Cafe mixed both idealism and food

It was late last Friday, and University senior Angela Scharfenberger was tired. “I don’t know what we could have done,” she said. “Things were kind of a mess.”
Scharfenberger was about to talk about the $35,000 debt she and other New Riverside Cafe collective members face. She was about to discuss how she felt about being part of a group that had been running a community landmark for 27 years. But she was soon distracted by a customer, who wanted to know if there was still vegetarian lasagna available.
A band was about to begin playing. It would have been a normal night at the New Riv, except for one thing — it was the cafe’s last.
“It’s been really amazing,” Scharfenberger said. “It’s just — reality.”
Forging a reality different from traditional business culture was the goal of the New Riverside Cafe, located on the West Bank at 329 Cedar Ave. S., since its creation in 1970. Unlike many businesses, financial profit was explicitly rejected as a restaurant goal. But after more than a quarter-century of fighting for its neighborhood and fighting off its creditors, the New Riverside Cafe is gone — a reminder that idealism can keep a business running for a long time, but also that goodwill is not always as important as good management.
Money was not what kept the New Riverside Cafe going for 27 years, and it wasn’t supposed to be. “The Riv was founded with the idealism that the world could be changed,” said Joey Grochin said, a New Riverside collective member during the 1970s.
“A better world involved sharing. A better world meant no coercion, and a better world would oppose oppression. It was not based on a profit motive,” Grochin said.
Since the New Riv’s establishment in 1970, the restaurant offered a menu of vegetarian dishes mixed with community activism, seasoned by a commitment to collective management. The Rev. Bill Teska remembers the collective’s early days, when the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood was a haven for the youth counterculture of the late ’60s and early ’70s.
“There wasn’t any place where hippies could get good nutritious food for little or nothing,” Teska said. “There was no place to play music that wasn’t a bar. Everyone seemed to recognize the need for a community center in the neighborhood.”
Teska, an Episcopalian minister, helped found the cafe in an old caramel-apple factory in September 1970. The collective grew quickly, and during the 1970s ran several businesses — Macho Movers, Ace Truck Parts and Funny Foods Catering. “There was this overall feeling of a cohesive extended family unit,” said Ralph Wittcoff, a collective member during the 1970s.
As a collectively managed organization, the New Riverside group made business decisions by consensus, without central administration. While that made for long meetings, Wittcoff said, the system worked. “It benefited all its members,” Wittcoff said. “The collective management was the reason for the success.”
But success was never measured by finances. For its first five years the New Riv didn’t have set prices for meals — “Eat what you need, pay what you can afford” was an early motto — and its proudest achievements were political. Plans by Cedar Riverside Associates — a neighborhood development group — to buy area properties for a high-rise complex were opposed by the New Riverside collective in tandem with other neighborhood groups. The New Riv’s building was owned by Cedar Riverside Associates, and the collective participated in the litigation and rent strike that forced the developers to scrap their plans.
Meanwhile, the cafe faced periodic eviction threats. The first came less than a year after the New Riverside Cafe opened. The University forced the collective to move to its current location when it decided to demolish the old factory to build a parking ramp. The rent strike provoked another attempt to close the restaurant, this time by Cedar Riverside Associates. The developers sold the building to a group that included the collective in 1977.
Al Haug, known as “Uncle Al” to collective members for the past 18 years, began working at the cafe shortly after the development battle was won. While community activism died down, the collective stayed the same. “The climate (of activism) never changed,” Haug said.
The 1980s were the cafe’s most prosperous times. A 1985 remodeling brought in new customers, and the New Riv made profits from wholesaling vegetarian products to other Twin Cities co-ops and health food stores. But it was during the prosperous years that the problems that ultimately brought down the New Riverside Cafe began.
Tax problems, the origin of which remain unclear, began to plague the cafe during that period. Confusion among employees about proper tax codes created the debt that still hangs over current collective members.
Policy changes, competition and staffing difficulties also contributed to the cafe’s demise. The cafe banned smoking in 1993, a move that drove some customers to the Hard Times Cafe across the street. While the Hard Times and New Riv were “the friendliest rivals you ever saw,” said 12-year collective member Ken Logsdon, “they were taking our customers away.”
Meanwhile, the New Riv’s staff situation grew more challenging every year. Personal disagreements grew more acute in the early ’90s. “There was a lot of politically correct finger pointing for a couple years there,” Haug said. “If someone was male, something was wrong with them. We had a dish called Mexican Lasagna, and someone said that was racist — the recipe was from someone’s mother in Mexico.”
Gregory McDonald left the collective in 1992, and accused the collective of that period of not tolerating him because he was a black male. “People would say ‘I’m not comfortable around you, you’re a typical male.'”
Finally, the collective itself declined. Fewer new members and higher turnover led to only about a dozen members at the end, down from a stable group of 30-35 throughout the New Riv’s first quarter century. Scharfenberger joined the collective 15 months ago, and after trying to put the collective’s incomplete financial records in order, helped make the decision to close the Riv down.
“We didn’t have the people, and we didn’t have the money. It’s a lot of loss,” Scharfenberger said.
The cafe officially announced it was closing earlier this month. Friday’s “wake” packed the cafe from 4 p.m. until the next morning. While boxes and buckets were passed for contributions to cover the cafe’s debts, no real dent was made in the amount owed in back taxes. No dent was made in the collective’s idealism either. “I feel like human beings are naturally meant to be together, and living in this group is a beautiful thing I’ve had,” Scharfenberger said.
“This was more than just a cheap restaurant, and everybody had a vision,” Haug said. “It may not have been the same vision, but it was there. And it was a true workplace democracy for 27 years, and it was successful.”
Grochin pointed out that collective management is still alive and well in the Twin Cities, citing Hard Times and the Seward Cafe on Franklin Avenue as examples of worker-managed businesses that are doing well. He attributed changes in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood as part of the reason for the Riv’s demise. No longer the hippie enclave it once was, the New Riverside is seen by some as a vestige of a valued but bygone era. “I think the neighborhood has changed, and the Riv didn’t change enough with it,” he said.
“My suggestion for a name in 1970 was the Genuine Bohemian Intellectual Leftover Beatnik Last Stand Cafe, with ‘Last Stand Cafe’ the short name. Maybe the last stand has been made,” Grochin said.
But with better management, McDonald maintains, the Riv could have survived. “I really believe in collectivism,” he said. “This does not have to die. This does not have to be like it is. When I left, I knew this was going to happen, and now I’m angry. … We need to go back to the basics. There are enough good people on this planet not to let this thing die.”
The wake drew the largest crowd anyone could remember at the cafe. Several former and current collective members expressed frustration that the attention given to the cafe in its demise could have saved it had the support come earlier.
“Now that the Riv’s dead, maybe people will be interested in it,” Logsdon said. “It was the most improbable success story,” he said. “It had nothing but crises all along.”
Collective members plan reunions and a record at the Minnesota State Historical Society. “People should remember the happy times. That’s all a person’s life is — the impression they left,” Logsdon said.
The impression left by the New Riverside Cafe was one of community activism and idealism — and at the end, anachronism. But one of the collective’s original goals, to stop the building of high-rise apartments in the area, did succeed. And despite the restaurant’s problems, collective management styles still succeed. And while money finally brought down the cafe, profit was never what the New Riv was about. The New Riverside Cafe was dedicated to collective ideals and making an unconventional business work. And for 27 years, it did.
And for one last night, Cedar-Riverside residents got their vegetarian lasagna. “It was a wonderful community,” said Angela Scharfenberger as she emerged from the New Riv kitchen. “A lot of people think a lot of things about this place. But it’s really something beautiful.”

Alan Bjerga is the Daily’s managing editor. He welcomes comments via e-mail to [email protected]

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