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What if Balti King became the Balti Co-op?

With Broomhill's Balti King and Crookes's Casanova up for sale, we ask whether turning them into co-operatives could protect workers, communities and businesses. 

Balti King, Broomhill, Sheffield
Google Street View

The last month has seen both Casanova in Crookes, and Broomhill’s Balti King — both well-loved, local businesses — be put up for sale because their owners are seeking to retire.

The news has been followed almost instinctually by the question, “who will they be sold to?”.

Speaking to The Star, Salvatore Illardi of Casanova said that it ‘would be lovely if someone locally who is involved in catering could keep it in the community as a restaurant… [but] once you sell, you don’t know for certain.’ The Star’s reporting on Balti King has been even more direct, advertising the space available within to potential buyers and directing to a link to purchase the store.

Despite having served diners in Crookes and Broomhill for decades — Casanova for 25 years and Balti King for 32 — it seems that the only thing certain about either business's future is that they will be sold. The presumption that both businesses’ futures are uncertain due to their owners’ retirement speaks to an insecurity hardwired into all small businesses: that even for long-established, successful restaurants, once an owner or founder looks to step away, the whole project might go with them.

Broomhill shops
Rachel Rae Photography

Safety in numbers?

If the future of businesses is made more precarious because they rely on a one or just a few individuals to keep going, maybe it’s worth considering whether there is safety in numbers and, ultimately, more security to be found through collective ownership.

Running businesses collectively is hardly a new idea: the first UK consumer co-operative was formed back in 1769. The Co-operative Party, which I represent in Sheffield, was founded in 1917 and research published in 2012 found that, globally, around one billion people are members of at least one co-op. And yet still, within Sheffield and the UK, co-operatives are too often regarded as a fringe idea, separate from the mainstay of our economy.

Why a co-op?

Co-operative ownership would mean that any worker retiring wouldn’t automatically lead to a question mark being placed over the future of a business. Workers owning the business in common would mean that any worker retiring gets to be just that, a worker retiring. The employee wouldn’t feel like they have to work for years longer than they might ordinarily want to ensure their project has a viable future, and the local community would be provided a better guarantee that that business is there to stay.

In a time of perpetual economic crisis it’s also important to say that co-operatives are generally more resilient than conventional businesses and they are better at coping with market fluctuation. 76% of new co-ops survive their first five years, compared to only 42% of new companies, because risk is shared collectively rather than held by one or two owners.

And co-operatives also unlock wider benefits for their communities. Not being restricted to one or two generations of owners before being sold off means that co-operatives are more firmly rooted within their communities, which means more local spending, and often more interest taken to the future of their area. In a co-op, profits are not taken by owners or absentee shareholders, but are under the control of all their members to decide democratically how they think they should be used. Many co-ops therefore use their profits to benefit their own communities; the Co-op Foundation is the most famous example of this, which is how Co-op Food stores redirect millions to build fairer communities.

What would it mean for workers?

Co-operatives tend to have much higher levels of staff retention and a lower turnover of workers than conventional businesses do, which makes sense: working in a worker co-op means you are an owner with a stake in the business’s future, which is incredibly motivating. This is why co-operatives are also more productive. Because they are democratic and have lower pay inequality, they have lower absenteeism rates.

Having a worker-owned balti house would mean a more even distribution of the work process that recognised that all tasks — whether cooking, cleaning, waiting on customers, administration, accounts, and so on — are equally essential to a well-functioning restaurant, and should be rewarded accordingly.

Every worker having an equal say in the future of the business also means internal decisions will be made more fairly and can’t be imposed top-down.

Building a co-operative local economy

Sheffield City Council is now developing its Economic Strategy for the next ten years. And with the climate crisis, and the need (environmental, political, moral) to decarbonise our economy by 2030, the direction of our economy over the next ten years is critical. Recent Council decisions — committing the city to building a wellbeing economy, and pursuing a community wealth building approach to economic development — help set the course for the direction we should follow: toward a democratic and just local economy.

Co-operatives are democracy in practice, acting as “both journey and destination in this quest” to a different kind of economy. If we are to build an economy that is fit for the 21st century, that’s sustainable, resilient, democratic, and fair, then we will need to rapidly increase the number of co-operatives locally and nationally.

In the future, it would be great to see the Council and South Yorkshire Ownership Hub scale-up the support they provide to nascent co-operatives, including taking a leaf out of Belfast Council’s Go Social fund to grow new co-ops!

Maybe one day the Balti King’s abdication could instead be followed by establishing a Balti Co-op.

Learn more

If you’re interested in setting up a new co-operative, or converting an existing business to a co-op, the Sheffield Co-operative Development Group offers advice and support to guide people through this process.

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