CAMBRIDGE — Late last year, the Cambridge coffee shop chain Darwin’s Ltd. closed in the midst of its employees’ crusade for more of a say in the workplace.
Now, with the debut of the Circus Cooperative Cafe in one of Darwin’s’ former locations, they have finally spoken.
On Sept. 12, a little under nine months after Darwin’s poured its last cup of coffee following a stretch of contentious union negotiations, four of its onetime employees launched the new cafe at 31 Putnam Ave.
They’re slinging many of the same sandwiches as Darwin’s, in the same turquoise-and-yellow interior. But what was once a traditional proprietorship is now an employee-owned cooperative, where hires are eligible after six months to become “worker-owners,” entitling them to a say in business decisions and a slice of the profits.
The name, workers said, is a reflection of the big top atmosphere of running a cafe: the chaos, but also the range of players necessary to bring it to life.
“It takes all kinds to run a coffee shop,” said worker-owner Caleb Zedek.
Workers began discussing taking over one of the properties “immediately” after Steven and Isabel Darwin announced last November that they would be closing their three remaining cafes, said Zedek, who worked at the Cambridge Street Darwin’s location.
The initial plan was just to “put a new name on the cafe,” Zedek said, but that soon gave way to a different vision: an establishment by and for its community.
For the four current worker-owners, this means setting up a metal rack stocked with free books and zines inside the store. It means sourcing coffee from Equal Exchange, a fellow co-op. It means wages starting at $16 an hour, a dollar above minimum wage.
In other words, employees said, while the closure of Darwin’s was the result of the decision of two people, the success of Circus will be dependent on the input of many.
“It feels much better doing it for yourself than for your boss — who’s making money off of you,” said Bartholomew Cass, another worker-owner.
Already, getting the doors open was a team effort. The worker-owners crowdfunded about $13,000 from more than 150 donors, put in $10,000 of their own capital, and took out a “pretty sizable loan” from the Cooperative Fund of the Northeast, said Zedek, declining to give a specific number. They bought the business, including equipment, from the Darwins, who are now their landlords.
“They had experience. They were buying a going concern. It was clear that people in the community supported Darwin’s, missed Darwin’s, and would patronize a coffee shop when it came back into that space,” said Maggie Cohn, Circus’s loan officer at the CFNE.
After they secured funding, getting Circus up and running “definitely was DIY,” said Zedek. Over the summer, they nailed down management plans, connected with vendors, and redesigned the menu.
With the Darwins’ blessing, Circus revived some of their street-named sandwiches — including the Mt. Auburn, a turkey-and-swiss customer favorite. These sit alongside new creations, like the Ngo Van: garlic ginger tofu topped with vegan coleslaw on toasted sourdough.
The opening represents a rapid rebirth for the storefront, which went dark last December, along with the Darwin’s locations at Cambridge Street and at Massachusetts Avenue.
Last October, the Darwins announced their decision to close the original Mt. Auburn Street location, citing “workload and personal health concerns.” In response, employees, who unionized in 2021 — part of a wave of labor activity at local cafes — picketed outside Cambridge City Hall and the Darwins’ home. They sought guaranteed employment for displaced workers, improved health care and paid-time-off policies, and $24-an-hour wages. Shortly after, the Darwins announced they would shutter the three remaining coffee shops.
Circus doesn’t have $24-an-hour wages, nor does it have health care or paid time off — at least not yet. Part of becoming an owner, said worker-owner Kelly Hunter, is seeing “why it’s difficult to make those things happen.” But with the tight-knit leadership group, she said, it will be easier to discuss those benefits down the line.
“Money is great and everything, and health insurance and all that is really great, but also, having agency is a priceless thing,” said Hunter, who worked at the Mt. Auburn location through 2019, before unionization.
Now, only the Massachusetts Avenue location, near Central Square, remains vacant; a cafe named Roust has moved into the Mt. Auburn property, and Israeli-inspired eatery Asaro Bakery and Cafe is slated to take over the Cambridge Street location. The Mass. Avenue location is currently under negotiation, Isabel Darwin said in an email to the Globe.
“Under the circumstances at the time, we felt it was best to bring Darwin’s Ltd. to a final close,” she said. “Our intention was to sell them off one neighborhood café at a time. The process is a slow and steady one, and we continue to follow through with that decision.”
At Circus, there is still much to be done: a website to build, signage to install, and art to hang on the walls. Eventually, the worker-owners want to offer after-hours use of the space to community groups.
But as for the working environment, the “cowboy culture” often present in food service settings is nowhere to be found, said barista Sam Swedberg, who worked at the location when it was Darwin’s from August through its closure.
“Even when it’s busy,” he said, “it’s totally different than busy at other places I’ve worked at.”
And customers, for their part, are happy to once again have their neighborhood stomping ground.
“It looks almost exactly the same as before,” said Austin Mancenido, who came in on a Friday afternoon for coffee and a sandwich. “But I guess it’s, like, new.”