Editor’s note: Readers can assist former Common Roots staff by donating to their GoFundMe fundraiser.
Danny Schwartzman is still getting used to saying the words “former staff.”
The longtime owner and operator of Common Roots Cafe, the Jewish-owned Lyndale Avenue business that prided itself on progressive politics and operations, announced on Dec. 28 that the cafe was closing down effective immediately.
Schwartzman started Common Roots 15 years ago with a vision of a community space with locally sourced food that would sit at the intersection of business and politics. “I wanted to think about how the business can be used to best support the values that I have…and I wanted to be a good employer. I wanted to put that all together in a whole that customers could support,” he said.
Over the years, Schwartzman and Common Roots have advocated for environmentalism and food sourcing transparency; unions — most recently in supporting striking Minneapolis teachers and Minnesota nurses; and workers rights with small businesses.
But for some community members, Common Roots’ progressive legacy is now marred by its sudden closure. In a statement explaining the shut down, emailed and posted on social media, Schwartzman pointed to insurmountable business costs — as well as his staff’s recent unionization effort.
Online comments on Schwartzman’s statement accuse him of union-busting, and see him as a sell-out to business interests despite his avowed pro-labor views.
Both Schwartzman and former cafe staff involved in unionizing, however, refute the idea that Schwartzman was union-busting. Instead, they tell the story of a business that was on its last legs after years of losing money, pandemic challenges, and the exhaustion of keeping Common Roots open.
In unionizing, staff hoped to work with Schwartzman to weather the business chaos and move toward profitability.
“We wanted to help make ends meet; in fact, we thought unionizing was the best way we could try,” former staff, part of the unionizing effort at the cafe, wrote in a statement posted to Reddit. “We did not get a chance to see it through.”
For Schwartzman, despite at one point agreeing to voluntarily recognize the union, 15 years of being responsible for a small business had taken its toll, and he no longer saw a way for the cafe to survive the next six months. “I didn’t close the business because of the union,” Schwartzman said. “I closed the business because the business could no longer continue to be manageable. I could not sustain the ongoing losses and the ongoing stress.”
For some of the past 15 years, Common Roots Cafe made a profit. But much of the time the cafe operated at a loss.
In an industry already known for razor-thin profit margins and extreme instability, Common Roots had additional expenses in pursuit of progressive ideals, like local food sourcing from farmers and covering health care for employees who worked at least 30 hours a week.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, making money felt like a challenge the cafe could overcome, Schwartzman said. “There was always a reason to be optimistic about the future,” he said. “There was always an approach I could think of [where it] would be reasonable to think that, ‘next year will be better.’”
For the roughly 30 full-time and part-time staff, attracted by the cafe’s mission and the improved labor conditions relative to other hospitality businesses, Schwartzman was a boss who followed through on his vision and optimism.
“Overall, Danny was a good boss to work for,” Andrea Lechuga, a former catering sales assistant at the cafe who worked on the unionizing effort, said in an email. Schwartzman “was more than just an owner; he spent a significant amount of time each week working in the office, handling a lot of the administrative duties himself. He also covered shifts at the cafe counter and served at catering events when we were short-staffed.”
Schwartzman oriented Common Roots around both the cafe and an expanding catering business. In 2019, he felt that both sides of the business were reaching a healthy stage, with Common Roots breaking even as catering accounted for almost half of all revenue.
But the pandemic wiped out that progress. Catering requests evaporated, and in 2022 cafe sales were still only half of what they had been before the pandemic. Common Roots found itself on the losing end of its founding mission while the price of food and supplies skyrocketed.
“The niche for us was a place to go for larger groups of people, and people who were coming to work who also like eating out [or having] a beer,” Schwartzman said. “It was a shared community gathering space, which is really fun, and really positive. But it’s also business that didn’t really come back.”
Common Roots had trouble hiring higher-level staff, like finding a replacement for a well-liked general manager. As the business was squeezed, staff trust in Schwartzman broke down.
“Schedules were rarely posted more than 4 days in advance,” said one former employee, speaking over email, who asked to remain anonymous. “Workload would fluctuate wildly, often leading to certain staff working 12+ hour days. Non-competitive wages, lack of structured pay increases, and refusal of tips also put strain on workers.”
Amid burnout, workers approached Schwartzman with their concerns. But communication with Schwartzman was a challenge, they said.
“Danny is a quirky, genuine, and hard to read person,” the former employee said. “If you have a problem with the way something works he is willing to ‘explain the logic’ to you but that is often where the conversation ends.”
In November 2022, feeling like they weren’t being heard, employees organized a letter to Schwartzman asking for an all-staff meeting. Instead, Schwartzman met staff one-on-one, a decision that “surprised and intimidated” workers, former staff said. Ultimately two employees were fired as a result of the meetings — including Lechuga, the former catering sales assistant.
“I can’t speak for all the staff, but I felt that Danny had fired me and the other worker impulsively, and I was willing to return because Common Roots was a worthwhile place to work and because I believed in Danny’s ideals for the company,” Lechuga said.
Similarly committed to the business, but now worried for their job security, Common Roots staff decided to unionize.
After the unexpected firings, several Common Roots staff thought about leaving.
“It gave us reason to doubt the integrity of the cafe,” the anonymous former staff said. “But the reason people stayed, and the reason so many of us wanted to form a union is that we trusted each other and wanted to improve our working conditions to better exemplify the cafe’s shared ideals.”
Staff met with UNITE HERE! Local 17, Minnesota’s hospitality union representing more than 6,000 workers, to work on the unionization effort. On Dec. 20, a union representative and some staff approached Schwartzman with an official request for him to voluntarily recognize the union. Former staff said 80% of the employees approved of unionization.
Over the next week, Schwartzman told the union representative that he intended to move forward with the process of recognizing the union after consulting with a lawyer. Staff considered their efforts a victory, and planned a celebration party to tell patrons about the union.
Then, on Dec. 28, Schwartzman suddenly announced the shut down of the cafe. Staff were blindsided.
“It’s hard to put into words how devastated I am that it has ended this way,” said Lechuga, who continued working on unionization after being fired. “We genuinely believed that Danny would accept our union and allow us to negotiate with him to improve Common Roots Cafe’s operations…and create a working environment that would encourage more workers to stay at the company for a much longer time, even until retirement.”
For Schwartzman, the decision to shut down was also unexpected. Unionization is “not a word that I’m afraid of, or I’m uncomfortable with, and it’s a word that I actively support,” he said. “It’s also something that I think could have been good for my business.”
But the process forced him to take a clear look at the state of Common Roots. Unionization for Schwartzman would have involved multi-month contract negotiations with staff and promoting the business as a union business, alongside managing preexisting issues like low sales, staff hiring, and day-to-day operations. The stress felt overwhelming after 15 years of managing every aspect of Common Roots.
It’s “a lot of pressure on the business to…be even more visible as a leader in this when I really knew deep down that the fundamental financials were not sound,” Schwartzman said. “I’m operating as a general manager and the owner, and have a lot of multifaceted responsibilities at bay. And so I had to think about what that would look like.”
Schwartzman is also critical of the UNITE HERE! Local 17 representatives who he said pushed him into moving quickly to recognize the union effort without consideration for the financial squeeze on the business. Schwartzman felt the union representatives were confrontational with him, a tactic he understood given that representatives are often dealing with anti-union businesses — though Schwartzman had no intention of taking anti-union action, he said.
“What the union didn’t realize was the level of pressure I was already under before they walked in the door,” Schwartzman said. “I don’t think that they would have interacted the way they did if they really understood that…the last thing I wanted to do was celebrate us as a union business, and then close in six months. And so I decided that I really can’t move forward with this.”
Asked if he blames the unionization effort and UNITE HERE! Local 17 for shutting down Common Roots, Schwartzman said he does not. The financial squeeze and stress of managing the business drove his decision.
But “also true, is that I don’t know when I would have been able to make that leap had the union not walked in my door,” Schwartzman said. Before the unionization effort, “I had not gotten to the point in my head where I could imagine closing the business that I’ve worked so hard for for 15 years.”
UNITE HERE! Local 17 did not respond to several requests for comment.
Asked if they believed Schwartzman had taken anti-union action by shutting down, former staff said they did not think so.
“I don’t want to believe that it was intentional union-busting, because Danny’s stated ethics would preclude that,” Lechuga said. “Since he was such a strong supporter of union efforts outside of Common Roots…we thought that he would act in good faith and give us a chance to negotiate and together find a way to improve the company and keep it running.”
Said the anonymous former staff: “I don’t assume that [unionization] was the motivating force. To me it seems like unionization was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Online, former patrons of Common Roots have expressed their love for the business. For some, it was a favorite dining spot with family and friends. For others, it was part of their major life moments, like meeting future spouses and finishing dissertations.
As a small business it was a symbol for sustainability, community, and workers rights. For some former staff, it was a launching point into starting their own businesses.
In a perfect world, Common Roots would have had a closing run to celebrate the establishment and end on a high note, Schwartzman said. But he knew that as a business owner, shutting down so soon after a unionization effort, many community members — and UNITE HERE! Local 17 — would not trust Common Roots was closing for financial reasons.
Schwartzman expected UNITE HERE! Local 17 would mobilize against a closing run and claim Common Roots was being anti-union.
“The idea of putting my staff and myself through [a closing run], where we were dealing…with the potential for [UNITE HERE! Local 17] to be organizing against us, and making that environment all the more unworkable, was not something I could sign off on,” he said. “I just couldn’t do it, I couldn’t have asked [staff] for two weeks to serve people cheerfully…while being pushed that everything that they were doing was wrong and management was evil.”
The abrupt closing, without informing staff beforehand, felt like the only way out, Schwartzman said.
For former staff, the closing is bittersweet but understandable. Schwartzman was shouldering a heavy burden, though one they had hoped, through unionizing, to help him with.
“Was I being served well by the cafe’s ideals? In many ways, yes but in other crucial ways, no,” said the anonymous former staff. “It just feels like a shame that we never got to the bargaining table to collectively take stock of the situation and collaborate on how to improve our workplace.”
Schwartzman is paying out a last check and paid time off for staff, some of whom have been living paycheck to paycheck, according to former staff. Former staff have set up a GoFundMe where community members can donate to help them while they find new jobs. The former staff have also informally discussed opening a worker-owned cafe in the style of Common Roots, but there are no concrete plans to do so.
Despite the sudden end, former staff are grateful for having worked at Common Roots.
“Common Roots was a wonderful part of the community, and the workers are going to miss it as much as its customers,” Lechuga said. “Danny gave us the opportunity to work at a company that had an ethical mission and contributed to the community, and we all greatly appreciate the time we spent working there together.”
This story has been corrected to show that Schwartzman told union representatives that he intended to move forward with the process of recognizing the union, but did not outright say he would recognize. And that Common Roots had trouble hiring high-level staff, not retaining them – the previous general manager left after five years of working at the business.