..Little Grill To Be In Hands Of Many
News-Record Correspondent
From the Daily News-Record of Harrisonburg Online
Click here for  a page of digital shots of the Grill and the Copelands taken in May, 03, here for a look at Our Community Place, based on an early phase of the development of the Little Grill Collective, and here for another history from the official Collective's website at www.littlegrillcollective.com.
JMU students, Sarah Vikner, 21 and J.D. Lubenetski, 22, grab lunch
at The Little Grill on Thursday. The popular restaurant
will soon be owned by a seven-person partnership.
DN-R Photo by Holly Marcus   
They're not socialists.
They're not capitalists.
Call them idealists or, perhaps, adventurists.
The Little Grill restaurant in downtown Harrisonburg will soon be an employee-owned company, or a "collective."
"We're all getting older and we're looking at our options and it comes down to whether we're going to work for somebody else or work for ourselves, those are the only options in America," says cook Chris Howdyshell. "We have confidence. We're worker owners." Howdyshell is one of five workers putting up $500 each to invest in the new Little Grill.
By June 1, those five workers will join current owners Ron and Melaine Copeland in an equal share of the restaurant. Then all seven will have the same authority. Being raised in Briery Branch, Howdyshell says, he always resisted following the path of his father, who has been a maintenance worker at the Coors plant.
"I didn't want to do what my dad did. I wanted to do my own thing," Howdyshell says.
Now at 23, he's becoming a business owner with his friends.
The New Collective
Under the new articles of incorporation, each owner is guaranteed an equal say in the affairs of the business. Each will also share and equal risk. In a collective, only workers can become owners &endash; but each owner controls only one share and has power equal to all other owner-workers. In a traditional stock-ownership corporation, anyone with money can become an owner. And an owner shareholder can buy multiple shares to acquire more power.
For this collective, the $500 investment will serve as the capital for growth or protection of losses. The owners must decide at the end of each fiscal year what to do with profits: how much for them, how much for the company.
Ron Copeland says he's wanted to turn the Little Grill into a worker-owned collective since he bought it in 1992. He says the corporate culture at The Little Grill lends itself to a collective structure because he's always tried to allow his workers a voice in the business. This is exemplified by a monthly employee meeting called an "honesty group," where all employees are allowed to raise any workplace issues. Open communication will be even more vital come June 1 when the workers become co-owners.
The New Owners
Joining Howdyshell in investing in the new Little Grill are fellow workers Amie Hyatt, Jonathan Schrag, Kendall Whiteway, and Jason Wagner.
"It's more risk than I've ever taken but I'm excited," says 23-year-old Wagner. "If we don't get business, I won't get paid. It could be very scary, but then it could be more beautiful than anything I've ever imagined."
Copeland says the new ownership structure is already energizing the workers to pitch in with expansion ideas, like catering or new menu options, as well as inspiring them to pick up any of a variety of undone tasks.
With the collective structure, owners will decide their pay and compensation. So far, the only way to measure an employee's value is the number of hours worked.
"This is all a system that makes sense to us," Whiteway says. "You get out of it what you put into it, and you only get out of it what you put into it."
The Little Grill has 15 employees, but not all decided to participate in becoming owners.
New owners can leave the collective by selling their share back to the corporation for a return of their $500 investment.
Collective History
Collectives and co-ops grew in Virginia in the early 1900s around the agriculture industry, then matured with rural electric co-ops, says Mark Botkin, a Harrisonburg attorney with Wharton, Aldhizer and Weaver.
But collectives haven't grown in popularity because they offer no more business advantage than a limited liability company structure, Botkin says. And collectives aren't attractive to banks and other investors.
"What they're putting together at The Little Grill is a unique animal. It's a more egalitarian concept they have, where everybody has an equal vote," Botkin says. "I'll be curious to see if it will succeed."
Copeland Content To Remain Upside Down
by Andrew Scot Bolsinger, Staff Writer for the Daily News-Record


I was a zealot after I read, "The Upside Down Kingdom" for the first time in college. I wanted to live upside down in the world, just as the book suggested. By following biblical concepts, the author suggested Americans can live outside the consumerism and rabid accumulation of wealth as Jesus suggested.
It was harder than it looked. Over time, the typical pressures of a house in the 'burbs, credit cards, job changes and car loans flipped me mostly right side up. Some have been more successful. For over a decade, Ron Copeland has used his small restaurant, The Little Grill, as a hub for people of all color, creed and class. Every Monday for years, The Grill has offered free food to "anyone in the world." Now, Copeland is taking his Little Upside Down Grill to a whole new level.
Worker-Owned Grill
Barring unforeseen changes, on June 1 The Little Grill will open without Ron Copeland. He will start a sabbatical away from the business, which will be turned into a worker-owned company. Copeland is selling his interest in the business to five faithful employees. After his break, Copeland and his wife, Melanie, will return to the group as part of the seven-person ownership team.
"It seems very sensible," Copeland said. "Let the group establish itself and then come back into it as a member of the group."
Relatively unknown locally, the concept has proven successful in cooperatives around the country. Copeland and his group of worker-owners have studied co-ops in California, Ohio and Minnesota. One of the new owners, Jonathan Shrag, says that after a couple of years of consideration, the timing is right.
"It seemed important to have people who already worked here and had an interest in the concept," Shrag said. "We kind of looked each other in the eye and said, 'Are you gonna be here for two years… are you?' "
Heeding The Call
For Copeland, the ownership change is an opportunity to explore new passions while putting long-held philosophies into motion. His faith is a motivating factor.
"I'm just into it," he said of his beliefs. "I can express some of the Christian ideas in terms of social economics."
He will start seminary soon. The future, he says, reluctantly adopting a Christian buzzword, is about "a call" from God.
Shrag says the Copelands are an integral part of the Grill. Their continued involvement is a security blanket, both for the group and the customers.
"Ron and Melanie are pretty respected in the community and at The Grill. People are here because of them."
Ron, Melaine, Emmet, Phoebe and Rose
But Copeland downplays his role.

"It's been a restaurant since the '30s," Copeland says, "and it has its own style. I don't think of The Little Grill that way."

Indeed, both he and others think of The Grill as an entity with a personality that transcends the people who run it. For many, it's the closest thing to a church, or an Elks Lodge for that matter, that they will ever find. When Copeland first started thinking about selling the restaurant, many were concerned.
"We want to keep this in the community," Shrag says simply.
So with the help of a unique cooperative ownership plan, ambitious workers and an owner ready to give the reigns to others, The Grill will continue. Both Shrag and Copeland think it will move the restaurant forward.
"I'm a little burned out," Copeland said, "a little bit not being creative anymore. I honestly believe it's the best solution for The Grill itself."
Not only will The Grill remain an active part of the city's north side, but also it remains steadfastly Upside Down like the people who run it.
Andrew Scot Bolsinger can be reached at asbolsin@dnronline.com
Here's how to contact the Collective:
Snail Mail:
621 North Main Street
Harrisonburg, va 22802