Thursday, January 25, 2007

Nomad Cafe: How to Start a Green Cafe

Have you ever thought about starting a green cafe? Well, Chris Waters of the Nomad Cafe in Oakland not only thought about it, he made it happen. When the WorldChanging SF bloggers had their first face-to-face meeting there, I asked Chris if he would do an e-interview with me about how he started the cafe, what makes it green and how other people can start their own green cafes.

What makes the Nomad Cafe a green and sustainable cafe?

The Nomad is an Alameda County Certified Green Business (see a list of their green business practices here). Nomad is a statewide waste reduction award winner, through the California Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB). Out of 1403 statewide recipients in 2004, Nomad was one of only ten businesses chosen for the CIWMB's "WRAP of the Year" (WOTY) award. We shared that distinction with big players like American Honda Motor, Frito-Lay, Lockheed Martin, and the Los Angeles Zoo.

I have been actively involved in the crafting of Oakland's newly-adopted Zero Waste Policy, and I campaigned for City Council member Jean Quan's polystyrene foam packaging moratorium, as well as Council member Jane Brunner's litter fee assessment ordinance. Both of those laws passed and are now in effect.

January 1, 2007 was the date that the polystyrene foam packaging moratorium officially took effect, meaning that many small independently-owned food service businesses had to find alternatives to the sewer-clogging, landfill-hogging, bay-bogging packaging that they were used to providing for their customers. Nomad has always used compostable packaging, but in the spirit of shared sacrifice, we kicked off this year by ratcheting up our packaging approach to the next level. We have eliminated all polyethylene (PE)-coated products from our take-out packaging arsenal and replaced those compostable items with fully biodegradable items that are polylactic acid (PLA)-coated. PLA is derived from natural plant sugars, and helps mitigate our dependence on the fossil-fuel economy. Even our straws are compostable now, and our plastic forks, spoons and knives have been replaced with Spudware. We participate in the City of Oakland's Maintain-a-Drain program, and do our part daily to remove litter from the street in our neighborhood.

I have championed the recent Oakland Food Policy Assessment introduced by some amazing grad students at Cal, which lays out a very clear, thorough, and utterly achievable road map for food security in Oakland. Its general premise is to arrive at a point where 30% of Oakland's consumed agricultural products are grown locally. This effort will have far-reaching social justice, health and economic development impacts for the City of Oakland and its residents.

These are some of the exciting things already taking place or on the horizon in Oakland -- a city I adore and of which I am very proud. I am grateful to have the opportunity to lend my efforts to creating positive grassroots change and being able to measurably identify the difference we are making together as a community.

It doesn't stop here, though. This is part of a growing movement--one to which the United States has been slow to adapt. I believe in the value of the grassroots in effecting large-scale cumulative change. Change has to happen on a broad policy level, but the policy invariably emerges around the grassroots groundswell. That's what we are doing here. We support farmers with living wages by serving only Fair Trade, organic coffee and tea. We sell only healthy organic food, utilizing only organic dairy products, and providing vegan alternatives. We support the arts with a busy calendar of music and spoken word events and gallery showings, film screenings, receptions, political events and meetings. My approach to business is based on a holistic vision of what it means to be part of a community.

And this is my community, by the way -- I live 8 doors down and I love my commute. I hope that by creating or facilitating my vision of community here -- one shared by many people -- that vision will grow out into other areas and inspire others to do the same. Based on the frequency with which I am asked to give my advice to others who have such a vision and have the courage to share it, I believe that this is happening. Ours isn't the only way to do things, but our example serves as proof to others that it -- or something like it -- can be done.

What inspired you to create the Nomad Cafe? What is the path that brought you to this work?

I grew up in Oklahoma, in the heart of cattle country. I was a quiet, internal child who liked to read. I grew out of my shell and became very popular in high school, but by the time I was seventeen I had chosen to be a vegetarian, which confounded people in a way that I found fascinating.

I had an intense desire to travel and experience new people and places. I spent a few years back east at Boston University studying film, and ended up landing a job as a Production Assistant on a Hollywood film that was shooting back in Oklahoma. That was the beginning of a 15-year career in the film industry that took me all across the globe to a variety of exotic locations and indulgent experiences. It was a lot of fun, and I earned a lot of money.

From time to time I would take a year off and go work as a journalist or a newspaper editor in some foreign country, living very simply on little more than fresh fruit and vegetables and a small pad to sleep on. I went from one financial extreme to another, had a lot of very exciting peripatetic experiences, and met a lot of interesting people, including the young Czech girl who would later become my wife.

I liked the way I had been able to live like a gypsy and develop deep relationships despite my mobility. But somewhere along the way, I was inspired to embrace the challenge of applying that nomadic aesthetic to a fixed location, an oasis of sorts, where nomads of all backgrounds gather, whether they are traveling through space or traveling through life. Sort of like the cantina aliens in Star Wars, except without the weapons.

If a reader wanted to start their own green cafe, what should they do?

• Create a business plan. Get help from an agency like the Oakland Business Development Corporation (OBDC).

• Secure financing. OBDC can also help you explore SBA loans or other funding opportunities.

• Establish relationships with other business owners, and with potential suppliers that reflect your ethics and product tastes. Begin introducing yourself to people as the owner of a startup business. Get business cards printed. Build connections. Join organizations that are relevant to you.

• Get in on the ground floor with your green business certification program.

• Identify a location for your business. Negotiate. Find the right fit for you, both geographically and in terms of your business relationship with the seller or landlord. Don't get too "married" to a particular location -- remain confident that if "the perfect place" falls through, something better will still come along.

• Develop a very well thought out interviewing and hiring process, and always make sure your staff respects you for what you are doing. Their loyalty will serve you well.

• Make your business as inviting as possible to people from every cultural or socioeconomic background.

• Be prepared to work long, hard hours for very moderate reward -- and that latter only after several years of business-building.

• Don't go into the green cafe business to get rich. Follow your heart. If you want an easy job, go into the movie business! I used to complain about those 80-hour weeks until I started my own business and realized what hard work really meant. It will be the hardest thing you ever do, and also the most rewarding.


  1. Anonymous10:52 PM

    This is an excellent primer on the hows and whys of starting a green cafe. Having just moved to a small town in BC, I can see the market for this type of business within the community. Thanks for posting this interview with Chris, there's plenty to think about!

  2. Anonymous12:20 AM

    You need a reddit button at the bottom of your pages. Or rather, I need a reddit button so I can submit your articles! :)

  3. You are absolutely right! I added it.

  4. perfect idea for those who are willing to open it


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