Susan Sheffer, left, and Larisa Demos, worker/owners at the Flat Iron Co-op in Bellows Falls, have created Table 7, a new program to let people who need a cup of coffee or some food to get it — no questions asked.
Robert F. Smith/The Commons
Susan Sheffer, left, and Larisa Demos, worker/owners at the Flat Iron Co-op in Bellows Falls, have created Table 7, a new program to let people who need a cup of coffee or some food to get it — no questions asked.

Covering the costs

With Table 7, a worker-owned coffee shop honors cooperative principles with a program to offer food and drink to those who can’t afford it — no questions asked

BELLOWS FALLS — The Flat Iron Cooperative at 51 The Square has just created a new program to help provide food, coffee, and a welcoming space to members of the community who might need a little help.

The new Table 7 fund will accept contributions that will fund food and drink for customers who might not be able to pay.

They can come into the coffeehouse and ask for “Table 7.” They can then order what they want, and as long as funds in the program will cover it, the food is provided without cost or question.

The Flat Iron is a worker-owned coffeehouse that also functions as an informal Internet cafe and meet-up spot. It is not unusual to find half a dozen locals working on laptops on any given day, or people gathering for work-related interviews or discussions.

In addition to coffee-type drinks, the coffeehouse also offers a wide variety of fresh baked sweets and desserts, along with homemade soups, frittatas, and quiche.

The Flat Iron's worker/owners, Susan Sheffer and Larisa Demos, are determined to honor the set of seven core principles and values that the international cooperative movement has adopted.

Number seven on that list, according to the International Cooperative Alliance, is “Concern for Community.”

Cooperatives work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies supported by the membership.

Sheffer and Demos have applied that principle in a number of ways, most recently by the development of the Table 7 program, named for core principle seven.

“We created a fund so that people can come in here and get what they want, even if they might not be able to pay,” explained Demos. “And we're not talking about passing on leftover food or what we're about to throw out. People in need should be treated as well as people with means.”

To that end, Sheffer and Demos have worked to make the Flat Iron a “community hub where people feel welcome, where they can come and make connections,” said Demos.

Community contributions to the Table 7 fund from individuals and organizations at this point have provided support far beyond the initial demand.

The Bellows Falls Rotary Club, which has provided startup money for the program, “has a long standing tradition of collecting 'Happy Dollars' from members at the beginning of each meeting,” explained Rotary member Marty Gallagher. “You pay to share your happy events with other members. The monies collected are then used at the discretion of the club.”

After hearing about Table 7, the Rotary “found the concept very much in line with our kind of community focus, and knew they would likely need seed funding,” Gallagher said. “We voted to donate our Happy Dollars for the months of March, April, and May, hoping this would give the program a good start.”

A downtown cornerstone for more than 160 years

The Flat Iron Cooperative opened in December 2021. The iconic three-story building has been an integral part of Bellows Falls' downtown since the mid-1800s.

The upper floors have provided housing and office space over the years. In addition to the coffee shop, the ground floor has seen a variety of uses, including as an apothecary and drug store, newspaper office, and a concert venue.

The concert series that eventually morphed into the Roots on the River Festival started over two decades ago with a series of shows in the space.

The Flat Iron has become more than just a place to get coffee. Sheffer and Demos have opened the space for live weekly music, Rotary meetings, knitting groups, open mics, and a variety of community meetings, and they have featured a constant rotating art show featuring local artists and artist meet and greets.

Demos has lived in the area for over 30 years, and worked for several years at Putney's Green Mountain Spinnery worker-owned co-op. Sheffer moved here two years ago. Both women have been involved with a number of community projects, including volunteering to help with several Bellows Falls Downtown Development painting and beautifying events.

“That idea of a worker/owner cooperative - that's what drew me in,” Sheffer said. “I liked the whole idea of a cooperative instead of working for someone else. Plus, I've always loved this building and this space.”

Both said that they were not concerned that people would abuse the program. The fact that more money has been contributed towards the Table 7 program than has been needed so far gives them hope that this trend will continue.

They said they created the space because they “saw a need for people to have food and coffee who may not be able to afford it. The Flat Iron is a place where someone can go who's having a rough time financially, and they can get lunch and still be able to pay a bill.”

Patrons have also made other important connections at the coffeehouse.

“We have a lot of people who have met and become friends here,” Demos explained. “It's a place where different-minded people can get to know each other. An important part of this is seeing people connect.”

In some cases, people have met others at the Flat Iron and ended up getting a job out of the connection.

“We believe that a community should do its best to take care of its citizens,” said Demos.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates