It’s Earth Day 2008. The climate crisis is accelerating, vast sheets of ice are collapsing, islands in the Pacific have been drowned in rising seas, and weather the world over is growing increasingly violent. If we don’t take immediate action — all of us, and right now — we face a future unlike anything we’ve known.

But let’s be honest… running a successful and (ideally) profitable coffee house is something of a high-wire act at the best of times. And — economically-speaking — these aren’t the best of times. You’ve got a budget to watch; a creeping expense column can throw things out of kilter. Fast. It’s not going to do you or your environmentally-minded customers any good for you to bankrupt yourself in the name of ecology.

That said, there are savings to be found in running a more efficient and sustainable coffee house, coffee shop or espresso bar. Some of these savings can be realized pretty quickly, others require a longer view. If you can, don’t just consider today’s bottom line, but tomorrow’s. And next year’s. And — for goodness sake — don’t lose sight of the ultimate bottom line here… the planet’s climate is in crisis. And it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that the viability of specialty coffee is at the forefront of that crisis.

In greening up your coffee house, there are (at least) three distinct areas where you can bring your efforts to bear: reducing energy, increasing sustainability, and making it easier for your customers to go green, too. We’ll look at each in turn. There’s a lot to slog through here, so I’ll get right to it.

Reduce energy.

A coffee shop is an energy sink. You’ve got lots of things to keep hot, things to keep cool, and excruciatingly specialized equipment to get them all mixed together. Where do you begin?

Start with an energy audit. Chances are your power company will audit your business at no charge, and provide you with a fairly comprehensive list of recommendations. It’s a great place to start… and an ideal way to benchmark where your business stands, right now. You’ll want that baseline to measure against after you’ve made some improvements.

While your power company will have lots of tips for you in terms of properly insulating your space (ceilings, walls, windows, doors) Kill-A-Watt Power Use Monitorand savings you might achieve in terms of lighting (switching to CFL fixtures) and the like, chances are they won’t know enough about your specialized equipment — say, espresso machines — to tell you the whole story. You can augment what you learn on an audit report by using a portable or panel-installed power use monitor (think Kill-A-Watt and the like) to measure how much energy your specialized equipment consumes.

You’ll find your coffee house has any number of power-sucking commercial appliances. You’ll probably learn which of these costs you the most to operate in the course of your energy audit; you may not learn, however, which are the most efficient… or more importantly, which aren’t. Lacking any information to the contrary, here’s where you might want to start.

  • Dishwashers. You probably know you can save energy and water by running your dishwasher only with a full load. (Of course you do!) You may not know that if you invest in an Energy Star rated commercial dishwasher you can see a pretty immediate return on your investment. An efficient dishwasher can save your coffee house up to 90 MBtus, (about $850 a year on your energy bill) and 52,000 gallons of water (probably another $200 a year).1
  • Refrigerators and freezers. Today’s Energy Star rated chill chests are as much as 35% more efficient2 than the bog standard item of the last 10 years, due to advances in compressor and fan-motor efficiency and new anti-sweat technologies (’cause nobody likes a sweaty fridge.) Your new refrigerator can pay for itself in a little more than a year.
  • Espresso machines and brewers. In a great many cases, you can insulate the boilers of your always-on equipment (much like you’ve insulated your shop’s hot water heater, right? Right?) Mind you, if you don’t know the internals of your brewers like the back of your hand, it’s probably best to have it done by your service-tech. A flaming espresso machine is decidedly not eco-friendly; we’re probably talking about kevlar, not simple fiberglass batting.
  • Coffee roasters. Clean, clean, clean! A clean roaster is not only a safe roaster, it’s also far more efficient than one that’s choked up with years of coffee oils, a creosote-filled exhaust and clogged air vents. You may be surprised with the energy savings you realize.

So maybe it’s not in your budget to spring for new, high-efficiency appliances this year… there’s no reason you can’t make sure the appliances you have are operating at peak performance. Clean your fridge’s evaporators, condensers, and heat-exchange coils. Replace worn and leaky door seals. Better still, get a regular service regimen going so that all of your equipment is operating well throughout the year.

Increase sustainability.

Greening up entails more than just curbing your shop’s power demands. It’s also about breaking some bad habits, many of them having to do with things we simply throw away. After decades of disposable everything, we’ve become conspicuous consumers of our limited natural resources. And it’s got to stop.Bio-polymers make plastics obsolete.

  • Enough with the plastic cold cups already. Bio-polymer alternatives biodegrade in commercial composting landfills inside a month; plastics are forever. Greenware cups from Fabri-Kal make petroleum-based plastic cold cups obsolete.
  • Nix those unrecyclable paper hot cups. Look into compostable paper cups like the ecotainer from International Paper, lined with a corn-polymer resin that’s compostable and will degrade over time.
  • Still double-cupping? Just stop, already. Please. Products like the Java Jacket are pretty much de rigeur and new biodegradable entrants like the ecoSleeve appear to work just as well for cold cups, too.
  • Want to take a really big step? Consider getting rid of disposables altogether!
  • Recycle! How many gallons of milk does your coffee house consumer every day, and how many plastic jugs do you empty as a result? If you’re not recycling, that adds up to a heaping pile of forever in a landfill. Recycle your consumables. More, make it easy — like, really easy — for your customers to do the same.
  • Use green cleaning products. Green cleaning agents are safer for your employees to use, and they typically don’t contain any VOCs (volatile organic compounds).3 Check with the Green Restaurant Association for a list of endorsed products.
  • Buy food locally. When you purchase locally grown foodstuffs, suddenly all of your customers are localvores. More to the point, locally produced milk, fruits and vegetables are fresher, taste better, and your dollars support your own community (rather than some faceless transnational food cartel.)

Make it easier for your customers to go green, too.

People are waking up — finally! — to the stark realities of global climate change. And increasingly, folks the world over want to do something about it. People are setting back their thermostats, choosing cars with better gas mileage, replacing their light bulbs — all the while looking for opportunities to do more. You can help.Happy Cow

  • Offer organics. By all means, start by offering a selection of great organic coffees. More, make an organic coffee your house blend; your standard espresso. But don’t stop there! Look for local, organic milk and dairy suppliers, bakers and folks who farm great produce. Make organic an every day thing.
  • Switch to recycled paper products. From paper towels to napkins to bath tissue, recycled paper products — no longer limited to options of “brown” and “rough” — are an increasingly compelling alternative to virgin fiber sources.
  • You know and I know that folks just love those cute little bottles of water. More, we both know those little plastic bottles are just plain stupid, ecologically. So do something about it. Offer ice-cold, filtered water to refill your customer’s reusable bottles, to start.
  • Encourage customers to use their own mugs. Whether you want to host a wall of customer cups for your regulars, or offer a discount for folks who drop in with their travel tumbler in-hand, get behind your customers’ efforts to green up their own lives.
  • Educate your customers. Going green isn’t one of those private, hair-shirt-wearing sort of things… it’s something that you want to make some noise about. Let your customers know that you’re going green. And how. And why. By demonstrating your commitment to the environment, and by making it easy for your customers to make good choices in your place of business, you help them make greener, more sustainable choices everywhere.

Final thoughts… and an invitation.

Greening up your coffee house can save you money (in the long run, certainly, even if it may have some up-front costs). And going green can improve the morale of your staff even as it boosts the loyalty of your customers — all of them. Greening up means a safer, healthier place of business, and will ultimately lead to a safer, healthier environment. Most of all, going green is simply the right thing to do.

While I’ve thrown a lot of ideas into this article, it’s really just a start. I welcome your feedback, your ideas, and your stories about how you’re greening up your coffee house… the challenges you face, and how you overcame them. We’re in this together, after all.

  1. Source: commercial dishwasher savings guide. []
  2. Source: commercial solid door refrigerator / freezer savings guide. []
  3. See for more on volatile organic compounds. []

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