The Firestorm Café is not referred to as a business by its employees — most of the time it's a "project." In fact, the anarchists that work in and run the coffee shop and bookstore do not speak in terms of a boss-employee dynamic. Firestorm, rather, is run by a community of worker-owners who are collaborating to create a new business model.
"One of the ways that we describe ourselves is as an 'anarchist project,'" says worker-owner Emma Olivia. "One of the forms that this project takes is a business that maintains a community space," she says. "This isn't just a business. We are, in fact, creating a new model for running something that is serving a community and manages to produce an active critique of the way that businesses are typically run." How so? By creating "reciprocal relationships within a community instead of [existing] strictly to enrich an individual or individuals," she says.
Apparently, however, there are ups and downs to a collective, and they manifest themselves in different ways.
Take for example the café's Facebook page, which looks particularly schizophrenic due to the likelihood of several different administrators posting differing opinions.
In reference to a recent Xpress article about Moogfest that mentioned — very briefly — that Firestorm was a great tucked-away spot to grab a quiet bite, the administrators posted this:
"Those jerks at Mountain Xpress are handing out Asheville's best kept secrets like candy," says the post. "They even include us in their 'insider tips.' Hey, MX! How can folks 'escape the masses' when you're smashing the insider/outsider paradigm?"
Mountain Xpress! Smashing paradigms!
Then, I saw this just a little lower on the same Facebook page, posted just a few months earlier:
"Just noticed that we are outranked in Trip Advisor's vegetarian restaurant guide by Jae Thai (closed) and the Yacht Club (not vegetarian)! If you've had an awesome experience at Firestorm, please take five minutes to review us."
"Firestorm Café has op-eds in both the Mountain Xpress and Asheville Citizen-Times today! Check out our response to the media's recent defamation of anarchism."
When I visited Firestorm as a representative for Xpress, the employees, er, worker-owners were all congenial and welcoming, and didn't seem necessarily reluctant to be featured in the pages of the food section.
So … does Firestorm want Xpress not to blow up their spot (figuratively speaking, of course), or would they like the coverage? Do they want to remain Asheville's best kept secret, or would they like their customers to give them good reviews on Trip Advisor?
Frankly, I don't care. I seriously just want another one of Olivia's dark-chocolate iced vegan cupcakes. And maybe a tempeh sandwich.
That's right. I swooned over vegan cupcakes. As a matter of fact, my jaw dropped when Olivia, Firestorm's well-spoken, calmly intelligent resident baker-worker-owner person told me that she didn't use dairy in her recipe.
Olivia's been involved with the "project" for about a year-and-a-half. She bakes all of the pastries, and it's nearly impossible to believe that some of them are dairy-free.
"It definitely takes away the stigma of vegan food," says Olivia. "A lot of folks tend to be shocked that our baked goods are vegan. They're so used to things being fake and full of soy, but our cupcake recipes aren't dependent on soy milk and soy yogurt or egg replacer. They're just really good, classic depression-era recipes that depend on non-egg based leaveners."
Everything in Firestorm Café is vegan, except for the milk provided for coffee. Firestorm is also staunchly local. The milk for the coffee is Earth Fare brand, says Olivia, because the health-food store sources its namesake dairy from local cows.
The café also uses Asheville's rave-worthy Smiling Hara tempeh in their sandwiches. "Their tempeh is so amazing," says worker-owner Maggie Welder. "You're going to be at a disadvantage in Asheville if you don't use it. It's the best around."
While nearly every restaurant in town is claiming to serve all-local products from the kitchen, which sometimes turns out to not actually be the case, Firestorm Café appears to be walking the walk.
And it's fairly clear from the start that the crew is serious about nearly everything, including food. I realize quickly that, even if I have little else in common with anarchists, we can all sit around and have very strong convictions about what we eat together.
We can talk until we're blue in the face about the importance of using local tempeh instead of the mass-produced kind, or why fake meat is just plain unappealing. "It doesn't have to be fake. It doesn't have to pretend to be something it's not," agrees Olivia.
"I think that a lot of people wouldn't be able to tell whether some of our items are vegan or not," adds Welder. "We don't push the vegan thing. And if you are trying to stay away from soy, there are plenty of options. [Our menu] is reshaping and redefining veganism."
The crew says that we're fortunate to live in an area where local goods abound.
"It's becoming increasingly easy to source things that are local, to find people like the folks who produce Buchi and the folks who produce Smiling Hara," says Olivia. "They're small producers, and we can work to really close the loop with the people who are providing us with food."
"It's nice to know that, regardless of what happens, we have a community that we can sustain ourselves on," adds Welder.
And how does one become a worker-owner and part of the Firestorm community? Is there some sort of initiation process? Hazing? Turns out there's internship program where the potential worker-owner is scrutinized much in the same manner as a love interest.
"We're sort of dating to see if we're going to get into a long-term relationship," says Olivia. "Around the six-month mark, we have a talk to see whether things are working out and then folks phase on to being owners." It's easy to imagine everyone on their best behavior, proffering flowers, or whatever anarchists bring to dates.
But, Olivia says, everyone — from dating intern to founder — participates in the managerial work, shift work and decision-making. "There's very little distinction between people that are legal owners on paper for the café and anyone who's in here, because we all make decisions and are accountable to one another."
"From responsibilities, tasks, down to the finer details, it feels really good to step into a project and have a say in it," says Welder. "You have an idea and you can see it manifest. That's not typical in a regular job."
It sounds like a lot of work. But woker-owner Scott Evans says that the model allows the crew to "reevaluate and take stock of the types of relationships that we want. Do we want bosses and employees — essentially capitalists and workers — or do we want to envision something totally new? Because, to be honest, working for a local capitalist oftentimes sucks. I think all of us have worked for local mom-and-pop businesses where we've gotten ridden like animals, essentially."
"Promoting a vision of a world without oppression and coercion is something that we all feel strongly about," adds Olivia. "I view a capitalist society as one that uses the threat of state force and capitalist force to keep me in line no matter how I feel about the subject at hand."
Serious philosophies, serious convictions, serious opinions. What exactly does this all have to do with sandwiches? Evans is quick with an answer.
"I don't think that any of us grew up thinking that when we were older what we really wanted to do was make sandwiches for people,” he says. “I think we grew up thinking that we wanted to change the world. As it turns out, making sandwiches might be a way to finance changing the world."
— Send your food news and story ideas to Mackensy Lunsford at firstname.lastname@example.org.