Synergy Global Forum – A Master Class in Disruption

I’m shaking things up a bit. I decided to get a taste of sustainability at another type of venue – a business, entrepreneur event – a demographic that likes (needs?) their coffee. Here are a few things I learned and observed over the course of the two days (October 27-28, 2017).

Day 1

I ascend a set of marble steps, entering one of multiple glass doors of the front entrance of the Theater at Madison Square Garden, New York. I’m sent to a line to wait to go through security. I pull out my laptop, open up my bag, ready, trying to help with the flow. The security guard, a tall white bearded man sees my lunch (in a reusable container, of course) and tells me I can’t bring food in. I explain I have dietary requirements and want to be careful of cross contamination – he immediately backs off. Then he pulls out my glass water bottle, inspects it. I can’t bring in glass. I ask if I can keep it on the side of the bin to pick it up later. No, security will confiscate it. I tell him I’m willing to take that risk. No.

I don’t see separate recycling bins, just one big bin. I take several large swigs of water,  peer into the clear plastic lined trash can with it’s bottle-filled contents, and reluctantly release my trustee glass container – it will now have to go through a whole disposal cycle, eventually ending up in a landfill. Painful.

Eating my food later in the day, a guy commented “they let you bring that in here?!” He seemed a bit envious. I assume they took his away. They sell snacks at the event, but to get a meal you have to leave the building. This, in a way, is forcing people to buy on the go and accept whatever disposable packaging it comes in.

After collecting my ticket, I ascend more stairs to the theater entrance. I pull out my info pack and skim through it. Single-sided printed pamphlets. I count the number of pages. 42 (plus a folder). I heard the announcer say they hit a record number of attendees (7000), so multiplying this over the number of unnecessary pages (21 if printed double sided), is huge, not just in terms of waste, but also in costs.

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With the proliferation of cell phones, I think the event could have been entirely paperless. The event website could have an up-to-date program and/or QR codes could be available at check-in to scan for event information.

Later, I attend the event lunch, which is a few blocks away at the Hammerstein Ballroom. It’s packed. People with (VIP) tickets are being turned away. I enter a dim lit room with a heart-shaped light hanging on stage that reminds me a bit of a high-school valentines dance. I see wine glasses and ceramic dishware assembled around the circular tables – nothing disposable. Napkins are cloth.

There are several waiters dressed in black lined along the side observing, waiting to attend to guests. I approach several of them, asking about their observations on waste. One female waiter tells me, “honestly, there’s a lot of waste in this industry”. She mentions a recent fashion event she worked at. Food was hardly touched, she suspects  this was because”most of them were on diets”.  For this type of situation, I think there is an issue with portions – if there was some way (like an app?) to allow people to pre-select portion sizes of food, I’m sure a large amount of waste would be eliminated.

I learn catering is by In Thyme. One of the servers points out the manager, AJ. He’s in a nice suit with a pink tie. As he walks over, I briefly introduce myself and tell him about my focus on sustainability. I’m aware of his need to attend to the event so suggest we discuss things another time. He gives me his business card.

While I’m observing the lunch, I hop on the In Thyme website – Ray, a security guard with strong prescription glasses who I’ve been chatting a bit with let’s me use his cell phone wifi –  I didn’t see anything about sustainability.

At the lunch, I overhear a conversation between two guys, picking up something about app development. I approach them. One of the guys – really tall, in a suit, with 90’s style spiked hair – is walking away, so I mention my interest in finding a developer team to the other, who I later found out is Gerard Adams, Founder/CEO of Founders. Gerard calls back the tall guy, Ron, slaps him on the back, exlaiming how he already is getting him leads. Ron works at The Real Start and explains to me they’re more than a developer team – they also do biz dev and consulting. They’ve done some work with the Synergy brand (who are running the event), along with several Russian spin-offs of things like Airbnb. It’s not what I had in mind, but I’m open. Maybe greater support will help accelerate the idea and lead to faster product development.

I attend the After Party, also at the Hammerstein Ballroom. The tables from lunch are cleared and there’s a square bar at the center of the dance floor. The dress of people is a range of Halloween costumes, business suits, cocktail, and semi-causal (the category I’m in). Drinks are served in plastic cups. When living in England, I found out about waste-free solutions for serving drinks at venues (e.g., Green Goblet, Stack Cup, and Ecocup) –  a deposit is paid for a branded cup with the purchase of a drink; the cup is returned and either a new one is used with the purchase of another drink or the deposit is returned. People who want memorabilia can keep the cup, in which case, they do not receive their deposit back. This type of system would help move Synergy towards a zero waste venue.

I don’t have any water. One of the servers I’ve been speaking with offers me an unopened pouch of HFactor water – there are many left on the table. I’m super impressed by the hospitality. I’m not a seated guest and yet asked if I’d like some food. I had eaten earlier, so declined, but accepted a cup of coffee.

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Day 2

I’m back observing the lunch. Same set up. I meet AJ again. I have an opportunity to speak with him a little bit. He tells me how their company is multi-legged, and that in areas where they cater to corporations, there is a growing demand for biodegradable packaging so they’re moving in that direction. I later email AJ to set up a meeting, telling him I’d like to learn more about the company’s policies on local sourcing, packaging, left over food.

I notice they don’t have recycling at the lunch venue. There are plastic bottles and paper (that could be recycled) being tossed into the bin next to me. This is hard to see. I’m still not sure what happens with left over food and don’t know if food gets composted.

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I also had the opportunity to meet with Alex, the CEO of Synergy. I tell him I’m interested in helping their venue be zero waste. New York is trying to go zero waste by 2030 (0X30). I tell Alex it would look good if they could get there before, and that this could be used as part of brand and event promotion. Alex expresses interest in working together. He gives me his contact and I’m also asked by another Synergy team member for my details to set up a meeting in a few weeks to see what can be done.

The event is almost over. I need a break. I head down to work at a table in the food court right outside the theater. I’m observing this guy in a baseball cap and gloves removing the trash. Why not speak to him too? I think. This isn’t Synergy event related, but I’ve been trying to understand the general business waste system since the NYC Coffee Festival. The worker tells me they have the recycling and landfill waste in separate bins in the food court, but when he brings them down in the basement, they all get crushed in the incinerator together and collected. He doesn’t think any of the waste gets recycled…

On the whole I sense that sustainability at this event (including catering) was not the main focus. However, I do believe there is interest in this area, and hope there will be improvements at next year’s venue.

*Thank you Alex for letting me borrow your iPad for the feature image. Phone acquisition with good camera pending!


Coffee Shop Hop #10

Think Coffee, Manhattan (Broadway Store). Space. High ceilings. Soft, bright light. Two baristas are behind the counter. It’s quiet. The indie/ambient music is subtle. Several people are seated at individual tables, a few are at the wooden communal tables, most on their laptops.

Before I came, I read the following about their perspective on the environment:

We are aware of the negative impact businesses can have on our natural environment. To lessen our footprint, we use compostable paper products, which do not have a petroleum lining and do not end up as landfill. If you dispose of them in one of our stores, they are picked up and taken to a nearby facility where they are processed and turned into compost. While more expensive than using non-compostable cups, we feel it is important to take the extra care to ensure that our business is as respectful of the environment as possible.

I approach the baristas and we begin talking. In addition to learning about their compostable cups (made by Vegware), their cutlery and straws are eco-friendly too. I’m told grinds are composted.

I ask to try some of the drip of the day – an Ethopian and Latin American blend. The barista reaches for a paper cup and I quickly interject to ask for it to be “for-here”. This makes me wonder if this is a default habit here, and goes back to my thinking that our behaviour is conditioned by a disposable culture.

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They have an “All-Gender” restroom (how progressive). No mirror. Soap comes from dispenser and didn’t see packaging for toilet paper. Hand blow dryer instead of paper.

I think there is general awareness in this store about waste, although from observing multiple people sitting with paper and plastic cups, they can do more to encourage the use of ceramic cups.

On a second visit to the store, I speak with another barista and happy to have discovered more information about their efforts to reduce waste. This barista tells me approximately 4-5 times a week the people on duty will take things like left-over bagels and baguettes to a local shelter. This, I’m told is a store-specific action. The baristas on duty do this voluntarily and have built a relationship with the shelter. I’m touched hearing about this. I don’t think most customers know about these good deeds (which also double as sustainable efforts), so feel compelled to share them.

Original visit on October 16, 2017. Second visit on October 25, 2017.

NYC Coffee Festival – Days 2 & 3

My visits on days 2 and 3 were shorter. I met a few people, learned a few more things. Here are some snippets.

Day 2

First stop, Dallis Bros. Coffee. I start talking with a bearded, middle-aged man. He mentions something that gives me greater appreciation for challenges coffee shops face. Stores have to pay for their own waste disposal in New York. I later find on the DSNY (Department for Sanitation New York) website that businesses must arrange for collection with private carters (commercial waste haulers) or register as a self-hauler. Searching through city approved carters, recycling is sometimes an additional service (an extra cost). Recycling is law in NYC, but it’s not clear how it’s properly regulated with all the collection modes.

I see Joe Coffee. I’ve heard the name. I’ll check them out. I begin talking with a tall man at the booth. When I mention sustainability, a woman with dark-framed glasses chimes in. Kendra. She’s a shift trainer based in Philly and tells me about an outstanding barista who has been a major influence at her store. Kendra tells me because of this barista, she no longer uses paper napkins; the barista has had a similar impact on others in the community. I want to meet her. Kendra offers to put us in touch.

A few days before the festival I was thinking about the direction I’d like to go in and new ways of communicating information. I’m considering video and maybe doing a podcast. I’m a visual learner and prefer listening to books rather than reading them – I’d like to reach people who have the same preferences. I learn from Kendra that this barista has a theater background. A light goes on. Maybe there’s an opportunity here.

As I sit down at an empty, long gray table near Joe’s booth to write down some things I’ve learned, I suddenly see Goat Mug across the way. A surge of excitement shoots through me. I’ve got to talk to them!

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I attended an entrepreneur meet-up in London a few months ago, around the time I decided to give up my academic career. I found out about the meet-up a few hours before. I had an instinctive feeling I needed to go to it. I dropped everything, cycled five miles through the Oxfordshire countryside and caught the next train to London.

I arrived late. This was due to travel time and deciding to stop and watch what I found out was the shooting of the final scenes of The Mountain Between Us, starring Kate Winslet (yes, I saw her). The set was a recreation of the streets of NYC, where I would be moving a few weeks later. The meet-up was in the basement of a modern cocktail bar, the Slug & Lettuce. I walked in during the introductions. I stated my interests (sustainability, building some type of online social infrastructure to reduce waste etc.) and the type of co-founder I was looking for (someone in tech, a computer programmer, app developer etc.), and once introductions were through, I had the opportunity  to “mingle” and “network”.

The last person of the evening I spoke with was a computer programmer, working at a VC firm in London. I didn’t get the impression he was looking to work in the area I was focused on, although he expressed interest in the ideas. At one point he asked if I had heard about a Slovenian start-up, Goat Mug. I hadn’t. He told me these guys marketed their product really well, catering to serious (hipster) coffee drinkers. The Goat Mug team’s commitment to and execution of an idea was inspirational, and pivotal in encouraging me to pursue my own ideas related to waste reduction through cultural change.

Standing in front of the Goat Mug booth, I’m  bubbling with enthusiasm, which pours out as I introduce myself to Anže, one of the co-founders. He’s a young, friendly, brown-eyed guy. He’s preparing coffee using their limited edition G-Drip brewer. I try to slip in some context as I explain my interest in sustainability so he gets were my excitement is coming from. He listens attentively. He shares the story behind their cleverly designed, horn-shaped cup – a tribute to the goat, which helped lead to the discovery of coffee (here’s their fun video illustration of the story).

Some people approach the booth during our conversation. They appear to be big fans too and ask about purchasing their Brown model. They’re sold out. I continue talking with Anže after the people leave, expressing interest in potential collaboration. He reassures me he’s 100% on board with sustainability and open to exploring projects. He gives me his business card – I plan to keep in touch as things progress.

Day 3

I arrive at the very end of the festival. About a half an hour remains. I’m here to connect with some people after. As I’m chatting with a guy who works at Califia Farms (a newly discovered plant-based milk alternative that has rocked my world), an upbeat, energetic gal swings by. Ruth. She has an English accent. I find out she’s one of the event organizers. I had left my email with staff the day before and emailed them about my interest in helping to plan next year’s venue. This is perfect. I can talk to her. I tell Ruth about the idea of running a sustainable venue, incorporating reusable branded cups in ticket sales to use for sampling, and finding a community garden group to dispose of coffee grinds. She’s totally into the idea and says how her boss was wanting to bring in outside perspectives and expertise. I get her contact details so we can work on improving sustainability of the 2018 festival.

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Days 2 and 3 were on October 13 and 15, respectively.

Coffee Shop Hop #9

Toby Estate Coffee, Brooklyn. Bustling with people. Espresso machines and indie rock music mix, filling the sound space. Sun floods through the tall front window, spanning the front of the store. There are wooden communal tables and vintage trinkets scattered throughout the floor-to-ceiling wooden shelves.

Before I enter, an Ethopian man soaking up the sun on the long black bench stretching the length of the store front engages me in conversation. He tells me he’s trying to open a coffee shop. He runs a popup from his van right now and is working as an artist. He’s interested in sustainability and asks for my contact details.

Inside, there’s a line. As I wait, I look around. I see many for-here cups, but also a few plastic cups and water bottles. I’m greeted by a man with a gray baseball cup – Josh. He seems familiar. I ask if he was at the NYC Coffee Festival. He wasn’t. I told him I spoke with Jessica when I was there.

I ask about the store practices. Josh tells me management encourages them to ask customers if they want their drinks “for-here”. They don’t do cup discounts. Josh is not sure why. They sell branded reusable containers (Hydro Flasks), but are out of stalk right now.

They don’t compost their grinds. I find out (on a second visit – October 23, 2017) that their stores donate “old beans” to local charities – this shop donates to City Harvest – a food rescue charity.

I see a KeepCup behind the counter. “Good job for using your own cup” I say. The barista working the bar, Chrislyn tells me it’s hers. She says she’s been inching in, listening to our conversation. She’s right there with the sustainability thing. She expresses dislike handing out drinks in “to-go” cups and tells me she practices sustainability at her house.

I see josh drinking out of a water bottle, also commenting how that’s nice to see. He tells me these are given to all the employees. They are double insulated (so can be used for hot or cold drinks), personalized with labels, and are for store use only (they can’t be taken home). What a great idea!

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In the bathroom inspection, I see eco-friendly soap (Method) and TP. There’s no paper towel, just a hand blow-dryer. I notice they have plastic reusable cups for customers by the water.

I am given a taste of the Brooklyn blend – a mix of Latin American beans. I head to a wooden communal bar where I park myself for the next two hours.

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What stood out to me at Toby’s, Estate they offer employees reusable bottles. This is a great example of effort to minimize waste within stores. I hope other shops take note. I like what they’re doing with their old beans, donating them to a local charity rather than throwing them away. I think they could do a bit more to encourage customers to bring their own reusable (e.g., offering a discount and making that offer obvious) and work on finding an alternative way to dispose of their grinds. Other than that, well done! I like this place. I’ll be here again.

*A note to the store owner. Nothing to do with sustainability, but three people have hit their head on the low hanging lamps since I’ve been here. Maybe you guys want to raise these? Also, myself and other people are pulling instead of pushing the front door. An eye-level “PUSH” sign might help this.

Original visit October 19, 2017.



Disposable Culture

Disposable culture – a “use once, throw out after” mentality. I use this phrase a lot when I’m talking to store owners, baristas, and people in general about sustainability and coffee shops. I don’t know if the term was manufactured in my mind or I unconsciously acquired it from somewhere, but I have a clear idea of what it means. I think it’s good to spend a few minutes qualifying it.

As part of my coffee shop hop spiel, I usually mention how the coffee industry is increasingly focusing on (and advocating for) sustainability at the farming and production level (e.g., direct trade, fair wages, agriculture education programs, including methods to reduce carbon impact etc.), and developing premium product. When you go to stores, however, you see coffee being served in paper and plastic cups. That just seems contradictory. Why?

When it comes down to it, I think the existing (service) system is reactionary to our lifestyle. We seek convenience. We want things quickly and with minimal effort. One could give a whole evolutionary explanation for why this is the case (like how it is adaptive behavior inherited from our hunter-and-gatherer ancestors), but that’s not the focus. All I have to say on this subject is is that we are no longer face with the same conditions of the past, yet we still retain an archaic mod. We seek convenience without (properly) evaluating the consequences.

The “to-go” food and beverage industry is simply catering to (and making money off of) our demand for convenience. The explosion of delivery apps exemplifies this. Grab your phone, use an online service (like GrubHub, Seamless, or Caviar), and vualá – food comes to you. There is no need to leave your home (or office), let alone get off your a$$!

Part of the convenience of takeout is the packaging. It’s disposable. Enjoy your meal and/or drink, then toss out the (normally paper, plastic, or styrofoam) containers and cups. That’s it. You don’t have to think about anything. That’s nice, but there’s a flip side to this. The fact that you don’t have to think about anything means you’re less likely to become aware of the consequences of your actions.

Each time you get takeout and throw away the containers or cups, they enter a cycle. They accumulate in bins, waiting for collection, then are transported and dumped in landfills, taking hundreds to thousands of years to decompose. There’s also a whole cycle involved to bring you disposable packaging. Often raw materials (such as trees and oil) are needed, manufacturing and production occurs, and supplies are shipped and distributed. Large amounts of energy (like fossil fuel) and human labor are required for both these cycles.

These cycles are driven by demand. Purchasing to-go drinks and food served in disposable packaging endorses (whether intentionally or unintentionally) how our demand is being met. This doesn’t mean we should stop buying things to-go and not seek convenience. We just need to become aware of the type of system in place and how it is feeding a culture that does not encourage accountability or responsibility.

I’ve got more to say on this subject, but it will need to wait for future posts. I’m sure the concept will become refined over time, so will update this post as well. For now, I think it’s important to get the conversation going and convey explicitly what I mean by “disposable culture”.

Coffee Shop Hop #8

Brooklyn Roasting Company (Jay Street store), Brooklyn. Finally here. This has been on my list before I even had a list. Researching about cup waste solutions, I had found out these guys were involved in a project called Good To Go Cup (a cup share program).

My first impression is the size of the place. Tall ceilings, ample seating with communal tables. A large converted warehouse. A land of freelancers. Hip hop is the beat of the place.

There’s a line. I queue up. I observe the people sitting, seeing only paper and plastic cups. I overhear two girls behind me mention the name of a company I’m interested in partnering with. She says she knows four people who work there. This starts an internal debate on whether I should say something to them. I’m next in line and before this dialogue finishes, I’m called up to the counter. I’m greeted by a large, friendly guy with glasses – he’s got the hipster beard. I ask if Dan is in, mentioning we met at the NYC Coffee Festival. The man, whose name I learn is Seon (it took me several tries to remember this) says he had heard something about this.

Seon tells me he’s the manager when I ask if I can ask questions about sustainability in the store. Agreeing with an easy-going attitude, we then step to the other side of the counter.

Seon tells me they give 25¢ off to people who bring reusable cups. I’m curious why this isn’t more obvious – like why isn’t this on the signs? (This is actually a more general question I have to stores that offer a cup discount – why isn’t it big and in bold like on the UK Pret a Manger sign?). “How do people know about this?” I ask. Seon tells me people find out through word of mouth.

They’ve recently formed a partnership with an organization to pick up grinds on a regular basis – that’s big. Stores have a lot of waste generated from grinds. I can only imagine the amount a store of this size has. Seon confirms it’s large.

The paper cups here are biodegradable. They purchase them from Seda Packaging. Plastic cups are recyclable. Seon mentions they will be working with a waste contractor who will sort their trash and provide bins for different types of waste. I ask where the biodegradable cups go. (Another general question I’m still searching for a clear answer). Seon is not sure, commenting all he knows is that they’re paying a lot of money for the service.

My understanding is that biodegradable cups don’t go in recycling but I’m not aware of a sorting process for food waste. I make a note to find out who the contractor is so I can investigate this matter further.

I’m given a sample of their drip. Seon asks me if I want it for-here. “I do! “I see him grab what looks like a plastic cup – a small surge of anxiety shoots up in me, then I realize it’s in the double-insulated glass cup (by Bodum) he was just telling me about. I bring it over to a wooden-topped bar decked with a vintage cash machine and begin working.

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On my bathroom inspection, I see the toilet paper has an environmental certification, soap comes from a dispensary, and there is a hand blow-dryer. I notice that there are plastic cups by the water.

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A portion of the Manhattan skyline is visible from the window I’ve been looking out for the past four hours. A helicopter flies by. The sun has just set and a light pinkish hue lingers in the sky. From my visit, I’ve gathered this Brooklyn Roasting Company store is making an effort to be responsible with their waste. I think they can do more though, particularly with the cup situation. Things like offering more for-here cups and stacking reusable cups by the water are a place to start. I plan on meeting Dan at some point, so likely there is more I’ll learn and have to share.

Posted same day (October 20, 2017) visited

NYC Coffee Festival – Day 1

New York Coffee Festival, Manhattan. October 13 – 15, 2017.

When I visit art museums, I stare at paintings for a long time. I look at all the details, including brushstrokes. I read all accompanying descriptions. This was my approach to the festival. Day 1 (Friday), I only made it through part of the first floor – there were two other floors. I returned for a bit on Saturday and at the end on Sunday to cover the rest of the first floor where most the vendors were. I’ve broken down the festival visit into two posts. This first post consists of excerpts from Day 1.

Day 1

There’s a long line. I have a pass which allows me to walk to the front. Shortly after 2 pm the doors open. The swarm of coffee enthusiasts flood into the building. I’m one of the first people inside. Fresh coffee permeates the air. I don’t have a plan other than I know I want to talk to the people at KeepCup.

The first booth I walked up to is Underline Coffee. A blond-haired barista is preparing samples. We start talking. He’s receptive to what I say and agrees there is a discrepancy  between sustainability at the farming and shop levels. I’m offered some of the Kenyan brew. As he begins pouring it into a small (paper) cup, I’m thinking how I wish I had a reusable for sampling. There’s going to be so much (unnecessary) waste from this event. I make a note to myself to contact the festival organizers to help work on the sustainability of the venue next year (like including a branded reusable mug for sampling as part of the ticket cost). I’m going to hold on to this paper cup and use it for the rest of the event.

paper cup used for whole event

I also have a taste of the Guatemalan, but refuse the other sample, “I want to be able to sleep tonight!” The woman next to me light-heartedly acknowledges how caffeinated she’s going to be at the end. We laugh and start talking, almost immediately bonding over our shared passion for sustainability. Her upbeat positive energy is refreshing. I find out her name is Amy, she’s from California and a human rights lawyer. Amy is moving to NYC next year. We exchange contacts and plan to meet when she’s here.

I see the distinctive yellow color for of the Devoción logo. I go up to their booth hoping Steven (owner) is there. There’s a tall, broad shouldered man with soft brown eyes standing in front of the display. “Are you Steven?” I ask. “Yes.” I introduce myself, telling him about my post featuring his store and recommendations from the visit.

There’s a tech company here, SpeedETab. It’s a system to help reduce service time. I speak with Adam, co-founder. I’m interested in using technology to encourage a BYO mentality. We exchange details and he suggests I talk to some of the places using the system about piloting some rewards scheme. They give me a black reusable bag with white lettering across it: “F*** Lines” it reads. Couldn’t agree more.

I head over to Toby’s Estate – Adam told me they use SpeedETab. I meet Jessica who works at their head office. She likes the idea of a rewards scheme but explains her experience with the difficulty of implementing a pilot across their stores. She tells me to keep in touch as things move along.

I finally see KeepCup and beam-line over. I begin talking with Sandy, discussing potential collaboration ideas. She shows me this slick clear plastic cup with a black cap and white sleeve – they’re introducing this line soon. We agree it’s something we could see New Yorkers using – Sandy’s only reservation is the white sleeve. She thinks black would be better, masking scuffs and wear and tear. Sandy takes my details so she can send me some samples.

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I see the colorful letters of the Brooklyn Roasting Company and head there. They’re on my shop hop list. I’d like to visit them know because I know they’re interested in sustainability. I read before coming to NYC they were involved in a project called  Good To Go Cup (like a bike-share program but for cups). I’m greeted at the booth by a man with an Australian accent, Dan. He maintains a great enthusiasm throughout our conversation. He tells me the company likes to be pioneers; being the first to try new things, including in areas related to sustainability. He explains how they try to be fun and different, providing examples from things like the bold colors on their log to a recent publication of a comic book covering the rich history of coffee. Dan grabs a copy to show me. We plan on continuing our conversation at the Jay Street Store.

It’s past 6 pm. I can’t drink any more coffee. I’m going to have to come back tomorrow to finish this floor.

Coffee Shop Hop #7

Smallest shop visited, longest time reviewing. You’ll see why.

Part 1. October 6 2017

Terremoto, Manhattan. A small nook, tucked inside a neighborhood building. Easy to miss if it weren’t for the white “T” neon sign outside the store front. I’m going there to meet up with the guy from my first hop at Devoción.

On my way I see “Anthroposophical Society” spanning a wooden-slab. I stop. I attended a Steiner School when I was younger (Steiner was the founder of anthroposophy). People familiar with Steiner’s work tend to be environmentally conscientious. It would be good to make connections I thought.

I meet Sylvia (also my maternal grandmother’s name) who works in the bookstore. One of the society’s board of directors, Tim (and a doctor of Chinese medicine) is there too. They’re very welcoming and offer me a tour of the newly renovated space. I see all sorts of things (like veil paintings, copper rods, and transparency stars) that flood my mind with childhood memories. An immediate sense of familiarity overcomes me – a nice thing in a new city. Sylvia and Tim tell me about green spaces to visit. I share my story and interest in sustainability. At one point this prompts Sylvia to get up and pull out some reusable bags she recently purchased from Integral Yoga. She likes the look and feel of carrying her groceries in them she tells me. Tim gives me his business card with contact details – in a later email correspondence I receive an invitation to talk at the center. I say goodbye, and continue on

I arrive at Terremoto almost an hour late. I see the guy I’m meeting sitting outside, looking down at his phone. No laptop? I thought we were meeting to work. Nope. I find out that’s not what he was thinking. He’s already had a coffee. I decide not to get anything and figure out what he was wanting to do. Chelsea Market.

Before we leave, I have a quick look inside this intimate shop. A dark haired barista is behind the counter. I introduce myself and find out his name, Alp. Alp tells me the owner, Richard will be back from Colombia next week and gives me Richard’s contact details. I later set up a meeting with Richard at 2 pm the following week.


Part 2. October 9, 2017

Face painted on briks

Back at Terremoto. Alp is working. He texts Richard to let him know I’ve arrived. As I wait, I start looking around. There’s only a few people here. They all have disposable cups. The wall in front of me has a vibrant colored image of a woman gazing longingly painted on it. The life of the place is lifted by funk music playing in the background. No bathroom here, so no inspection needed. I can’t pin down the “type” that frequent here. It’s a neighborhood shop and seems to attract a range of people.

I hear Alp’s voice and switch my focus. I find out Richard has a medical emergency. Alp is calm so I’m not worried. I should come back in a few days it’s suggested. I decide to do a bit of work while I’m there, and try and complete the review as best I can.

I overhear Alp asking someone if they’d like Macadamia milk. My ears perk up. After the order is through, I confirm, “you offer macadamia nut milk?” They do. “Would you like to try some?” Alp offers. He pulls out (a paper!) cup and starts pouring before I can say anything. I want to say something, but I can’t. There’s a right time and place to say something – this isn’t it.

The milk tastes amazing. I’m told it’s really good with chai tea. I make a mental note to try that at some point. They also offer oat milk – something the shift lead from Stumptown said is becoming popular in smaller shops (we had tried to guess why – might be something to do with misconstrued? concerns over the sustainability of almond milk). I’m given a taste of that too. I double check “this isn’t regular milk, right?” Alp reassures me. He says it is best with the coffee drinks

An hour and a half passes before I decide to leave. I’ll try and work with what I have on this place for a post.


Part 3. October 11, 2017.

My macadamia chai

I’m heading to my next coffee shop in Soho. Almost mid way, I get an unusually strong craving for a macadamia chai. Mid crossing the street, I literally turn around and head in the direction of Terremoto. A tall blond-haired guy is working today. I ask if he’s Richard. Marchine is his name. Another man, smartly dressed with dark hair emerges and says, “I’m Richard.” He asks me if I’m writing for Califia – he’s expecting to meet with someone from there. I remind him of our email exchange – he seems to have a vague recollection and appears happy to talk with me. I order the macadamia chai latte that had so wittingly pulled me in. We then proceed to the benches outside.

We’re lucky we crossed paths. Richard had just popped in for a few minutes. I tell him about my impulse decision to come. He says a Spanish saying, “recibiste mi mensaje en tus pensamientos” meaning “you received my message in your thoughts” (my version of trying to remember what he said crossed with a Google translation).

I ask Richard about the efforts he makes to run a sustainable shop. He tells me they have branded KeepCups and offer a free drink with their purchase. He remembers mid explanation he needs to order more. I ask what got him into selling the cups. Requests from friends and customers.

I move to the topic of sourcing. Richard has a self-imposed 300 mile limit. He thinks this type approach should be policy for stores – it forces businesses to source locally, reducing energy and shipping costs.

From our conversation, I learn a bit of Richard’s background. He is Colombian. Farming coffee has been the family business for many years but has skipped him and his father’s generation. His family fled Colombia because of the political unrest. His uncle still lives in Colombia, managing the family farm. Richard grew up in Florida, is a creative director and photographer. He wanted an opportunity to do something with coffee which led him to opening Terremoto. He sells mostly Colombian coffee (I notice they have Sey’s coffee).

The interior of the shop is explained to me. The table tops are made of up-cycled wood beams from the Domino Sugar Refinery. The wood floor comes from the Roseland Ballroom.

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One exception Richard tells me to his 300 mile rule is the wallpaper. I hadn’t paid much attention to it previously (it actually makes me think of this gold-leaf design wallpaper that used to be in my grandparent’s bathroom). I learn it comes from England, designed by a friend and printed in the same mills as the wallpaper for the royal palaces.

gold straw

They use regular paper and plastic cups. They don’t do cup discounts. But, their straws are made of paper (by Aardvark) – eco-friendly, compostable, oh, and they’re gold.  People apparently love them. Richard caught someone grabbing a handful once. He now keeps a watchful eye on them. I ask about their price comparison with plastic – something Lance from Sey Coffee raised as an issue. There’s no significant difference. I later email Lance to let him know about what I’ve learned.

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The swag doesn’t stop with the straws. I failed earlier to notice the espresso machine, made of 24k gold Richard proudly tells me. This little guy apparently caused a lot of media hype, landing Terremoto in the pages of places like Forbes and Fortune. On the topic of the machine, I find out the grinds go to a friend he’s partnering with to make body and face soap. “You’re a serial entrepreneur” I observe. His response is a large grin.

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I’m conscientious Richard has been generous with his time (we’ve been talking for almost an hour and a half) and wrap up the the conversation by expressing my gratitude. I’m so glad I acted on that whim. There’s so many little (easily missed) gems about this store, from it’s sustainable efforts (such as the 300 mile rule and the up-cycling of interior materials) to the gold espresso machine. I think they could up their game by being more conscientious about the use of disposable cups – serving more drinks in ceramic cups and using for-here glasses (not disposable plastic) when customers ask for water. They could also offer a discount for people who bring their own cup. Other than that, Terre is little moto suggest.

Coffee Shop Hop #6

Sweatshop, Brooklyn. Chill vibes. Artists and freelancers. It’s mid afternoon and only a few people are at the shop. After trying to discreetly take a picture of the store front using my laptop (which I’ve been doing for all the blog posts btw), I descend down several stairs and walk up to the counter. I’m greeted by a long-haired barista with bangs (a fringe in UK terminology). I give what is now developing into a regular spiel, an intro of what I’m doing and an open-ended question about the store’s sustainable practices. Immediately after this overview, I’m told – through an Auzzie/Kiwi-sounding accent – that staff deliberately ask customers if they’re staying (this is encouraged by management). She shows me the ceramic cups on the top of the espresso bar and points to the disposable cups up (almost out of reach) on a shelf.

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I look around, realizing not a single person in the shop is using a disposable cup. How did I miss this?! Reverse attentional bias – I’m not “threatened” because there are no disposable cups in use? (This investigation is starting to reveal the psychological level I’m affected by waste. Yikes! Ok. Moving on). This observation causes a surge of joy. I can barely contain my happiness, grinning from ear to ear. I’m also put at ease. I feel like I can drop the investigation walk out right now. I don’t, of course. I stay because I want to learn more about what this shop is doing to use it as an example for other stores.

I finally get an opportunity to ask the barista’s name. Izzy. She’s from New Zealand and into coffee and design. I learn the owners of Sweatshop are designers (Izzy does some work with them in that area too). They designed the interior of the shop (previously their studio), including the furniture. Izzy points out and explains various pieces, like the black, up-cycled-steel-topped-milk-crate tables/seats (try saying that fast!). I end up using one to rest my drip coffee sampler on.

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I also find out their pastries are sourced locally and their coffee is purchased from roasters like Counter Culture, known for things like direct trade and self-describe as “dedicated to measurable social, fiscal, and environmental sustainability, not only in our own operations, but throughout the coffee supply chain”. I see funky, white-gray-marbled aluminum cups by the water. Another point for this store!

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I let Izzy get back to work and settle on a bench outside. The music playing sounds psychedelic, like the Beatles. (A few minutes later). “Help” begins playing. Yep that’s the Beatles. Nice.

I’m on a black metal bench. There’s a pair of girls working alongside each other I noticed since I arrived. One of them comes around and sits down. The bench rocks back as she sits down. We let out a laugh. It becomes a constant teeter-totter with each of our movements, despite exerting herculean efforts to avoid displacement.

I get up several times to take more pictures. I realize it’s a lot less creepy if I just announce what I’m doing. The baristas are cool with it, and the onlooking customers must of overheard because I’m not getting any odd looks from raising my laptop over my head, holding it upside down etc.

I end up talking to the pair workers. Nestle – like the chocolate bar she tells me – and Meme. They are both freelancers, previously worked in PR. Nestle is visiting from Turkey. She used to study here and is trying to get a visa to earn a certification to work in skin treatment. Meme quit her job a few months ago, was doing some traveling, and is still figuring out what she wants to do. “NestleMeme”. There’s your company name I say jokingly. I ask for recommendations of places to visit. They share names of a few coffee shops and cafes they like, several of which I’ve already noted to visit.

Bathroom inspection, as you may have guessed, passes with flying colors. TP made of rapidly renewable material (plant materials that grow quickly and are easily replaced) and a bottle of eco-friendly soap.

There’s not much for me to Sweat over at this Shop. I did find out no discount is offered to people who bring a reusable cup, so that is one thing they might want to consider. I am also reminded by a note I made “steel or glass straws”, which they could offer if they want to go fully-out on the for-here experience.

Original visit October 10, 2017.

Coffee Shop Hop #5

Stumptown, Manhattan. It’s a rainy, humid day. I step inside, enveloped by cool air. I wait for the line to clear then walk up to a tall, blond-bearded barista in front of the till. He’s new and directs me to the shift lead. I move along the counter to speak with a dark haired woman working the bar. The first things she tells me when I mention sustainability is that they are from Portland, Oregon. I know by this she means to convey they are green-aware.

Direct purchasing from farmers. Stumptown pioneered that practice the barista boasts. They’ve been with one farm in Guatemala for over 15 years and it is first in that country to receive a carbon neutral certification. The specialty drip today (which sells for around $40 a pound) is from the Guatemalan farm. I try some, asking for it in a for-here cup. “You sure you don’t want it in a paper cup?” the barista playfully teases. I’ve had the thought before, by talking sustainability, my preference is probably obvious. Nonetheless, I still ask to be on the safe side.

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I had noticed when I walked in most people sitting had disposable cups. I’m told the cups are recyclable, including paper. “Really?” I ask. Grabbing one, the shift lead flips one upside down to look at the bottom. Without seeing what she’s looking for (I’m guessing it was the recycle symbol) she tells me that they ask people to return their cups and the staff put them in one of their many colored bins (they don’t keep these out front due to space). They also compost their coffee grinds. I ask if they partner with anyone in the community. They don’t. They’ve tried this in the past but it wasn’t feasible with the quantity of grinds they produce.

I see a carton of organic milk. “You use organic?!” This is actually an exception today – they had ran out of milk. While they appreciate organic, the prioritize local sourcing. Their milk comes from Hudson Valley Fresh. I’m told that each Stumptown store makes connections with local suppliers, not just for their milk but their baked goods too.

Their new coffee packaging is made from eco-friendly materials. I later find on one of their blog posts that the bags are made from a combination of renewable wood pulp and plastic. There is an added component to the material to help break down the plastic faster.

When I ask more about the cup situation, I’m told they use ceramic mainly for espresso and macchiato – drinks meant for-here. Ceramic keeps the drink warm. I find out they offer a 25¢ discount for bringing your own cup. I don’t see it advertised anywhere and comment on that as well as ask (rather bluntly, realizing mid question) why don’t they encourage the use of for-here cups more. Branding. Or at least this is her guess. People walking with their cups help others know their store is close by, bringing in customers who may have otherwise defaulted to a bigger coffee chain store.

As the lead is talking to me, I become aware of her tremendous multi-tasking ability – taking orders, serving customers, training baristas, and cranking out beautiful latte art. My attention is particularly captured by the iconic foam-coffee heart designs that keep passing my eyes. I go a bit off topic, commenting on how latte art has become a huge phenomenon, thanks largely to Instagram. My discussion diversion quickly diverts back to waste. The lead brings up training sessions. She tells me of the horror experienced by the amount of milk and (hand-picked) coffee beans they go through. She tells me her sister is a chemist and would like her to develop something from the practice foam and coffee. “There’s a market right there!” she jokes. Hey, who knows?

I mention an idea that pops into my head that it’s too bad training sessions couldn’t be integrated with some type of customer taste workshop. She smiles, telling me she likes the idea but that the drinks taste awful at this stage. Maybe they could still do something but towards the end stages of training?

I thank her for talking with me and move off to the far end of the bar. As I begin to write, a guy with a gentle disposition approaches me. “I’m not trying to be a creep, but…” I stop him. I realize he’s overheard my conversation. I express my delight in his interest and curious what he has to say next. He begins telling me he’s also doing research and going around to different coffee shops. He’s a designer studying for his masters at Parsons and interested in opening a shop (he hopes in NYC) offering coffee sourced from Yemen. I interrupt him to ask his name. Abdul.

“Why Yemen? What’s the story behind it?” Abdul’s eyes light up; his expression conveys it’s long. “The shorten version” I interject. He begins telling me about his volunteer experience there, helping people extract juices from Khat –  a narcotic banned in many countries (I know this sounds shady, but trust me, that’s not the vibe I get from Abdul) – as well as grow coffee. Knowing the value of coffee and barriers to exporting Khat, Abdul revealed a perplexity: why weren’t more people focusing on growing coffee? There are a multitude of reasons, but the combination of extreme poverty, lack of resources and awareness of the demand has brewed (no pun intended) up the current situation. “They’ve lost their heritage” Abdul says, explaining how Arabica coffee is native to Yemen, but now grown in other places, like Ethiopia and Brazil. (I later check this fact. It’s not clear if it originated in Yemen or Ethiopia, but more interesting is the whole coffee history of this country). The Yemeni people need to be lifted from their situation. They need to be empowered and educated. It is these motives that are driving Abdul.

I recently found out about this entrepreneur, Gary Vaynerchuk (I devoured both his books The Thank You Economy and Crush It in a matter of days). One of his consistent messages is the value of making, and continually pumping out content. The thought “content” comes to mind when hearing Abdul talk. He’s story is great. He clearly has been deeply moved by he’s experience and I sense he has taken on some level of responsibility to help the Yemeni people. At one point in our conversation, Abdul mentions he is Muslim – maybe this is where part of his sense of responsibility comes from. I encourage him to begin sharing.

I begin telling Abdul about my ideas of promoting a BYO cup mentality and/or a cup-hire system. Abdul raises a point about the challenge of behaviour change. I refer to the California and UK bag tax I had discussed with Kramer (Coffee Shop Hop #3). He’s not aware of the ban in California, but tells me he visited the UK in May and remembers the first time he went to a store and was charged for a bag. “I don’t want to be charged for this each time,” he recalls thinking. Like that he started bringing his own bags. I point out “that’s behaviour change” and how quickly it occurred. Abdul kindly compliments the way I articulate things to make sense and illustrate the possibility of real change.

Bathroom inspection came at the end of my visit. Eco toilet paper, looked like paper towels, and hand soap in a refillable bottle. I also notice on my way back a stack of disposable plastic cups by their customer water tap. Not too happy about that.

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I’m Stumptowned that this Portland based coffee company doesn’t do more to encourage customers to use for-here cups, but other than that they seem quite conscientious about engaging in sustainable practices, from local sourcing of milk and baked goods, recycling cups, and composting their grinds. Oh yes, and there’s the 25¢ discount for bringing your own cup.

Original visit October 9, 2017.