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
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
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