For baker reinventing his life in San Francisco, worker-ownership is a sweet deal

“Not all bakers are early risers,” said Howard Ryan. “I go to work at noon now.”

After nearly 20 years as an Arizmendi Bakery worker-owner, Ryan goes in three or four days a week to bake and sell crusty breads, dried fruit scones and seasonal delicacies like stollen, fruitcake and Bûche de Noël.

The rest of the time he devotes to reclaiming his San Francisco life: In a recent season he was evicted from his Inner Sunset residence, his dog died of cancer and a difficult relationship drew to a dramatic close. He has since relaxed into a life across town in North Beach.

“It was like moving to another world class city without having to leave San Francisco,” he said.

“I couldn’t be happier living and baking in this city. The business is stable. I‘m more stable.”

Things weren’t quite so clear for Ryan when he moved here from Minneapolis in 1999.

“I moved for a relationship and had three of the worst jobs I had in my life. I almost moved back,” he said.

He recalled bounced paychecks and other indignities served up to him in the local food trade.

“A very successful business which will not go named was exploiting its workers. I didn’t know that happened outside of novels. I was really disillusioned with what I thought was supposed to be a magical place,” he said.

But magic happened in the nick of time.

“This coop bakery was opening three blocks from my house,” he said of Arizmendi on Ninth Avenue. The bakery is among the businesses in the Arizmendi Association of Cooperatives, rooted in the philosophy that worker ownership and participation in a democratic workplace contributes to a more democratic society.

“Arizmendi had so many things I need in a job, a livelihood, a career, whatever you want to call it. I’m still there and many of the people I started with are still there,” said Ryan.

“People will ask me, ‘Why don’t you own your own bakery?’ and I just laugh. I got out of the restaurant business because everyone I knew in it was either an alcoholic or committing suicide,” he said. “The division between ownership and labor was horrible.”

At Arizmendi, 20 owner-workers share responsibilities. “We try to work three to four days a week and take six weeks of vacation. We should all be doing that,” he said.

One might think collective business practice would be more prevalent in our forward thinking region, but the Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives lists fewer than 40. I asked Ryan why he thinks more workers don’t make the choice to start or join coops.

“Fear,” said Ryan. “There is a comfort and stability in being an employee. No one wants to be a boss until they figure out, it isn’t so bad, it’s empowering and they can handle it.” He said he owes his knowledge of worker strength to his family.

“My mom was a union woman in Wisconsin,” he said.

Born in Germany and raised by working class parents in the Midwest with two brothers in a house filled with records, musical instruments and good books (Ryan still reads about 50 titles a year, most of them used from Green Apple); he played punk rock in college and figured he’d write screenplays or form a band.

“I had good enough ears to know my own recordings were derivative,” he said. “There was something holding me back from owning it too much. It just wasn’t me.”

Sidetracked by romance and the need to work, he continued to dabble with found sound and recording technology and became DJ Schmeejay (he was the last person to spin records on-air at the defunct community radio station, KUSF), but it wasn’t until his life exploded that Ryan got back in touch with his art: Snickers is his improvisational music and performance project, delivered in installments and based on his experience in a difficult relationship.

“Abusive relationships are so interesting in terms of our responsibility for being in them,” he said. “It’s not that easy to leave when you’re in love.”

It was against this backdrop that Ryan lost his rental unit, walking distance from Arizmendi (he burned his driver’s license back in Minneapolis like a draft card, out of a sense of responsibility to the environment).

“I wasn’t upset about the eviction. If you can afford to buy a house in the city, you should be able to live there too and the owner actually moved in,” he said. He experienced more high stakes drama with his partner but the short version ends with a silver-lining: His own North Beach apartment.

“One of my brothers asked if I was glad all that happened, and I wouldn’t go down that road. But I’ve changed. I have boundaries now. I say no more frequently.”

Now approaching his 20th anniversary of living in The City, Ryan can finally imagine himself growing old here.

“We love it, we hate it… It’s incredibly fulfilling in so many ways,” he said. “But I feel a little complicit in the greed just living here. I try to concentrate on setting a different kind of example of a life.”

“Right now, I’m happy, and at the same time I’m aware of all the garbage,” he said, looking up from his coffee as we sit in the shadow of downtown’s tallest skyscrapers. “I always have a choice,” he said, still striving for the right live-work balance.

“I’m trying to fight the battles I think need to be fought and keep my own sanity and I’m not going to let any of it get in the way of me having a good day,” he said.

Baker-owner Howard Ryan slices off loaves of fresh sourdough for the next day’s batch at the worker-owned cooperative Arizmendi Bakery in the Inner Sunset District on Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” Follow her at and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.

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