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Sarah Penix / For The Post
Every morning, Casa Nueva opens its doors to serve fresh, hot coffee and a range of Mexican-style breakfasts made from locally sourced produce. Every evening, the cantina fills with community members looking for good company and a filling meal while they enjoy an array of events.
For more than 30 years, Casa Nueva has served as a “living-room space” for the Athens community. The restaurant offers events nearly every night of the week, including book shows, live music, American Sign Language conversation hour and trivia nights. That is not, however, the only way the restaurant engages the community.
“Athens is sort of a little bubble away from the rest of the world it seems like, and one of the reasons is because … we’re more of a liberal kind of place,” Human Resources Coordinator Candida Stamp said. “I think Casa being a co-operative has been sort of a leader in that kind of cultural thinking, being a countercultural sort of community that this is a place where people can come for the atmosphere.”
Casa Nueva not only sources food locally, it also hosts local bands and an open-mic night, holds conversation hours and displays art by local artists.
“We try to just promote our space as like, ‘use it for what you want to use it for,’ ” Marketing Coordinator Grace Corbin said. “The American Sign Language conversation hour is really taking off. They’ve only been doing that for a little while, and there’s at least one or two more people each week than there were before.”
Casa is invested in listening to their customers and accommodating customer feedback, Corbin said.
“I think Casa being a co-operative has been sort of a leader in that kind of cultural thinking, being a countercultural sort of community that this is a place where people can come for the atmosphere.”– Candida Stamp
“Because our customers would always come pull on our door and want breakfast ... we were open for that, and it went really well, and our customers responded really well,” Corbin said. “The Friday after Thanksgiving is a great example because we (have) always just been closed so our employees would have another morning to not have to work. But if you’re working and it’s busy, it’s a great, fun environment.”
Because Casa Nueva is co-operational, it is run entirely by its employees.
“We try to hire a mix of people — some students and some people who will stay longer term,” Stamp said. “In 2000, we got bigger and had a lot more staff, and it was harder to get everybody to be interested in becoming an owner.”
In 2000, the restaurant began hiring employees who are considered associates, meaning that they cannot vote at monthly membership meetings. During those meetings, owners vote on agenda items and discuss expanding the business.
In recent years, Casa owners decided to expand by selling items in Athens stores. More than a decade ago, Casa Nueva sold a line of bottled salsas.
While Casa’s products were on the market about ten years ago, the restaurant used shared kitchen space at the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks, a community-based economic development organization.
“We had a bottled line of salsas 10 or 15 years ago, and it went well, but the frustration came because we were using a shared kitchen space,” Corbin said. “Frustration came because of scheduling. Some just came from the frustration of a shared space."
Due to customer demand, the co-op decided to relaunch products and now sells six different kinds house-made of salsas, as well as applesauce, bloody mary mix and pickles. The products are now in about 20 regional stores, including Kroger in Athens.
Casa does not take tips. If customers leave money, the restaurant distributes it to a different non-profit organization each month, including the Southeast Ohio Food Bank and Habitat for Humanity Restore, Stamp said.
“We ask (the charities) to come in and have an event early in the month, and they talk about their group,” Corbin said. “We try to bring the community in to learn about some local charities.”
Photo by: Mijana Mazur / For The Post
Development by: Taylor Johnston / Digital Production Editor