Colin Flahive Opened a Restaurant in China That's a Beacon of Enlightened Management

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Colin Flahive and three friends didn't open Salvador's Coffee House in 2004, on a busy street in the capital of China's southwestern Yunnan Province, for ethical or humanitarian reasons. At the time, they were just trying to make back the $30,000 they'd invested in the business while fending off the cockroaches they had inherited from a previous tenant.

But friends say they have always treated their employees - young women from a rural corner of Yunnan - with kindness, respect, and an awareness of the harsh realities facing rural migrants trying to make a better life in Chinese cities.

Now Mr. Flahive has linked the business to two grass-roots initiatives he created: an organic grocery service and a project to offer art and health classes in rural villages. He also leads or facilitates a range of nonprofit and humanitarian efforts across the province, including raising $30,000 for a Salvador's employee who faced a life-threatening medical emergency.

"Colin is a bridge that so infrequently exists in China" between nonprofits, volunteers, and the communities they serve, says Justin Kiersky, a US expatriate in Kunming and a course director for the Colorado-based company Where There Be Dragons, which sends US high school and college students to volunteer with Flahive's art and health-education initiative. "He wears many hats, and he does it with such class that he's able to create a sense of trust with the people he works with, whether ... a village head or one of the girls who works for him."

The 24 employees at Salvador's have health care and vacation packages. They live near their workplace, with a maximum of one roommate, in rooms provided by Salvador's. They also receive weekly English-language tutoring and overtime pay after 50 hours of weekly work, and are eligible for profit-sharing options after three months. And the restaurant has a flat management structure, meaning every employee learns and performs most of the jobs in the kitchen and serving area.

Flahive says the employee benefits, which may not sound luxurious, are much better than what most Kunming restaurants offer migrants: typically, 80-hour workweeks, with one day off per month and no overtime pay; housing that packs four to eight workers into each cramped room; and workplaces with rigid hierarchies.

Unlike most Kunming service workers, Salvador's employees stay an average of four years.

"What Salvador's is doing seems to be quite exceptional for small- scale employers [in China]," Eileen Otis, a sociology professor at the University of Oregon who studies China's service workplaces, writes in an e-mail. "A handful of larger employers on occasion offer migrant workers better working conditions, but they are also exceptional."

Green Kunming, the organic grocery service that Flahive started in 2009, resembles "community-supported agriculture" projects in the United States, which are usually affiliated with organic farms. It is headquartered at Salvador's and supports a network of nine organic suppliers producing everything from oats to cheese to chickpeas. It earns the equivalent of about $65 per day, Flahive says.

Village Progress, his nonprofit initiative, arranges for teams of international volunteers to teach art and health-education classes in rural villages and underprivileged Kunming schools. Where There Be Dragons is an enthusiastic partner, according to Mr. Kiersky, one of the organization's China-based course directors.

Flahive, who grew up in Denver and worked in several Colorado restaurants, says the two initiatives are win-win because they benefit communities and the environment while also raising the profile of his business.

"I don't feel bad saying there's a profit-oriented side" in the nonprofit work, he says on a recent Saturday morning at Salvador's.

He first traveled to China in 1998 as a tourist, and returned in 2001 to study martial arts in Dali, a city about 200 miles west of Kunming. …