heard rather than thinking someone’s waiting for you to make a wrong move.”

The collective wants the shop to feel welcoming. Vegetarian and vegan items are served. There’s no surcharge for alternative milks that at many shops are $1 extra. A regular drip coffee is $2, priced for the working-class neighborhood.

Customer Karem Pedersen was an Augie’s regular and is now a Slow Bloom regular too, sensing a continuity because of all the familiar faces.

“They’re working hard,” the 43-year-old graphic designer says while sipping a green tea. “This was not handed to them.”

Costello, a board member who is behind the coffee bar Wednesday, doubles as Slow Bloom’s accountant.

“I had a degree in mathematics from Cal State San Bernardino,” Costello, 26, tells me. He’s quick to say that a CPA is doing their taxes, but he’s learning about procurement and the price of goods and making sure there’s a profit — and there is.

“We all have our special talents to contribute. We’re the hands and feet of this place,” Costello says. “To be able to create a business with people I care about, that was what I wanted to do.”

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