Michael Moore's new film puts spotlight on Petaluma company

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For an American company, coming square into the sights of pugnacious populist filmmaker Michael Moore is usually not cause for celebration.

But for Petaluma's Alvarado Street Bakery, being featured in Moore's new film, "Capitalism: A Love Story," is an affirmation of decades of doing business differently.

"It's newfound notoriety for something we've been doing for 30 years," said Michael Girkout, president of the worker-owned cooperative that started in Santa Rosa and is now a nationwide leader in the organic whole grain bread market.

True to its egalitarian ethic, the company used three tickets Moore gave it to the film's Sept. 17 Hollywood premiere to send production workers Sara Romero, Ronnie Bell and Custodio Quiroz.

Romero said that after the birth of her children, the red carpet affair, during which Moore sported an Alvarado Street Bakery cap, was "one of the best experiences of my life."

"Somebody like me, we don't have those opportunities, and to be in a movie like this is something I really, really enjoyed," the Santa Rosa resident said.

Part of the thrill, Romero said, was <NO1><NO>the chance to "represent Alvarado Street as another option to the (dominant economic) system."

In "Capitalism: A Love Story," which opens today around the country, Moore takes aim at what he characterizes as a capitalist culture run amok.

He holds up the bakery — with 117 employees and $24 million in annual revenues — as an example of a successful capitalist alternative, where workers are as powerful as executives, profits are shared equally and workers are valued for more than their labor.

"This could be potentially a new model," said Cory Fisher, a field producer and researcher for Moore. "A way for workers to feel engaged and not marginalized, and that they have a stake in their future."

Fisher helped choose the bakery as a subject for the film and directed the segment that focused on it.

"They stood out," she said. "They're successful, their workers are able to make a living wage, they seem empowered and happy and you just start to look around and wonder, &amp;&lsquo;Why aren't other companies doing this?"

Thursday, on a plant floor richly scented with caraway seeds, Romero, who spent years previously in the more traditionally corporate food production industry, said: "I'm going to tell you something, I'm a very dedicated worker and to me, it seems that if you plant something like this, and you see it grow up, it makes me very proud."

Capitalism: A Love Story" opens tonight in Santa Rosa at the Rialto Cinemas Lakeside and Petaluma Boulevard Cinemas. The owner/employees of Alvarado Street Bakery — from the production floor to the executive suite — have rented the Rialto's 250-seat cinema for a special showing Tuesday.

"It's to celebrate the worker democracy and the cooperative business model," said Girkout, who described the company as "wildly profitable," although he wouldn't disclose precise figures.

In practical terms, Alvarado Street Bakery is run with each employee, or "member" of the cooperative, given one share a year in the company. That share grants the employee — from the CEO on down — a right to an equal vote on matters ranging from reinvesting profits to salaries to health and other benefits.

"Because we are they," said Girkout, "we tend to give ourselves the best benefits possible."

All employees relinquish their share at the end of the year and are granted a new one, and each gets only one.

"There's no big I's and little You's," said Ronnie Bell, a bread line quality control supervisor and one of those who attended the film's opening. "Everything is shared."

Girkout — and Moore, in his film — said that model has built a company that ships out 40,000 loaves of bread a day, where the average worker earns between $65,000 and $70,000 a year, where production workers earn between $18 and $22 an hour, and the ratio of executive to worker compensation is less than three to one.

The majority of employees have been with the company for more than 15 years, Girkout said.

"They're large and successful, they're one of the case studies we point to and that people study," said Melissa Hoover, executive director of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives. The San Francisco-based industry group counts some of the country's largest cooperatives among its 55 members.

The bakery ranks first among the group's members in terms of total worker compensation, and third in terms of gross sales and number of workers, Hoover said.

The bakery deserves its spotlight, said Petaluma Chamber of Commerce CEO Onita Pellegrini: "We are proud of Alvarado Street Bakery — they should be held up as an example."

Still, in a testimony to the raw divides that Moore likes to plumb, Pellegrini was dubious about the film.

"I don't have much nice to say," about Moore's critique of capitalism, she said. "But that's his point of view and he's entitled to it. That's the American way."

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