Caring for his employees led him to undertake an ever-wider range of nonprofit and humanitarian efforts across the province.
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. He and a business partner, Kris Ariel, ran a cafe in Dali for a year, but relocated to Kunming, a city of about 6 million, in 2004 – mainly because of an attractive lease offer.
Opening Salvador's in downtown Kunming required six months of navigating China's complex bureaucracy. Flahive had to travel by train from Kunming to a Hong Kong bank carrying the equivalent of $14,000 in cash. He and the other co-owners – Mr. Ariel, Josh Pollock, and Naoko Okano – were also forced to retrace their steps to the 20-odd stores in three provinces where they had bought their business supplies in order to obtain receipts for tax purposes.
But the cafe-cum-restaurant did open, and it has become "the center of the food and drink scene for foreign residents of Kunming and the more internationally inclined Chinese," says Chris Horton, an American expatriate and founder of GoKunming.com, an English-language news and community website. Part of the attraction was "knowing that I was giving money to owners that cared about the community and girls that for me had become something akin to sisters," Mr. Horton adds.
But Flahive says it wasn't until after 2008, when a bomb exploded in the bathroom at Salvador's, that he began to focus on building socially conscious elements into his work.
The blast killed the bomber, whose motives were unclear, but did not cause any other injuries. The incident made international headlines and took a financial toll on his business.
Flahive says it also forced him to take stock of his personal priorities. "It destroyed me, mentally, and I rebuilt myself," he says.
Part of the healing process entailed traveling about seven hours by car to the villages in Lincang Prefecture, in southwest Yunnan, where most of his employees are from. He spent time in their homes and with their families and learned more about the challenges facing young workers who migrate from rural Yunnan to Kunming.
Lack of adequate education and health care topped the list. So a few months later, Flahive founded Village Progress, his rural initiative, and began applying for grants for a range of projects, such as building multimedia labs and clean-burning stoves in Yunnan villages.
But he was applying during the financial crisis, and responses from granting agencies were not encouraging. "I had a utopian vision, and I'd never worked in nonprofits, so I didn't have ... realistic expectations," he says.
Most of his ideas were shelved, but Village Progress has persisted – albeit on a much smaller scale. And he has found, he says, that he can make a positive impact on rural communities and migrants by working in partnership with other, larger projects.
For example, he worked with the Lincang government's health department to facilitate the training of 400 village doctors by the Kunming-based nonprofit China California Heart Watch. He recruits volunteers to work for Heart to Heart, another local nonprofit, which operates a community center for migrant schoolchildren in Kunming. And last October, he helped a Salvador's employee whose condition had been diagnosed as kidney failure. Doctors said Li Ping would need lifelong dialysis, and her insurance policy didn't cover the $350 per month treatments. Her parents, who live in a remote mountain village, had assumed she would die, Flahive recalls.
But he and his business partners rallied friends and strangers in Kunming to raise $8,000 for Ms. Li in just two weeks. She survived and is now back on her feet. Since October, donations have climbed to $30,000 – enough for seven years of dialysis. A picture of Li appeared on the Salvador's specials menu for months, with a request for further donations. Flahive now is organizing online fundraisers for her through the website youcaring.com.
Helping Li, Flahive says, has effectively committed him and his co-owners to covering the medical costs of any other employee who may fall seriously ill.
"It's a little scary, but it's not something we would back away from," he says. "It's just that we have to find a way to make it work."
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• Global Volunteers was founded to help advance peace, racial reconciliation, and mutual international understanding between peoples of diverse cultures. Project: Volunteer to teach children and teachers in China.