SBRC Small Business Profile: Bartertown Diner

Bartertown Restaurant Founder and Co-Owner Ryan Cappelletti  

Entrepreneurs are a special sort of people; they have a unique perspective on business, work, and life. Their experiences lend insight and knowledge that will help future entrepreneurs realize what may very well be their dream. To this end, the SBRC has sought out small-business owners here in Grand Rapids so that their stories might be heard by a wider audience, and that their experiences might teach valuable lessons to the up-and-coming, the day-dreamers, and the ditch-diggers who think entrepreneurially.

In that spirit, I present the first GRPL SBRC Small Buisness Profile: an interview with a local entrepreneur who has made their success in Grand Rapids.

One thing that is true for all entrepreneurs is that it is the ideology behind a business that makes it run. It may be natural to assume that a small business owner’s first goal is profit. Ryan Cappelletti is not an entrepreneur that fits that mold. He, and his co-owners of Bartertown Restaurant on Jefferson and Fulton, have carved out their own niche, on their terms, for their own reasons.

It is a unique restaurant, right down to the decor: tables are old doors, sawed in half. Mugs are of all different sorts, like the kind that you might find in a well-loved kitchen cupboard. Coffee is self-serve; green smoothies are not. All available food is local, trucked in from farms throughout West Michigan, including Groundswell Farm, Ham Family Farm, Mudlake Farm, and CJ’s Veggies. It is vegetarian and vegan. The menu is never the same. Items, like the Bowl-of-Food ($6.00, always) or the tacos ($2.00, always) change every day, depending on the food that is available from local growers.

Mr. Cappeletti is a 17 year veteran of the restaurant industry, hailing from Olean, a small town outside of Buffalo. Grand Rapids has been his home for the last six years. He has helped to craft vegan menus for eateries like Stella’s and Brick Road Pizza. For many years, Cappeletti has held onto the idea of a distinctive community-based restaurant, but his time here in Grand Rapids added to his knowledge of local food and helped to make Bartertown a success.

Ryan: In the last six years I learned so much, so much about local food and where exactly food comes from. It’s necessary because our food system is so misleading. You don’t know how any given place will get its food. The truth is, in most places, the food is untraceable. It comes from a Cisco or Gordon Foods rep who drops it off and where that was grown or came from, who knows? So I got more and more into the bottom and the bottom-up of food, right from the farmer. It’s like this: who grew it, where did it come from, and if you don’t know, why don’t you know? 

One of the reasons that restaurants seek out suppliers is consistency in their ingredients. Restaurant cooking is oftentimes seen as a craft of consistency, which is a problem because farms do not produce the same food year-round. One must build relationships with farmers, understand growing seasons, and all the efforts taken to bring the farm to the table; one must be. Under such conditions, consistency is impossible:

Ryan: We don’t have any of the food you’re familiar with, any of the conveniences. We took the whole idea of how you run a restaurant and threw it out. When I’m training people, I have to tell them: forget everything you’ve learned in other restaurants. I don’t have a menu to train you because the menus always going to be changing. This is not a regular restaurant. You’ve got to make things happen.  

Even the coffee, which is sold wholesale through the Grand Rapids-based Direct Trade Coffee Club, is no normal diner coffee, though the cup is still bottomless

Ryan: “Chad, one of the guys that started this place [Madcap Coffee] is a coffee genius. We were going to use Madcap originally. Then he left Madcap and started Direct Trade Coffee Club. It’s high end, expensive coffee, probably like 15 dollars a pound. You put those numbers in front of a normal diner they’ll say ‘Hell no!,’ but how it is [with us] is that there cannot be anything that’s not sustainable. Everything down to the olive oil I want to make sure that we’re using something that I know who makes it, I know how it’s made.” 

Sustainability is at the root of Bartertown’s operating philosophy, its mission. To most of us, it means looking at the end products of a restaurant: what kind of trash do they produce, what kind of food do they cook, are their ingredients organic, etc. Bartertown takes this ethos further. They are a Wobbly shop, or members of the International Workers of the World. There are no bosses at Bartertown; the restaurant is owned collectively by its workers. In fact, worker rights are a large part of Bartertown’s sustainable philosophy-in-action:

Ryan: “Things that people instantly think of when they think of sustainable food are things like trash, GMOs, organic. But, one huge part of sustainability in the restaurant business that they’re not thinking about is worker rights. You can’t be a sustainable restaurant if your workers aren’t making a living wage, and the people who are growing your food aren’t making a living wage, the people that are harvesting your olive oil aren’t making a living wage, and the people who are growing your coffee aren’t making a living wage. If there is any kind of slave labor within this chain, then you’re simply not a sustainable restaurant.”

When you think of sustainability like that, you go into a restaurant and ask “Oh, where’d you get this asparagus?” “Oh, Farmer Rob grew it. He’s a good friend of mine, we can call him right now.” “Oh, where’d you get this coffee?” “It’s fair trade.” “That’s great!” “The wine’s organic, it was just made at the winery down the street.”

But then you get into the back of the house, and you find out they have a migrant worker washing dishes for $5 an hour. Then you have a server that’s serving you a $100 plate of food for $2.13 an hour, living off your tips, basically begging for money. You have countless links in the chain like that that are unsustainable. But those things aren’t looked at at all.

…All I really knew was that after 17 years in the restaurant business something had to change. I had to do something else.”

Important to the success of any business, re is the end product. A quality product will draw in customers; a shoddy one will not. Concentration on the food itself has been key:

Ryan: “It’s all about the food. It’s about a fun, community environment built around the food. If there’s a little bit of dust or something is a little bit off, no matter what, I guarantee the food’s going to be awesome. It’s not going to be perfect, but it’s going to be the best food that you’ve had. That’s the point that we’re trying to make. We’re serving high-end food to the lower class. It’s a new face from farm to table. Farm to table seems very high-end. But we’re farm-to-table, and we’ve got a burrito shop. And I’m going to open up a pizza shop. It’s all going to be farm to table. That type of food should not be unattainable for the lower and middle class. Especially the lower class, it just should not be, but it is for the most part.” 

In spite of these challenges, Bartertown is poised to expand down Jefferson and build on its past success. In addition to adding breakfast menu items and late night BurritoTown offerings, Cappelletti has plans for a new, farm-to-table pizza restaurant called Cult Pizza, the space for which is already leased two doors down. All will be worker owned and operate under the same sustainable philosophy. Mr. Cappelletti now sets his sights beyond even Jefferson Avenue:

Ryan: “That’s another thing I look at when I look at businesses like Bartertown. What if I could set up businesses and give them to their workers when they’re debt free? As an individual, if you went around and did that, would you make more than a living wage? No. Would you drive a Cadillac? No. Would you still be riding your bike, taking the bus everywhere? Yeah. But wouldn’t that build more of a future? If I just went around and built a restaurant because I know how to and said ‘Workers, it’s paid for, here you go. You run it into the ground you run it into the ground but here’s your chance. Your shot. Here’s your restaurant, it’s popular, that’s it you got no debt.’’

My mission has really changed since I’ve opened. [Now] it’s creating places like Bartertown. My goal right now is that once Bartertown goes debt free, I want to sell it to the workers of Bartertown for a dollar, then be done with it.”

Bartertown has carved out a community on Jefferson and Fulton, here in Grand Rapids. It is community that is the core of all their philosophy, all that Cappelletti hopes to achieve. Whether in Oakland, where he has had offers to replicate his success, or in Detroit, it is community that has made Mr. Cappelletti and his co-owners a success. Not only in Grand Rapids, but all of West Michigan. And, as he put it:

“If you get a community, and you get a reason that the community wants you to stay open, you stay open. It’s that simple.”


Business Librarian

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