The Upper Crust

A taste of Berkeley's favorite pizza cooperatives

Brenna Alexander/File
Brenna Alexander/File

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The Cheese Board Collective and Zachary’s Chicago Pizza: at first mention, the two seem like vastly different pizzerias, except for the fact that at peak hours their lines stretch around their respective corners. While Cheese Board offers a single daily flavor on a sourdough crust with toppings ranging from corn to goat cheese, Zachary’s is known for its deep dish stuffed pies layered with toppings, cheese and chunky tomato sauce, in that order. But what many patrons don’t know is that what unites the two elite pizzas are the companies’ employee-owned structures, where employees are trusted with a stake in the company from the top to the bottom of the crust. While most pizzerias around the Bay Area are chains owned and run by national corporate entities, at the heart of both Cheese Board and Zachary’s is a community.

Zachary’s

With three branches in the Bay Area — two of which are located on the south and north sides of Berkeley — and a fourth one to be opened in Pleasant Hill later this fall, Zachary’s is run under an employee stock ownership plan, or ESOP, in which 150 employees across the company are all able to place stock in a central pot and benefit from it when it comes time for retirement.

According to Loren Rodgers, executive director of the National Center for Employee Ownership, an ESOP is not about ownership but about management and the rights and roles specific to employees.

“Zachary’s is more likely to treat its employees like owners and have them get involved with the company,” Rodgers said. “They do this because it is the right thing to do, not because they are required to do it legally.”

Every year an employee continues working at Zachary’s, he or she gets an increased amount of Zachary’s stock in their individual account, and the value of this employee ownership account increases each year, according to Rodgers. When somebody leaves the company, the stock value turns into cash that can be doled out. If an employee chooses to stay for a long period of time, the stock has the possibility of turning into a retirement plan.

UC Berkeley alumna Leandra Schuler began working at Zachary’s while she was still in school and worked her way up the chain of command to her current position as vice president and general manager of the company. Schuler said when founders Zach Zachowski and Barbara Gabel opened the first restaurant in 1983, the employee-owned business model was born in 2003 when Zachowski and Gabel retired and sought to keep the business quality consistent.

“The (ESOP model) was the very best way to carry the Zachary’s legacy on, and it is a big mojo of what we do here,” Schuler said. “One of the fears in opting for a different professional plan and outside buyer is there is always the possibility that a corporation will want to change things fairly drastically.”

The general Zachary’s structure on the operational side involves a group of two to three managers who work at each branch daily, while they also function alongside store level management, a floor level manager, and a human resources department, according to Zachary’s president and CEO Kevin Suto. Suto said though these positions exist, all employees such as dishwashers and kitchen clerks have a chance at upward mobility in the company.

For Schuler, who said Zachary’s quenched her thirst for practical and hands-on work following graduation from UC Berkeley, Zachary’s is about keeping the workplace a positive environment for everyone involved.

“We set high standards for employees — we encourage them to have fun doing a great job and we achieve that well,” Schuler said. “We take our products and customers very seriously … we attract people from ages 3 to 90.”

Cheese Board

Dubbed as a collective, Cheese Board prides itself on providing a comfortable and open atmosphere for both its patrons and employees. While Zachary’s is an ESOP, Cheese Board embodies the collective spirit in that it allows its employees to collaborate and make company wide decisions in town hall settings.

“Every member (at Cheese Board) is an equal member, with one person one vote over business,” Rodgers said. “(Employees) make all management decisions collectively on consensus basis.”

According to Rodgers, Cheese Board functions under the Arizmendi Association of Cooperatives, a Bay Area worker cooperative that maintains other collective bakeries and pizzerias around the Bay Area.

Rodgers also said all Cheese Board employees share profits at the end of the year, and some profits go back to the association to set up new bakeries.

“It’s pretty unique, no other organization is quite like it,” he said. “Each one of the bakeries contributes a portion into a pot, and the pot money builds new bakeries.”

Steve Manning, a 10-year employee at Cheese Board, said what he loves most about the collective is the ability to wear many hats on a regular service day.

“It’s a simple, flat democracy — we all do everything,” Manning said. “This Saturday, I was plating for the person at the register, and then I was serving. The next Saturday I will be baking … in the space of a month or so, I do every single task in the collective.”

According to Manning, the collective produces 15,000 pizzas — the most popular of which is the roma tomato flavor with lemon zest — per month and serves more than 1,500 people per day.

“(Each person performing each task) spreads out risk energy and makes us democratically egalitarian,” he said.

As for the customers who hungrily wait to purchase their slices and then sprawl out across the median strip in front of the restaurant to enjoy their meals, most see it as Berkeley tradition to keep coming back but also to bring their friends and family along.

“We’ve been coming here for all four years while at UC Berkeley,” said 2012 UC Berkeley graduate Elaine Chang as she stood in the Cheese Board line with her boyfriend Saturday afternoon. “The atmosphere Cheese Board creates with the same people behind the counter each time we come back … makes it the quintessential Berkeley experience.”

And when asked what keeps residents and pizza fanatics coming back to the two popular joints, when they could very well dine at any one of Berkeley’s many pizzerias that litter the streets from College Avenue to Solano Avenue, most agree it’s not just the unique taste. It’s the family-like atmosphere, camaraderie and warm natured exchanges they experience with the community of employees.