A beloved vegan bakery in Fremont is facing displacement after its landlord filed permits to demolish the building and build a new seven-story residential and commercial development.
Lazy Cow Bakery, which opened its brick-and-mortar storefront along Fremont Avenue in March 2022, has attracted a dedicated customer base as one of the only vegan bakeries in the city. Operating as a de facto socialist cooperative, the store maintains a strong community presence with its sister organization, the mutual aid group Casa del Xoloitzcuintle.
“Part of the model for me when I was putting it together was for it to be a radical socialist business. I wanted it to be for-profit and then have those profits split among the workers rather than going to the owner,” said founder and owner Lara de la Rosa. “And then the mutual aid group rose alongside that. It encapsulates a ton of different things. The community center is a cultural center for Chicano people, because that was something I was not really seeing in North Seattle.”
Casa del Xolo hosts vegan dinners every Wednesday night and operates a free community pantry in the space. The collective also hosts music shows, educational workshops and other community events.
The two projects are the brainchild of De la Rosa. A scientist by trade, she never knew she was going to be a baker. In her youth, De la Rosa was a prodigy, graduating from high school at the age of 13 and enrolling in UC San Diego to study biochemistry.
When she moved to Seattle in 2019 to work at a lab in the University of Washington, De la Rosa said that she wasn’t very political. But during the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprising, she took part in the protests and began reading more political theory and attending philosophy classes at UW. This political analysis strongly resonated with negative experiences that her family had endured at the hands of the oppressive U.S. immigration and policing systems.
In the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, De la Rosa started Lazy Cow out of her basement initially as a passion project, selling her baked goods through Instagram. It quickly blossomed into much more. The bakery attracted many supporters; a GoFundMe fundraiser brought in $40,000 to help De la Rosa open a physical location.
At the heart of Lazy Cow and Casa del Xolo is the mission for a better world. Recently, the bakery created a fund to finance free food and coffee to customers who can’t afford to pay. All these efforts have come with great commitment and personal sacrifice from De la Rosa and her co-workers.
“I’m very, very busy. … Sometimes the bakery doesn’t make enough money to pay me so I just work a lot of hours for free and go into a lot of debt,” De la Rosa said.
And now De La Rosa is facing the potential of an even bigger loss. In 2022, the previous property owners sold the cluster of buildings on the corner of Fremont Avenue North and North 35th Street for $17.4 million to Blueprint Capital, a firm that specializes in construction financing. According to its website, Blueprint Capital has provided more than $2 billion in funding to developers since 2009.
Back in July, Blueprint filed demolition permits with the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections, as well as plans for a new seven-story mixed use commercial and residential building worth at least $11 million.
De la Rosa said that the news of the impending demolition was distressing, especially after all the work she did to convert the space from a clothing store to a dinning establishment. The demolition permit is set to expire in January 2025, meaning that at any time the landlord could give six months’ notice to Lazy Cow that it has to move out.
Blueprint Capital did not respond to a request for comment.
What’s happening to Lazy Cow and Casa del Xolo is far from an isolated incident. Seattle has been inundated with redevelopments in core neighborhoods, sparked by high land and rent prices and easy access to capital. Firms like Blueprint aim to maximize profit, irrespective of the potential dislocation of tenants and small businesses, leaving them to bear the stress and costs of relocation. While Seattle mandates landlords pay relocation assistance to residents in certain circumstances, there is no such requirement for commercial tenants. This puts socialist-minded collectives like Lazy Cow, who are already tight on cash, in a difficult spot.
However, this weakness may also prove to be one of its greatest strengths — De la Rosa said that Lazy Cow and Casa del Xolo are organizing a political campaign to fight the displacement. In consultation with veteran labor organizers, the cooperative is formulating a strategy to win relocation assistance from Blueprint. It plans on harnessing the full breadth of its community support to maximize pressure on the landlord and inflict reputational damage if it refuses to compromise.
Unlike some other anti-displacement campaigns, the goal for Lazy Cow isn’t to stop the development or prevent the impending relocation altogether. Instead, the bakery is seeking monetary compensation to help recoup the money it spent on remodeling its space, cover moving costs, repay its startup loan and save up for a down payment. De la Rosa says that the end goal is to break out entirely from the exploitative landlord-tenant relationship.
“I know that Blueprint Capital is a billion-dollar company because we pay them $4,000 a month in rent every month and we work our asses off in that bakery, to give them that money every month, so that they can become more powerful,” De la Rosa said. “So even if they gave us a retail space to come back to, why would we want to keep making them richer, right?”
De la Rosa is flipping the narrative of business on its head, leading some workers, like barista Janick Gold, to see the bakery as much more than just another part-time gig. Gold, who met De la Rosa at UW studying philosophy, said that the mutual aid work of Lazy Cow and Casa del Xolo — as well as its socialist outlook — has convinced him to join the cooperative for the long haul.
“Ever since this demolition situation has arisen, it really forced me to reckon with how much I’ve come to care about this enterprise,” Gold said. “And I had to ask myself, ‘Look, do you still want to continue trying to get a job that could potentially force you to leave here in a matter of days or weeks?’ And I decided that being reliably here, and being able to assure Lara and all of my other co-workers that I will continue to be here, was more important to me now than any other consideration.”
Sebastian Kennedy, a friend of De la Rosa and frequent patron of Lazy Cow and Casa del Xolo, said that the collective has changed his life. He said that the bakery and mutual aid group has helped him find more stability while being homeless.
“They helped me with everything,” Kennedy said. “Yeah food, clothing, showers, transportation. They helped me get a place to live.”
Despite the difficulties and sacrifices, De la Rosa is optimistic about the prospect of creating a viable socialist cooperative business.
“We found a space in Wallingford that they were willing to do a lease-to-buy,” De la Rosa said. “So it could be a situation where we don’t have to ever worry about this kind of gentrification happening again, because we would own the building.”
Read more of the Oct. 25-31, 2023 issue.