Michigan’s Garden Diner and Café (formerly known as the Bartertown Diner) closed its doors for good on November 30, 2016. The 30-seat restaurant in Grand Rapids was opened in 2013 by vegan chef Ryan Cappelletti and baker Roxanne Aguilar and was renowned for its unconventional menu of veggie, vegan, and raw dishes. The menu and quick popularity even landed the eatery a spot in VegNews’ “10 Hot New Vegan Restaurants” list in its first year in business.
Even more distinctive, however, was the diner’s business model. Described as “communistic” by a post on its Facebook page, the business was run as a collective, which according to Cappelletti meant it was worker-owned, therefore having no bosses. Bemoaning the inequality in pay between employees in different areas of most restaurants, he stated of the diner: “We’re going to have equal pay and equal say across the board. Everyone working together.”
Cappelletti, who described himself as a high school dropout who “worked in a lot of kitchens” before “getting into vegetarian food and then vegan food,” would run his business on this model of everyone being paid equally in the restaurant as a part of his effort to “reinvent the restaurant world.” One of his complaints of the American restaurant industry was the belief that the customer is always right—something he refuted by saying: “If you walk into an art museum and ask to rearrange the background on a particular painting, they won’t accommodate you. Why should chefs?”
Though the restaurant traded hands in March of 2016 and the new owners—Thad Cummings and Crystal Lecoy, the latter of whom left after two months—attempted to distance themselves from the views and the model of Cappelletti. They did, however, maintain the same living-wage, tip-free model. This high-cost model turned out to be difficult to sustain as a business model. Interestingly, efforts by Cummings to create a community model—specifically their sending free meals to the Grand Rapids Police Department—drew anger from their customer base who accused the diner of moving from its “proletariat” roots.
The business, as well as a pizza shop next door which was also owned by Cappelletti, now stands for sale at $60,000.