More than just vegan cheesecake

For eight years, the Sleepless Goat workers’ co-operative has offered Kingston a unique eating experience

The Sleepless Goat, located on the corner of Princess and Wellington streets, offers fair trade coffee, vegetarian and vegan food and a welcoming atmosphere to a diverse range of customers.
The Sleepless Goat, located on the corner of Princess and Wellington streets, offers fair trade coffee, vegetarian and vegan food and a welcoming atmosphere to a diverse range of customers.

On the corner of Princess and Wellington streets you can find a workers’ co-operative, eclectic customers, local artwork and vegan dessert all packed into one place called the Sleepless Goat.

It’s hard to sum up the Goat in a few words. Time spent there can lead to experiences including, but certainly not limited to: a heated game of Scattergories, a proxy education on proper counting terms for animals (eg. “a gaggle of geese”), having breakfast while Sarah Harmer is sitting at the next table drinking her coffee. And those are just my experiences alone.

So what makes the Goat such a happening spot?

For Anne Nester, a visiting PhD candidate from Cornell University at the philosophy department, it’s a combination of the food and the atmosphere.

“It’s easygoing, there’s enough space to do work in for a long time. And there’s good food, especially good vegetarian food,” Nester said. “[It’s] great people-watching—best in town.” Because of the co-op’s fair trade coffee and environmentally friendly cups and take-away containers—as well as the “free soup program,” which provides free soup and bread to those who request it—the Goat has a special place in Nester’s heart for ethical and political reasons, too.

The Goat provides a welcoming and thriving atmosphere that keeps the regulars coming, but the road to its success was a long one.

CFRC Operations Manager Eric Beers was one of the Goat’s four founding members, along with Alison Alosio, Kris Bailey and Renee Comesotti, who transformed the structure of the Goat into a workers’ co-operative.

When the Sleepless Goat first opened in 1994, it had a single owner, Sodi Hundel. When Hundel decided to move to Vancouver in March 1995, he put the restaurant and coffee shop up for sale. Wanting to maintain the Goat’s café feel, Beers and his co-workers approached Hundel about turning the venue into a co-operative.

“At this point we knew nothing about [workers’ co-operatives],” Beers told the Journal. “It was [just] a concept to us.” Though there are successful co-op restaurants in Montreal and Thunder Bay, Beers said the relative lack of examples made the process more difficult.

“The first couple years were quite a struggle, financially,” he said.

One difficulty was the extensive commitment the co-op model required from each and every worker, in lieu of having one person in charge.

The first year of the co-op transition was spent working towards financial stability. This was when the Goat started carrying organic and fair trade coffee, as well as establishing the free soup program to foster a sense of inclusivity. In the meantime, the founding members were promoting the idea of co-op to other workers.

“All this time, we’d constantly engage other workers in conversations about this concept, [but] it was a hard sell—people weren’t that interested,” Beers said. “A lot of people who we hired just didn’t want to get that involved.” Establishing a co-op means more hands-on involvement with the workplace itself, rather than performing the specific tasks of a server, cashier, or whatever one was hired to do.

“We were working extremely hard,” Beers said. “To some degree, [the workers] looked at us and said, ‘We don’t want to be working as hard as you.’”

The continued struggle signalled a call for change.

Alosio had already left at this point to pursue law school and the rest of the members were beginning to feel burnt out and frustrated with the lack of progress.

“About in the spring of 1998, we said, ‘We’ve got to take a different approach,’” Beers said. “In spring, we started recruiting people who were specifically interested in the project [of the co-op].”

Meetings were held in the community to spread the word on the co-op project. They started recruiting people who would be specifically be interested in the co-op aspect of the Goat, instead of hiring restaurant workers who might be interested in co-operatives.

“In March [or] April 1999, it was officially turned into a co-op,” Beers said.

Official paperwork followed soon after.

“That’s when I left—I saw the fruition of what I wanted to achieve there,” Beers said.

“[I left because] it’d hold back the change to the co-op if all of us were still around.”

Now in its eighth year of co-op, the Goat continues to thrive in its business and remains one of the busiest restaurant and coffee shops in town—offering everything from the traditional two-eggs-and-potatoes breakfast to vegan cheesecake to Irish coffee.

Jack Sinnott, a PhD candidate in education at Queen’s and a worker at the Goat since August 2005, said a co-op is a place where all workers are both owners and co-managers.

The workers rent the property on which the Goat is located.

“The rent is just covered from the proceeds of the business,” Simmott said. “It’s one of the expenses that the business pays from the income that we generate.”

Currently, there are 18 workers at the Goat, eight of whom are co-op members. The distinction between a worker and a member comes from the amount of time he or she has worked at the Goat.

Initially starting out as a worker, after six months—or 600 hours—of time, one can decide to commit to a membership, which involves a contribution of $500 for membership, as well as at least a year of his or her time at the Goat.

Sinnott said becoming a member is an expression of the length of commitment. He added that the Goat has one of its largest contingents of workers ever right now.

“It’s a reflection of how successful we are as a business. We need that many people to keep the place going.”

But with expansion also comes a diversification of opinions, which can be difficult to reconcile.

“All decisions are made bi-weekly, from [something] as mundane as what kind of peanut butter to hiring decisions to renovations or menu changes,” Sinnott said.

Because everyone must come to consensus on every decision, meetings can take a long time—anywhere between two to three hours, Sinnott said.

“At times, you just wish someone—or anyone—had power,” Sinnott said. “Like any organization, 18 co-workers have different personalities [and] working styles, which can come into conflict.”

But in the end, the gruelling discussion process is what heightens the sense of community in the co-op even more.

“In a hierarchical bureaucracy, one can resort to one’s vote and higher power,” Sinnott said. “In a co-op, you have to talk things out and work them through.

“The very fact that we strive to be a co-operative means you struggle through and literally love each other through those conflicts.”

This close-knit environment is what makes the Goat such an exhilarating place to work, Sinnott said.

“I truly believe—maybe I’m naive and idealistic—our world’s future literally depends on the co-op way of working,” Sinnott said. “I’d like to think that we’re modeling something—a commitment to equity.” Mo Owen, who has been a Goat member for five years, said the Goat is committed to environmental sustainability.

“Cutting out Styrofoam packaging for environmental reasons, trying to buy more locally—it’s ongoing,” Owen said. “We’re always trying to improve.”

He believes the clientele is also improving and growing with time.

“Our community support—I feel like it’s expanded. We have a diverse clientele. Some people may have been intimidated to come in before, thinking we were too radical,” Owen said. “As organic food becomes more popular, more people are curious about it and what we do.”

This kind of organic growth and change recalls the type of co-op that Beers and other founding members envisioned.

“It’s empowering for all involved, and you can sense that the moment you walk in,” said Comesotti, one of the founding members who worked with Beers.

It’s hard not to love a place that can comfortably squeeze such a diverse demographic under one roof.

“At the Goat at any given lunchtime you can expect to see a pretty complete cross-section of Kingston society, sharing tables in unlikely combinations, all eating good food,” Comesotti said. “I love that about the Goat.”

With files from Katherine Laidlaw and Meghan Sheffield

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