A Cooperatively Run Company

Three Stone Hearth was founded in June 2006 in Berkeley by a cooperative of five worker-owners: Larry Wisch, Jessica Prentice, Porsche Combash, Catherine Spanger, and Misa Koketsu (in photo above, L-R with our original articles of incorporation). Larry passed away on May 5, 2012. One of the testaments to Larry's indomitable spirit, besides the effervescence in our kombuchas which he originated, is when he coordinated the move to our current location in 2011 from a site near Berkeley's Aquatic Park. He managed to get everything moved over and we didn't miss a week of food production! 

There are many economic and social benefits to working cooperatively, and the cooperative model is gaining popularity across the country. Three Stone Hearth has been an active member of NoBAWC, the Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives. 

Three Stone Hearth has never been an “off the rack” business model, and the creative challenge of organizing and running our business is a work-in-progress. The first five or so years for us were characterized by a mom-and-pop, energy -- though we had four moms and one pop -- exciting, inspiring and chaotic. The founders nurtured a bustling and open feel of community, a joy and passion for our work, a beehive in the best sense. Our organizational culture was deeply felt, but, as with many startups, organizational structure did not figure prominently in that model.


From Five "Mom and Pops" to Fifty!

As our business grew and a more long-term staff came together, the need for a greater structure also grew. We had to create "Beehive 2.0." This transition is a challenge for many small enterprises. How do we develop a structure that captures the alchemy, the entrepreneurial spirit, and the heart of our unique kitchen? How can the open, non-hierarchical style modelled by five co-founders be replicated to include a diverse staff of nearly fifty?

Since 2013, we have been intentionally engaged in shepherding this transition. We turned to Holacracy, a cutting-edge system for organizing work with very little centralized power and control, and to Self-Management, a broader framework for how members of an organization can all show up at the highest level with little centralized hierarchy.

In 2014, we inaugurated a worker-owner candidacy program to help employees learn the fundamentals of our business, develop the skills needed to assume an ownership role and to be openly and actively engaged in personal growth. In 2016, after two rounds of candidacy, we grew to 19 worker-owners. Then the tides turned in the other direction. By 2019 all four remaining co-founders had moved on to other pursuits, as did many of our newer worker-owners.

By an odd coincidence, we closed our doors for a major roof repair the same weekend the first covid shelter-in-place orders landed in the Bay Area, in March, 2020. While we had to lay off almost our entire staff and ended up being closed for five months, the five remaining worker-owners held things together and prepared for our reopening in August. With no guarantees of success or even survival during that first period, we still managed to hold a worker-owner candidacy last Fall, and now we're up to nine worker-owners!

We will continue to report on this ongoing experiment to create Beehive 2.0!


For more on Holacracy and responsive/self-directed organizational development, see these links: