Patty Pan Cooperative is a food business that keeps on growing. They originally started as a vendor in 1997 serving tamales at Seattle-area farmers’ markets. Between 1997 and 2013, the business was a sole proprietorship that Devra Gartenstein owned. She has been a part of a series of workshops in Food Business Finance hosted at Business Impact NW. These workshops have helped her solidify and grow her finances across her businesses.
At one point, Gartenstein eventually came to the conclusion that she didn’t want to be the only one running Patty Pan. At the beginning of 2013, Patty Pan became a worker-owned cooperative. This is a democratic, collaborative workplace that equally shares responsibility, successes, and challenges.
Powered by its nine owners, Patty Pan Cooperative is divided between their appearance in farmers markets where they serve hot food and frozen food items for people to take home and wholesale sales which they have been expanding on over the last several years.
“Along the way we’ve diversified our business model, supplying our products to like-minded grocery stores and catering large and small events,” Clinton McClung, one of the owners of Patty Pan said. “For us business isn’t just business. It’s also a way to sustain ourselves while doing good work and challenging ourselves daily to shop, cook and eat with integrity.”
Putting it All on The Pan
McClung has worked for Patty Pan since 2019. He is one of the nine owners that Patty Pan currently has. “The nice thing about being worker-owned is that we all feel very equal,” McClung said.
This year specifically, the Patty Pan group are particularly passionate about what they do. They learned about the advantages of being a small business, being nimble, and taking on new opportunities.
Around 2015, Patty Pan began making their own tortillas for their grill. The company they had originally bought tortillas from went out of business. They did a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to buy a tortilla machine so they didn’t have to press them all by hand. This had turned out to be really popular with their customers.
Patty Pan Cooperative as a food business has always been selling tamales at the farmers market and decided to invest in equipment so that they could package their tamales and start selling them directly to consumers. This resulted in their business expanding and they started to sell their tamales to small grocery stores and coops, and eventually PCC. You can now find their products available at all PCC stores.
Patty Pan at Home
The lockdown in March of 2020 suddenly caused Patty Pan to lose their business revenue from farmers markets. The direct to consumer element fell away from farmers markets shutting down with no certainty when they would reopen. Patty Pan couldn’t use their grill anywhere because prepared foods weren't allowed outside during most of 2020.
“We really had to get our heads together," McClung said. "Not only how are we going to continue bringing in revenue, how are we going to do that safely and sustainably too?”
Patty Pan has a small kitchen. It's rare for them to see more than three or four people in a room at the same time. They were able to stagger production so that they could keep their workplace relatively safe. Because they were small and nimble, they were able to transition and start doing home deliveries almost right away. Currently, the company's seeking more diverse representatives with the same passion for the company and their mission as they do.
Food by Humans, For Humans
“I really love our motto that we started printing on all of our packaging a couple years ago: food by humans for humans," McClung said. "We really value focusing on local, sustainable, and healthy food and making sure everyone can eat that way if they want to."
McClung said the core of that saying is valuing and being a symbiotic part of the local food supply chain. Patty Pan got involved working directly with farmers, the farmers markets, and other small food businesses.
“The core of our business mission is to stay a part of that community and really champion it to people,” McClung said. “Our goal isn’t to get our products into every grocery store we possibly can. Our goal is to get our products into the right stores where people who want this kind of food will find us and then also stay sustainable to the sense that we don’t have to grow too big to be successful. We want to be just the right size and still be a local small business that sustain ourselves for the long term.”
Community Building Cooperative
Patty Pan doesn’t see their customers as just the people that provide profit for the company. They understand that their customers are the people that appreciate what they’re doing. When the financial downturn happened in 2018, Patty Pan had an initiative to help their customers in tough situations. If people came up to their quesadilla grill and said they just got laid off from their job, they would give the customer the cheapest discount they could.
“Basically give them quesadillas at cost because we’re like right now, we just want to make sure that you get fed,” said McClung. “That’s kind of how we’ve always felt about our customers. Our customer base is the whole world, not just people that are willing to spend money with us.”
McClung said that it was their workers who were the company’s most valuable resource during the time of the lockdown. Because they’re a co-op, they all feel bonded together. They want to ensure that they could be nimble, make changes, and be operational. Their ongoing dedication and teamwork led to some really great changes for Patty Pan over the last couple of years. As Patty Pan Cooperative continues to grow as a food business, they'll stay connected with the Food Business Resource Center at Business Impact NW where any of their owners can find free resources, coaching, and training for future success.
Join food businesses like Patty Pan Cooperative at this year's Food Biz Week 2022! Connect with resources, insight, and advice from peer local food and farm businesses. Food Biz Week 2022 will be hosted live daily from February 22nd, 2022 - February 25th, 2022. See full details, schedule, and tickets here.