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Alt Economy offers mutually aided instruction for hospitality workers

Taylor Hanna taught herself to cook on the job. “I don’t have formal training,” says the 17-year veteran of nine restaurant kitchen lines, and one half of the pickling power duo Vargo Brother Ferments. “Chefs would give me tasks to do and I wouldn’t know what they were talking about. I’d go into the walk-in and google on my phone, ‘What is soubise?’ And you’d just have to be quick on the fly with it. It’s a luxury if your chefs and managers are willing to teach you. Oftentimes, there’s no time in the shift to go, ‘Hey, can you spend 15 minutes with me to teach me how to sharpen my knife?’”

Jennifer Kim learned the fundamentals in culinary school, and sharpened them in kitchens such as Blackbird and Avec, but when it came time to open her first solo brick-and-mortar Passerotto, she was flying blind with respect to financial operations. (She sought help from industry friends.)

During the pandemic both Hanna and Kim emerged as ardent participants and organizers in the semiunderground microbusiness economy that flourished in its first 18 months. They didn’t just rely on skills learned on the fly to further their own ends, but shared them with the loose collaborative community that grew up within this alternative economy. Through pop-ups, workshops, and a barnstorming cross-country tour in the summer of ’21, Alt Economy—the open-source mutual aid platform Kim started—provided hospitality workers with educational resources to survive and thrive outside the established restaurant industry.

“You could kind of fly under the radar with certain things,” says Kim. “We were working at homes, working without licensing. There was flexibility with creativity on how you got to operate your microbusiness.”

But ask any number of cooks, bartenders, and servers who supported themselves within this decentralized labor movement how it’s going now, and the thrilling autonomy that came along with it has lost some of its shine. The reopening of brick-and-mortars drained blood from the microbusiness model, while a shift in algorithms withered the robust Instagram engagement many of these businesses depended on to get their food in front of eyeballs. Burnout and/or the need to make rent sent many workers back to brick-and-mortars—or out of the industry altogether.

“The pop-up scene was on fire,” says Hanna. “It was very trendy and cool. But you can’t rely on something to be cool to sustain you. It has to be deeper than that.”

“A lot of people are trying to figure out, ‘How do I keep this a viable business?’” says Kim, who’s currently teaching a fine dining course at her alma mater, Kendall College. “’How do I work within these rigid systems again? How do you compete with these giant businesses?’”

That’s why the pair, building from an informal fish butchery class Kim led in her home last winter, are launching a series of free industry worker skill-share classes, entirely funded by the community. “It was just, ‘Bring over some fish, and we’ll learn how to break it down from whole into filets,’” says Kim. “Participants felt empowered to continue building butchering skills. A few felt more confident to order whole fish versus filets, which has a financial impact on their food cost.”

Kim also posted a series of free financial worksheets that give “workers and biz owners a road map on how costs, cash flow, and profits work within whatever ecosystem they are currently participating.” In the meantime, she and Hanna began imagining how to go bigger: “Is there something that we can build out that people can come and share information, share skills, share resources in an environment that’s driven by the community and taught by the community?”

Earlier this month they put out a call for resources to support a series of three classes, the first beginning December 12 and featuring hands-on sessions on pickling, canning, curing, and fermentation (taught by Hanna and partner Sebastian Vargo); knife sharpening (Kevin Silverman of Northside Cutlery); whole fish butchery (Hatchery instructor Matt Miller); and fish curing and fermentation (Kim). They’re working on adding a pastry class. This first set of classes will be held at Impact Kitchen at the Hatchery, a space they’re renting out through donations. Others have offered drinks, snacks, or their own bar and kitchen spaces for future classes, but Kim and Hanna haven’t yet hit their goals to finance the next two sessions yet.

They’re still looking for support for December’s microbusiness courses on financial acumen and cash flow; business plan development, graphics, and design; and food photography. In early 2023 the plan is a series of introductory courses for BIPOC and undocumented workers interested in food photography and styling; bartending; coffee and barista work; and wine 101.

“We heard a lot from industry workers who are interested in entering the specific positions within hospitality that are typically gatekept from BIPOC or undocumented workers,” says Kim. “A lot of those positions, you need prior experience. We can at least jump-start the process of, ‘Here are the basics of behind the bar; all the tools that you’ll see; the language that they use.’”

Networking is a natural outgrowth of these classes, both for potential job leads and brainstorming on larger systemic issues within the industry. “It gives us a chance to almost have a town hall,” says Hanna. “We’re all gathered. Let’s start talking about the realities of what’s happening. For people who do want to keep doing this, what are the changes that we need to make? It’s a part of a conversation that needs to be had collectively.”

Donations of money, food, time, space, or equipment to support future classes can be made via Venmo @itsforpickles or Zelle at vargobrotherferments@gmail.com. Kim and Hanna pledge to publish transparent financials on how all dollars are allocated.

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