The Dark Underside of the "Family-Like" BusinessRoundup
tags: immigration, labor, history of capitalism, labor relations, Industrial Paternalism
Erik Baker is a Lecturer on the History of Science at Harvard University and an associate editor at The Drift.
anta Rosa, California is exactly the kind of place where you’d expect to find the heart of a natural foods empire. It is, in several senses, green. An hour’s drive north of San Francisco, the largest city in California’s Wine Country is surrounded by state parks in the Mayacamas Mountains that separate Sonoma from Napa Valley. Dating back to Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), generations of Hollywood filmmakers have chosen Santa Rosa to stand in for idyllic small-town America on screen. The city government declared a “Climate Emergency” in 2020 and now blitzes citizens with a plethora of options for reducing household emissions. A museum and library honors the work of the city’s most celebrated long-term resident, Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz. It is too good to be true.
Amy’s Kitchen fits right in. The nation’s largest manufacturer of organic vegetarian frozen meals, Amy’s has worked hard to cultivate a homey, friendly image — a small business scaled up. The company touts its status as a certified “B Corp,” a marketing gimmick for organizations that meet certain standards on sustainability, corporate transparency, and so on, and want to broadcast their commitment to “doing well by doing good.” Its founders met on a spiritual retreat in India in the late 1970s, and once the frozen pot pie money started rolling in, they helped to establish Sonoma County’s official outpost for the Indian new religious movement Science of the Soul (Radha Soami Satsang Beas). If you were to close your eyes and imagine the sort of operation that would thrive on the Northern California coast, you’d probably picture something like Amy’s.
Santa Rosa’s chief asset for Amy’s, however, is neither its small-town charm nor its eco-friendly ethos. It is its sizable population of low-income immigrant workers, concentrated on the city’s west side and primarily hailing from Mexico. Women from this community comprise the overwhelming majority of the workforce at Amy’s two Santa Rosa plants, the anchor of its manufacturing operations for over two decades. And they report treatment that flies in the face of the progressive values that Amy’s touts in its public branding: low pay, meager benefits, grueling working conditions, lax safety protections, and a culture of surveillance and intimidation that is designed to discourage these precarious workers from organizing to demand better.
The original ancestors of Amy’s Kitchen were the natural foods businesses that sprung up during the heyday of the 1960s counterculture. The industry was a key site of what historian Joshua Clark Davis calls “activist entrepreneurship,” the consequence of the sympathetic engagement of beatniks and hippies with the paeans to entrepreneurship that abounded in the postwar decades. There were tracts of social criticism like William H. Whyte, Jr.’s The Organization Man (1956), which blamed the soul-crushing bureaucracy of midcentury corporate offices on a shift “from the entrepreneurial to the administrative” mindset. There were bestselling treatises on philosophy and economics like E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful (1973), which praised entrepreneurship as the embodiment of “creative freedom.” Perhaps most significantly, there were do-it-yourself resources like Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, first published in 1968, which peddled Ayn Rand novels alongside tools for homesteaders and practical advice for the aspiring dropout businessman.
Perhaps the most iconic countercultural small business was also a pioneer in the history of the natural foods industry: Boston’s Erewhon Trading Company. Erewhon was founded in 1966 by Aveline and Michio Kushi, Japanese immigrants and leaders in the Zen-influenced “macrobiotic diet” movement. Erewhon initially sold specialty macrobiotic ingredients out of a single storefront on Newbury Street to a small community of about 200 regular customers. In 1967, the Kushis handed over management of the store to one of its first employees, a charismatic 21-year-old Californian named Paul Hawken. Hawken incorporated Erewhon the following year and became its first CEO, presiding over a staff of just six people — all macrobiotics true believers. Hawken and the Erewhon team hoped that their work at the store would honor the Buddhist principle of “Right Livelihood,” as advocated by Schumacher and other countercultural intellectuals. Unlike the offices of the Organization Man, Erewhon would be a place where people could do work that they loved — “no rules, no by-laws or regulations,” as Hawken put it.
The result was exactly the sort of high-intensity, intimate workplace “family” that has come under fire from today’s critics of burnout culture. “A sort of giddy optimism pervaded the new store, abetted by all of us working twelve to twenty hours a day,” Hawken later wrote. “All of us felt like passengers on a very fast vehicle bound for unknown places.” The final destination may have indeed been unknown, but the first stop was expansion. Hawken moved the business into a more upscale storefront in 1968. The company also purchased a warehouse and began wholesaling to regional buyers. Soon Hawken was able to replicate the business model in L.A. By 1973, Erewhon had 15,000 retail customers and was selling wholesale to almost 300,000 more.
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