Each month, we feature the story of a recognized EnviroStar business. Find full interview content below.
Pictured: Brandon Eller, Owner of Mr. B’s Meadery.
Interviewer: I’d love to kick things off by hearing about your experience as a small business. How have you been able to adapt during COVID-19?
Brandon: I opened up right before the pandemic, so I haven’t had anything to compare this experience to. Right before COVID happened, I was starting to get more into wholesale, bars and stores and all of that, which I had to put on hold once we all had to stay home. I was trying to shelter as much as possible, but still keep the business open and so I just focused on production and the tasting room. Since I was new, I decided to focus on what my signature flavors were going to be and to keep improving the quality of my mead. I was lucky enough to get into this from the start with the idea of having low overhead, which is why I have a really small space to begin with. I still have my day job, luckily, but I’ve actually had to change day jobs in the middle of all of this. I approach things with an attitude of, “I’m always learning."
Interviewer: Wow, you have another job going on! What inspired you to take on an entire business as your second job?
Brandon: Passion. This is what I love doing. I kind of transitioned from where I thought I was going to be at a few years ago into not knowing for a couple years. I actually was couch surfing and really trying to find my way. I got a good job where I actually could save money, and I just had to ask myself, “What are my goals?” This mead business seemed like the obvious choice out of all of the things that I like to do. I threw everything into this and had to go for it. I’ve been in enough [difficult] situations like most people, I’ve lost everything multiple times in my life and have had to start over. If I have to start over again after this, at least I tried what I wanted to.
Interviewer: How did you get into the world of mead making?
Brandon: About 11 years ago, I had a band practice, and my drummer made his very first batch and he gave me and my cousin a bottle. And I had never been much of a drinker, but I instantly fell in love. It wasn’t like anything else I’d ever had. A year later I actually asked him about it, and he gave me the name of the recipe. And that was it. He was like, “figure it out.” I went to the brewery supply store and talked to the guy there, researched online, got the bottling equipment, and started making it! I made 85 five-gallon batches before I decided to get licensed. And ever since then, it’s just been kind of slowly upgrading. Whatever I know is basically from hands-on learning about how to make mead and talking to other mead makers.
Pictured: The wide variety of honey wine products sold at Mr. B’s Meadery.
"I want to reverse that thinking process and show that less can be more."
Interviewer: What sustainability measures are you particularly proud of?
Brandon: Most of the fruits I use and practically all of the honey I make mead with is local. There’s so much abundance of quality products here, there is no reason not to use local. I also don’t add any sulfites to my mead and I don’t filter it. A lot of my process is super simple and as natural as possible.
I do a lot of work to help minimize food waste. I partner with local stores and farms when they have too much product. Places like Spooner Farms, for instance, only carry their berries on their shelves for 48 hours because they want to sell the best stuff for their customers. But this leftover fruit is still good, so they sell to breweries like me so they don’t have to throw it away. It’s reducing the impact to the environment of having to dump things out, actually using that energy that created the product in the first place and minimizing what waste we all make. By picking up fruit from these partners, I also limit the environmental impacts of shipping for my business.
Finally, by keeping my space small, I’m minimizing whatever energy I have to use for cooling things in the summer. Keeping small is [beneficial] in a lot of ways, and I don’t have any intentions of getting really big. A lot of people—especially in the wine industry—start a business and they think they have to go big, making a lot of product. I want to reverse that thinking process and show that less can be more. Being smaller allows me to experiment a lot more and to have a larger variety of meads. Another one of the benefits of doing small batches is it helps utilize small amounts of ingredients that would otherwise go bad because there might not be enough of them to do a larger batch. So instead of letting ingredients go to waste, I find a use for them in a small batch formula.
Interviewer: What has been one of the biggest challenges for you in adopting sustainable measures?
Brandon: The hardest thing is getting rid of the single-use plastics that are required in business. I hate seeing how much packaging waste there is. There is a lot that I am already doing to minimize my own waste, and eventually, I want to move into serving by glass, eliminating the need for single-serving plastic cups. As my business grows, I’ve been upgrading slowly and thoughtfully. It’s all about balancing every aspect of business to be as efficient as possible.
Interviewer: What advice do you have for other small businesses in our area who may be looking for creative ways to be sustainable, to make it through a hard time, or to give back to their community?
Brandon: Don’t worry about staying small, just [think] about being efficient. Learn ways to cut your unnecessary costs. I like the saying of “Don’t keep all of your eggs in one basket.” Try to find as many different avenues of sales as you can from different types of retail. For example, nowadays, delivery is a big thing. Just be open. As for sustainability, always keep trying to minimize your impact on the environment. Not only in the long run can it save you money, but it should be always one of the top goals in any business. Keep looking for ways to do better.
Interviewer: Thank you so much for making the time to meet with us Brandon! Where should people go to find Mr. B’s mead products?
Brandon: Thank you! Come visit the tasting room, open Fridays and Saturdays from 2-7pm and Sundays from 2-6pm!
Pictured: Erin Andrews, Founder of indi chocolate.
Interviewer: I'd love to kick things off by hearing about your experience as a small business. How have you been able to respond and adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic this year?
Erin: One of the big things that we did fairly early on was go with delivery apps, because we realized that with so many people needing to self-isolate, we wanted to still be able to serve them at home with contact-less delivery. We’ve also been beefing up what we’re doing online, like our care packages. People want to send something to the people that they can’t see. We’ve even seen [people] giving to neighbors who they can’t be with like they normally are, especially [those who are] elderly. So it’s been a really nice way for customers to show people that they care and support a small business in the process. There are some wonderful people in Seattle, and they really come out of the woodwork, so it’s been a real pleasure to work with them.
We’ve had a lot of wonderful collaborations with other small businesses, which is something we did pre-COVID, we’ve just done it with new partners, and we’ve been trying to do more of it. Evergrey and a couple of other organizations reached out to us about helping and so we have done donations to frontline workers in the medical community. We have worked on collaborations with the Intentionalist, Fulcrum Coffee, Salt Blade Meats, Peddler Brewing, and Ghostfish Brewing. It’s been really nice to collaborate with other small businesses, because doing that allows us to help each other in the process.
Before COVID, we used to do pop-up dinners with local chefs, and we’re trying to figure out how we can do that now, especially with those who are out of work in the hospitality industry. We’re trying to figure out how we can really support our local community, especially chefs and bakers that are currently not finding places to work and to see how we can best collaborate with them.
Interviewer: We know that indi chocolate has been a huge supporter of the EnviroStars program. You’re even calling in from the space where we hosted one of our last parties! Can you tell me more about what inspires you to be such a leader in sustainability and within your community?
Erin: Sustainability is definitely one of the foundational pillars for indi chocolate. It’s not just sustainability as far as where our beans come from, but also within the communities that we work with. I’m on the local board of directors and a mentor and contributor to Seattle Community Carrot, which is a path to entrepreneurship for diverse youth here in Seattle who are under-resourced. I’ve been working with Slave Free Chocolate to get slavery out of all supply chains for cacao and chocolate. Indi pays our farmers premiums above and beyond fair trade and organic certified prices without requiring the busy work of that certification, because more of that money needs to go to the farmer to actually have it be a sustainable crop. We also work with farmers that do inter-cropping so that they have more than one cash crop, and it’s also better for the environment to do that. Those types of things are good for the soil, they’re good for the environment, and they’re good for the farmers’ income. And that’s important, because I want to work with farmers for a long time, not just one harvest season. Promoting economic and social justice, trying to [raise all voices], is part of our sustainability.
It's also about trying to find more sustainable packaging. Last year, I was able to find a sustainably harvested palm leaf product that is now what our body care gift set comes in. It’s really the most sustainable packaging that I’ve ever found. I feel a little bit like a Portlandia commercial talking about how sustainable it is, but I think that those things matter.
Sustainability is not a place in time, it’s something where you never rest on your laurels. It’s really important to me that we’re always trying to improve on anything that we do in a sustainable way, and to be ever more sustainable than we were before.
"Sustainability… should always be a goal that you never reach because you should never be satisfied, and you should always be striving for more."
Pictured: Chocolate making at indi's Pike Place Market location.
Interviewer: What advice do you have for other small businesses who may be looking for creative ways to give back to their community?
Erin: Collaborate! I think that small businesses have every disadvantage, and one of the advantages that we should really strive for is working together and seeing how we can help each other and help our communities. I think that working together is a huge advantage for small business, and it’s important because I think that we have more to gain by working together.
I would definitely say that one of the most important things about sustainability is that it should always be a goal that you never reach, because you should never be satisfied and you should always be striving for more. People ask, “when are you sustainable?” and my answer is hopefully never because there is always something that I can do to improve. It’s about asking the team, “what can we do better?” I don’t have a monopoly on great ideas. It’s really important to hear from others and to listen and to be aware of how we can all help each other.
Interviewer: Thank you for your time, Erin! Where can we find all of indi chocolate’s offerings?
Erin: Shop our products online here. This holiday season, we're offering all kinds of gift sets, as well as live virtual chocolate-making classes!
Pictured: Staff at Firefly Kitchens poses with their EnviroStars recognition certificate. Rachel Hynes, second from left.
Interviewer: Hi Rachel, thank you for taking the time to catch up with us! I’d love to kick things off by hearing about your experience as a small business through some tough times. What has the past year looked like for you? How have you been able to adapt?
Rachel: We’re celebrating 10 years this year, which we thought would look like having a number of in-person events and celebrating with our community. We’ve had to quickly adapt to find more creative ways to reach our fans and tell the story of how our product can have such a positive impact on people’s immune systems, something that is top of mind for us all in this time!
For us, COVID-19 was an opportunity to double down on our values and prioritize some projects that were in the pipeline that would help us further our mission. We started offering health insurance for our staff. We became 1% for the Planet certified. In addition to regular donations to Operation Sack Lunch/Food Lifeline, we also started making regular donations to FareStart.
Overnight, some lines of business completely dried up, but there is also a lot of opportunity! We are selling more online than ever and have participated in fun partnerships with companies like Coro and Acme Farms.
Interviewer: Your business has been such a champion and sustainability leader. Can you tell me about what inspires you to implement sustainable practices?
Rachel: We deeply understand and appreciate the connection between the health and sustainability of the macrobiome (our planet) and our own individual microbiomes! We are inspired to help create a world that supports life and thriving at every level.
"We deeply understand and appreciate the connection between the health and sustainability of the macrobiome (our planet) and our own individual microbiomes!"
Pictured: Firefly Kitchens offers a variety of fermented products.
Interviewer: Were there any barriers to implementing sustainable practices for your business? How did you overcome them?
Rachel: We are lucky in that sustainability is something all of us care so deeply about. We are already sustainably-minded in reducing our waste and in reusing things as much as possible. But what that can mean is that we use old equipment that doesn’t run as efficiently! Our verification visit through EnviroStars was a good reminder to make sure that everything we are using is running optimally.
Interviewer: Is there any particular aspect of sustainability that you are focused on at Firefly?
Rachel: The community aspect is where we’ve focused a lot of energy, because community and supporting others is so important to us! We are actively working with our staff to find ways we can be more sustainable and love to partner with others who are aligned with this value.
Interviewer: What advice do you have for other small businesses who may be looking for creative ways to give back to their community?
Rachel: It’s so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day of running a business that it can be easy to forget why we do the work in the first place. It’s so nourishing to revisit why you started the business (be it community, building a new model, seeing a gap in what was available, etc.) to not only make sure these values are embedded in how we are currently operating, but also to make sure we are using them as a framework for how we are growing. We deeply believe that it is possible to grow in a way that is aligned with those original values and know how powerful it can be to only deepen your impact as you grow.
Interviewer: Thank you so much for your time, Rachel! Where can we find all of Firefly’s tasty fermented products?
Rachel: You are welcome! Shop online, at any of our partner grocery stores (such as Whole Foods, QFC, and Fred Meyer), or at the Ballard and U District Farmer's Markets online stores.
Pictured: Owner Cesar Macalvica (left) and General Manager Brian Valdez (right), of C&M Auto Complete Care pose for their EnviroStars certification photo.
"EnviroStars stood out to me because I saw that it would be good for us, for our business, for the future and the environment."
Interviewer: We know this year has been a challenging time for the small business community, so we greatly appreciate your time for this interview. How have you been? And how have you adapted to this COVID-19 reality?
Cesar: This year has been a challenge. Business was down because of COVID. We had to regroup, think creatively and look for ways to get out of this. And as we were thinking about how to do better for the business, we also were looking to do better for the community.
Brian: We have been happy and proud to have been helping first responders and essential workers during these times. We’re also focusing on the thing we know how to do best; “to serve our community.” Right now, some of our strategies have been to provide services for free, delaying payment, or providing discounts to customers through Groupon. Here at C&M Auto we’re always striving to be better. We try to keep up to date with the economy [market trends] and we are constantly learning.
Interviewer: Sustainability can add value to a business; why does sustainability matter to auto shops?
Brian: We see sustainability going hand in hand with that attitude. And that’s why we’re glad to work with the EnviroStars program. We see it [EnviroStars] as a way to help our business, the community, and the environment. This is about focusing on the good, about what we can do to improve.
"There is no excuse for any auto shop not to do it – to be part of this movement. It was so simple from beginning to end, and EnviroStars was there to guide us."
Interviewer: How did you hear about the EnviroStars program, and how have you been able to make this certification a priority?
Brian: C&M Auto has a set of values that guide our actions. We have honesty, integrity, and a hard-working attitude. Our overarching vision is that of growth for our business, and for that we need to stay up to date with economic trends. I was browsing online, and I noticed an EnviroStars ad – I clicked it, looked through the process, and someone reached out to me. After that, a person came to our business and provided us with tailored guidance through the application process.
Cesar: We really liked the in-person assistance. The woman, Sue Hamilton [from King County’s Hazardous Waste Program], made this process very simple. She came to our business [for a walkthrough] and was very kind and patient. She gave us direction of what to buy, what to do and how to do it. I recommend this for [all auto shops]. There is no excuse for any auto shop not to do it – to be part of this movement. It was so simple from beginning to end, and EnviroStars was there to guide us. The diploma in our website stands out for customers – the good reviews and the diploma.
Brian: I enjoyed the process and the flow of the application. I had my background in Environmental Control from the Army. But I needed help to know what we needed to do for our business. Sue from Haz Waste was very helpful in guiding me through the application list. For small businesses, technology is an immense help, and you have to look online for additional resources for small businesses. EnviroStars stood out to me because I saw that it would be good for us, for our business, for the future, and the environment. [It helped us] work together as a team. We really like being part of this positive change.
Interviewer: Can you tell us about a few sustainable practices your business has adopted that you are particularly proud of?
Brian: We love to recycle – cardboard, containers, jugs, everything that is recyclable. As a business we go through a lot of these materials. At the beginning of every day, we love breaking down boxes as we chat. We’re also really glad to recycle used oil. Collecting it the right way and having a free service that collects it and recycles it. It feels good when you do the right thing.
Cesar: For us, it’s very important to avoid pollution. We have invested in a machine that extracts and replaces old freon from a car’s air conditioning system. You’d be surprised how many other auto shops do not have this type of machine, even though is required by law. You go to bed with a clear conscience when you do the right thing.
Brian: Sometimes you have to explain to people why it’s important, or is required, to do something. Only then will they comply.
Interviewer: After the EnviroStars certification, what comes next on your path to sustainability?
Cesar: Well, we are expanding! And our focus is to keep doing everything as clean and efficient as we can. We’ll work on education for our employees. It’s easy, there’s no reason not to do it.
Brian: Now that we know how to do the right thing, it will be easy to replicate as we expand!
Interviewer: Thank you so much for your time, and for taking care of your community and the environment. Stay healthy!
"When I started my own company, I vowed to base everything we do on my values. I wanted to sleep well at night."
Pictured: Owner Elizabeth Lopez, CEO and Founder of rue Santé.
Interviewer: Elizabeth, thank you so much for making the space to chat with us! We’d love to hear more about rue Santé and your story. How did you get into this business?
Elizabeth: I used to work for a global company with a large carbon footprint. There was so much waste in every area of the business, it was making me miserable to be a part of it. When I started my own company, I vowed to base everything we do on my values. I wanted to sleep well at night. The question I always ask myself is “Can I live with what I’m putting out there –the waste, pollution, and energy my company puts out and consumes– for a profit?”
I knew I had to do everything in our power to minimize our impact and operate as sustainably as possible. And I knew we had to give back. We donate over 10% of our annual proceeds to support animal welfare and environmental causes. It’s a work in progress. Our products are made conscientiously, with the least amount of impact to the environment and animals. We try to run a compassionate business. We’re not interested in fast growth. We’re focused on healthy, sustainable growth. We use vegan, organically-grown ingredients to reduce pollution and protect animals. We source locally as much as possible and we collaborate with our local community often.
Interviewer: Were there any particular barriers to implementing sustainable practices for your business? How did you overcome them?
Elizabeth: Such a good question! We are concerned with all areas of sustainability, but our most challenging initiative has been packaging waste reduction and plastic avoidance. We quickly found out that every material option has an impact. One option may be biodegradable, but it may also consume more water in the manufacturing process. There is no perfect solution. All we can do is go with the least impactful option. We only use glass reusable and recyclable bottles. We package in recycled and recyclable paperboard tubes. We use compostable and recyclable labels and adhesive. Our products are concentrated: instead of water, we use flower hydrosols. This adds value, effectiveness and reduces transportation impact. Currently we are trying to source dispensers for our products (pumps, sprayers, droppers, lids) that are not plastic based, but it seems like an impossible task.
Pictured: rue Santé sells a wide range of eco-friendly self-care and beauty products.
Interviewer: We know that this is a hard time for many small businesses. What has your experience been during the COVID-19 pandemic? How have you been able to stay afloat through it all?
Elizabeth: As a manufacturer, wholesaler, and retailer of self-care and beauty products, the mandated shutdown of non-essential businesses has been incredibly disruptive. Our retail partners (boutiques, salons, and spas) were forced to close their doors. Even as they slowly reopen, they face the difficult challenge of safely providing services and offering an engaging shopping environment that traditionally relies on sampling products. Fortunately, we were able to keep our direct-to-consumer sales from our online shop operational, and we started offering free local contactless delivery in the Seattle area. Consumer spending has definitely been more cautious, but sales of organic hand sanitizers (which we started selling unintentionally), stress-relieving products, face masks, and blemish control products are keeping us in business.
Interviewer: What advice do you have for other small businesses who may be looking for creative ways to give back to their community?
Elizabeth: It may seem hard to give, especially during these challenging times, but giving back to the community can take many forms that don’t require a financial commitment. It may be donating time to initiate a local clean-up effort, raising awareness around sustainability on social media, sourcing supplies from local businesses as much as possible, and supporting community sustainability efforts. The beauty in giving is that it creates a boomerang effect. You always get something back. For us it’s the joy of giving, and often, we make new connections and identify new opportunities.
Joining Seattle Made, a program of the Seattle Good Business Organization, has been instrumental in helping us get connected to services [like] EnviroStars and [likeminded] companies. In turn, [the] EnviroStars [community] has helped us assess our business sustainability footprint as well as identify resources in the community to help us reach our goals. Our best advice for any small business in the Seattle area and beyond is to become members of EnviroStars and Seattle Made, or an equivalent non-profit organization that supports small businesses in their city.
Interviewer: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us, Elizabeth! We can’t wait to try some of the beautiful products that you’re making. Where can we find your business?
Elizabeth: Thank you for featuring me! It was a pleasure. Shop our products online at https://www.ruesante.com/shop.
Interviewer: Hi Robin, thank you for taking the time to catch up. Can you tell me more about 21 Acres and the types of sustainability measures that you focus on?
Robin: 21 Acres is on agricultural land that was protected by King County’s Agricultural Preservation Program and it will be farmed for perpetuity. We’re committed to farming with agroecological practices that we consider to be the ultimate sustainable model. Using regenerative techniques to maximize carbon sequestration in the soil such as planting cover crops, staying entirely away from chemical inputs, and practicing sound animal husbandry, we’re able to address multiple tenants of environmental protection at once. We also use our LEED platinum building as an educational resource to broaden understanding of sustainable building practices and technologies.
We spread our work across different environmental focus areas to facilitate awareness building and to nudge positive behavior change to adopt better ways of doing things for the planet. Our team spends a lot of time addressing water conservation, thinking about how to manage wastewater and fresh water onsite in the most sustainable way possible. None of our water is pumped to a waste treatment site. Most of it is put to good use on campus. The composting toilets in the main building and on the farm are the biggest attraction! We also work hard to help people see the value of locally produced food. We use our own model of farming to teach about how society’s reliance on transportation can be taken out of the food system equation. Our way of farming results in reduced carbon emissions from planes, trains and automobiles hauling food.
Interviewer: We know that these are very challenging times for our EnviroStars businesses. How has 21 Acres been able to adjust to the “new normal” that COVID-19 has created?
Robin: Such a good question! Since our work is related to helping people embrace local regenerative farmers and the local food system as solutions to climate change, COVID-19 has been challenging in many ways and at the same time has presented unexpected opportunities. Much of our work in the past was grounded in getting people on campus to experience the farm, participate in educational programs onsite, and to be inspired by like-minded people who work and volunteer here. Now that we can’t have guests on campus as much, we’ve shifted most of our programming to the virtual world. That shift has allowed us to engage with people in farther flung areas of the globe. We have had people of all ages and from places as far away as England, Mexico and Saudi Arabia join us on Zoom to learn about regenerative farming, food, and climate solutions.
Through our on-campus Farm Market, we have been supporting more than 100 local farms as well as selling fresh produce from our own farm that compliments their products. We work to keep pricing reasonable for customers while also paying farmers more than the traditional wholesale cost of goods sold. COVID-19 has raised our community’s level of concern for their personal safety as well as the safety of their food. More people are seeking out locally produced farm food because they know it has passed through fewer hands in the distribution chain. None of our food is trucked from far away. Oftentimes farmers will hand-deliver products to us just hours before the Market opens. Customers appreciate this and love learning about the farms that produced the food they buy.
"Fear presents a danger in that it can immobilize people. To combat this, we offer specific actions and focus on hope and opportunity to motivate others to adopt new practices."
Interviewer: Your business has been such a champion and sustainability leader. Can you tell me about what inspires you to implement sustainable practices?
Robin: We’re very concerned about the state of the planet. At 21 Acres, our team has created a place for people to learn about ways to address climate change, but also to feel a sense of solidarity and hope. Part of accomplishing this has had to do with looking inward to our organization and sticking to our values. We have to make sure that we’re not contributing negatively to carbon emissions or perpetuating old and damaging ways of thinking about the environment. Our staff loves welcoming people, sharing ideas, listening to others’ creative approaches to problems, and talking about new pathways. Fear presents a danger in that it can immobilize people. To combat this, we offer specific actions and focus on hope and opportunity to motivate others to adopt new practices.
Interviewer: Were there any particular barriers to implementing sustainable practices for your business? How did you overcome them?
Robin: There definitely were barriers to this work in the early days, but everyone involved shared a set of mutual goals that propelled us forward. In the mid-2000’s, we worked with our community to conceptualize what we wanted 21 Acres to be. A lot of the sustainable features that we prioritized and incorporated, such as our living roof, were on the leading edge at the time. Some of the professional tradespeople working to install our systems were learning on the job. Now, a lot of these practices are more common, but still are not normally top of mind for architectural teams and builders.
Patience and time were essential to accomplishing 21 Acres’ goals. There were certainly frustrating days as we worked through issues together as a building team, but it was worth all of the effort to be able to hear from people excited to know more about the features of our campus. Our team loves to talk with visitors about the farm’s ability to offset carbon emissions from the building!
Robin: Giving back to the community can be climate action. For example, being committed to recycling and even composting in an office space can have a positive impact. You’ll keep incompatible waste out of the local landfill and the practice can serve as a team learning initiative to help spread awareness to staff and the community.
Consciously sourcing products and services from other locally managed and/or locally owned businesses is critical. Doing so helps keep resources in the community, supporting these organizations with revenue and thereby directing valuable tax dollars where you can see them in action. The local circulation of money and other resources contributes to resilient economies, making them more likely to withstand hard times such as those that we are living through. Plus, the motions of interacting with each other through business transactions, shopping, banking and other activities can certainly knit a community together in invaluable ways!
"Really what has sustained us are the weekly orders from regulars."
Pictured: The staff team at Liberated Foods' new café. Owner Estela Martinez on the right.
Interviewer: Hi Estela, we know this is a very difficult time for the small business community and greatly appreciate your time. How has it been experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic as a small business? Is there any way that you’ve been able to adapt during COVID-19?
Estela: Sure, I’m happy to be featured! We just opened up our new retail space in October of 2019, and while I had built it into my business plan that I was going to be in the red for the first 20-24 months, I did not expect to be this much in the red because of COVID. In February, the café had our first week that we started breaking even, and then COVID hit and we lost about half of our profits. We depended a lot on foot traffic from Amazon employees, so when they sent everybody home, we lost a lot of business.
We have cut hours down and were just open for pick-up and delivery at the start of this. Although we aren’t able to have a booth at farmers markets right now, we joined the What’s Good Marketplace so that customers can order some items from us to pick up at the market. Really what has sustained us are the weekly orders from regulars. Again, because I had built it into my business plan to be in the red for the first couple of years, I'm still okay. But if we aren't able to have people come back, I don't know how much longer we can last. Maybe I can last another six months, hopefully.
Additionally, I received one grant from Amazon as well as a small Facebook grant. We also successfully raised enough to cover a month of rent through a GoFundMe campaign. Those three things have helped us tremendously to sustain the business.
One unique thing we’ve done is that we have installed Weather Pods in the store. They are self-enclosed pods within the bakery that 1-3 people can sit inside to dine in and take their masks off without worrying that they're breathing in air that's contaminated by other people.
"This has always been a labor of love... There are pockets of people for whom I am essential, because for example, my bread is the only bread they can eat."
Interviewer: You already have such a loyal customer base at the new café, which speaks to the passion that you bring to serving people and the environment. What motivates you to run your business in this way?
Estela: This has always been a labor of love. The whole reason that I started was because one of my children used to have more than 50 food allergies. She has outgrown a lot of them, but I have found so many people with different allergies who can eat my food because I avoid so many ingredients. There are pockets of people for whom I am essential, because for example, my bread is the only bread they can eat. Every time somebody comes in, tells me their story, and is thankful that we are doing what we do, that just means to me that I need to continue.
The inspiration for running my business sustainably probably comes from my mom, and how she raised me with the knowledge that we are living with limited resources. To recycle, compost, reuse and conserve is just a matter of practice, because we only have one earth. Because of that, I didn’t debate about whether to implement sustainable practices at Liberated Foods. It has always been what we were going to do because it is what we need to do.
Interviewer: What advice do you have for other small businesses who may be looking for creative ways to give back to their community and commit to sustainability?
Estela: This work can seem daunting because in a monetary sense, it's expensive to eat healthier and it's expensive to have more environmentally friendly products. But in the greater scheme of things, it costs more not to be. Look at what you value, and then look at what you produce or what you do and try to find a fit. Start small. Your action is going to create a bigger impact. See if you have something that you can reuse in a different way. If you have extra, donate it.
The other thing is to get customer feedback. When we made the switch to fully compostable cups, customers commented about how much they liked it. And now we’re starting to use refillable mason jars with silicone sipping lids, making it easy for customers to reuse. Hearing customer feedback to shape the decisions that you make is important.
Interviewer: Thank you! We can’t wait to stop by the cafe for a treat. How can customers order from Liberated Foods right now?
Estela: I really appreciate EnviroStars for taking the time to interview me and highlight the business!
Place an order by sending us a message through Instagram, Facebook, or email (email@example.com). You can also stop by the store (open Wednesday 10am-3pm and Saturday 10am-2pm) or place an order through the What’s Good Marketplace for Seattle’s University District Farmers Market.
Interviewer: Hi Els, we know this is a very difficult time for the small business community and greatly appreciate your time. I’d love to kick things off by hearing about your experience as a small business. How have you been able to adapt during COVID-19?
Els: We are an essential business, so we have been open right from the start of the pandemic. Quite a few of our employees are at-risk, so they have not been able to come in to work for the time being. It has been hard having fewer people working, but at the same time, we had no room to bring in more employees while maintaining safe practices.
Now we have spaced out our employees through different areas of the store, and we also have closed all the front and side doors so that customers come in through one entrance. We have installed a hand washing station and we only allow a few people into each space at a time. When we moved to Phase 2, not much really changed for us, we just have allowed a few more people to be inside the store at once.
Pictured: Bay Hay and Feed staff model their face coverings at work. Managing Director Els Heijne at bottom left.
"Most of the time it also saves money to do things in a sustainable way. People should know that it does not have to cost more to be a sustainable business."
Interviewer: Bay Hay and Feed is taking some wonderful sustainability measures. This past January, you collected 56 dumpsters full of Styrofoam from the community in a recycling drive. You have repurposed decking destined for the landfill into pallets. To top it off, the business even reclaimed a house slated for demolition and uses it as an employee lounge, a teaching space, and an affordable housing unit! What motivates Bay Hay and Feed to take these actions?
Els: We hate throwing things away and seeing things end up in the landfill. Our focus is on reducing waste and promoting community through our sustainability practices. Additionally, we only use organics in our nursery and we do not sell chemicals. To promote cleaner energy, we have solar panels on the roof.
Most of the time it also saves money to do things in a sustainable way. People should know that it does not have to cost more to be a sustainable business. Though you may see some expenses starting out, in the long run these practices can help you save.
Els: Get involved with a nonprofit that fits your interests. When you are involved with nonprofits, you hear what the needs are, and you can react. At one point you will hear something that you can help with.
Interviewer: Thank you! We greatly appreciate you taking the time to answer these questions for us, and we are inspired by your commitment to sustainability.
"Food may be our middle name, but community comes first!"
Interviewer: For those who don’t know, would you mind telling me a little bit about how the Community Food Co-op works?
Melissa: The Community Food Co-op is the only locally owned full-service grocery store in Whatcom County. As a member-owned cooperative, we are recognized as a non-profit by the State of Washington. Members of our community purchase refundable equity in our organization and pay a nominal annual dues fee and we are governed by a member elected board of directors. Due to our cooperative business structure, more money stays in our local economy than when you shop at nationally-owned grocery stores. Food may be our middle name, but community comes first!
Interviewer: How has the Community Food Co-op’s experience as an essential business been during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Melissa: The funny thing is, we’ve always known that food industry workers are essential, from the farm worker to the manufacturing facility to the distribution chain and on to the workers in the stores and restaurants, so in some ways it’s business as usual for us. The change is that while working in the food industry can be a stressful job for many under the best of circumstances, it has become stressful on a whole new level in 2020. As essential business employees, we are exposed daily to a number of different factors that greatly increases our risk of contracting COVID-19. We are doing everything we can to make sure that our staff stay as safe as possible so they can stay healthy and feel comfortable coming to work every day.
Food access has been really restricted to many in our communities due to the pandemic, and we feel that stress at our stores – everyone needs to eat and if you struggled to get healthy food prior to the pandemic, it is even more difficult now that so many more members of our community are struggling due to their financial and/or health situation. We are so thankful that we have robust food recovery programs in Whatcom County, due to the dedication of countless volunteers and the cooperation of a number of local businesses, organizations, and community groups, including the Community Food Co-op.
Interviewer: The Co-op has been such a champion and sustainability leader in Bellingham – I’d love to hear what inspires you to implement sustainable practices.
Melissa: It is still so rare for a grocery store to have a sustainability coordinator position, and that in itself is inspiring! The sustainability initiatives that the Community Food Co-op chooses to undertake don’t increase our sales, but they are nonetheless an integral part of how we’ve done business for the past 50 years. We feel it is a fantastic way to show respect to our community and the environment, and we are proof that being responsible stewards doesn’t have to mean we sacrifice being profitable. We strongly believe that the choices we make can create a ripple effect. We are always happy to share our successes and failures if it helps another business adopt environmentally and socially responsible decisions and business practices.
Interviewer: With so many areas of sustainability, how do you decide where to focus your efforts?
Melissa: We focus on four main areas for sustainability, what we refer to as a quadruple bottom line – People, Planet, Profit, and Purpose. We give equal weight to all four areas of focus, although attention can shift between them based on our business needs at any given time.
We are particularly proud of our reduction in refrigerant use over the last several years (from a high of 360 pounds of R404A in 2016 to a low of 8 pounds of R404A in 2019!) which contributed to us being awarded the inaugural Outstanding Company national award from the Climate Collaborative in 2018 and for our annual diversion of over 90% of our waste from the landfill.
"...we are proof that being responsible stewards doesn’t have to mean we sacrifice being profitable. We strongly believe that the choices we make can create a ripple effect."
Interviewer: What barriers have you encountered implementing sustainable business practices?
Melissa: Buy-in is always a barrier for any business when you are asking people to change their habits or some other aspect of how we approach specific tasks. One tool that has been particularly useful to us is the Bottom Line Change approach developed from Zingerman’s ZingTrain, a leader in customer service training and change-inspired leadership. They started as a small deli in Ann Arbor, MI and have developed some tried and true systems for responsible business that the cooperative community has looked to for years as a realistic template on how to prosper and inspire staff. They also still run some very successful food operations! We created a Bottom Line Change form that clearly outlines all the reasons someone sees a need for change in our organization and it helps us create a path to achieving that change.
Interviewer: Have you needed to sacrifice any sustainability practices for public health and safety during COVID-19?
Melissa: Unfortunately, yes – the biggest is that we no longer allow the use of reusable bags and containers and we decided to stop accepting customer items for recycling for the time being. Once we feel it is safe to handle these items again, we will reinstate their use. We also had some big plans for plastic reduction and a new incentive program for utilizing reusables in 2020 that we spent most of 2019 planning for. We had to put those plans on hold, but just for now!
That being said, we haven’t had to shift any sustainability practices within operations, with the exception of the greatly increased use of disposable gloves. We are still recycling everything we can, are still 100% participants in PSE’s green power program, and with some staff telecommuting and utilization of available technology we have been able to gain a lot of efficiencies and have cut down drastically on the trips between our stores. Some of these changes are so great that we will further integrate them into our business structure from this point on.
Interviewer: The Farm Fund is a community program from the Co-op which provides both sponsorship and mentorship to local farms getting their start in the industry. How did you get the idea to develop this program?
Melissa: We are lucky because we have always had close relationships with our local farming community, and the idea basically came from them. The Farm Fund started in 2000 as a board committee and grew quickly into an all-volunteer advisory committee of local farmers, food and farming advocacy groups, and Co-op member-owners.
We partner with the Sustainable Whatcom Fund of the Whatcom Community Foundation, Industrial Credit Union, and Sustainable Connections to provide low interest loans and grants to local farms as well as increase access to local food. Over half of the Whatcom and Skagit county farms supplying us with produce have directly benefitted or participated in a Farm Fund supported program, as well as various suppliers for our meat, dairy, frozen, and prepared food departments. We are very proud of our Farm Fund!
Interviewer: What advice do you have for other small businesses who may be looking for new ways to give back to their community?
Melissa: I promise, once you start looking for ways to give back, you start seeing them everywhere! Each business has something unique that they can give to their community. Ask your employees for ideas, they are usually the most in touch with how to increase efficiency. Help promote local products and other local businesses where you can. For example, partner with local businesses to provide discounts to your shoppers; you could offer 5% off their purchase at your store if they bring in a receipt from a partner business and vice versa. Purchase local ingredients whenever you can and promote where they came from. Treat all your customers with respect, and look for ways to pay your staff a living wage – if your staff are happy and feel valued, your customers will feel that way too.
One of the easiest things you can do to give back to your community is to start recycling if you aren’t already, particularly food waste. We find that it is less expensive for us to utilize Sanitary Service Company’s FoodPlus! composting program than to throw that waste into the landfill, and we also donate to our local food bank and other food recovery organizations to further lessen what we send to the landfill. Most likely you have many of these resources available to you in your community, you just have to give a little extra effort to look for them. As a result of both of these practices we are able to divert over 270 tons of food from creating methane in landfills while significantly reducing our waste hauling fees every year, and we also provide tens of thousands of meals to food insecure members of our community!
Interviewer: Thank you so much for chatting with me today! Needless to say, I am so inspired by the Co-op as an innovator and green business leader, and we are so proud that you are in our EnviroStars business community.
Melissa: Of course, thank you for having me!
"I am currently serving mostly regular customers... los que vienen a hacer el gastito. [Translation: "Those who are kind to come spend some money."]"
Casa Mixteca is a traditional Mexican restaurant and grocery store specializing in Oaxacan food. They are a neighborhood sensation, evident through all of the reviews adorning their Facebook page. Doña Lourdes has two locations, one in Burien and one in Renton.
Interviewer: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me, I know these uncertain times have been particularly troublesome for the small business community. How have you and your business been doing?
Doña Lourdes: Thank you for calling! We just opened our Burien location after being closed for 2 months. We’ve been opened for three weeks on a reduced schedule and it has been slower than before.
Interviewer: How have you been able to adapt during COVID? How has take-out been working for you?
Doña Lourdes: Well, sales have gone down, but they are still fine. People call in to order for takeout, and me and my family are offering to deliver food for customers but not a lot of people are choosing that.
Honestly, I am currently serving mostly regular customers, and those who come through word of mouth. Los que vienen a hacer el gastito. [Translation: “Those who are kind to come spend some money.”]
I talk to my customers and I can tell that a lot of people lost their jobs, but it seems that they’re getting some work back. Even though it’s jobs they’re not used to in the past; like cooks are now construction workers, and they look tired. But I tell them that we should be grateful for the jobs that we can get right now.
Interviewer: Have you been doing online ordering? Do you have a system set up, or have you had any barriers trying to set it up?
Doña Lourdes: I still haven’t tried it. My husband set something up for our Renton location, but nothing for Burien.
I haven’t gotten a lot of calls asking for delivery, so I haven’t thought about it much. It seems like a lot [of work], and I’m more “old school”. A la antigüita.
My regular customers are keeping me busy, and they refer me to their friends. Word of mouth has been my best publicity.
I decided to open because bills are still due, rent is due. And they said they would wait for me, but it’s still due. Imagine not being open for two months. Rent is the biggest cost.
Interviewer: Did you reopen with all the green actions you were doing in the past, has anything changed?
Doña Lourdes: Well, now there’s not much recycling coming out of the business. There are no customers eating in. There are also not a lot of dishes to wash. But I still tell my employees to save water, to recycle what we can, and to take care of the plumbing by not letting solids or fats down the sink. We’re using the sink strainers that you left us!
"They should not despair. To be patient. This will pass."
Interviewer: What advice do you have for other small businesses who are going through a similar situation?
Doña Lourdes: For another business… what can I tell another business?
To be nice to your customers, to take all necessary precautions with the problem that we have [COVID-19]. That they [other business owners] shouldn’t feel bad when a customer comes in with a facemask.
...They should not despair. To be patient. This will pass.
Not everyone is thinking the same thing, there are people out there who don’t believe this is happening, and they are desperate because there are no jobs, and they have rent to pay along with other expenses.
Either way [ni modo] we have to be patient, so we can coexist peacefully. All of us, people with businesses and without.
Look at the environment, what a beautiful day we have. The environment is doing much better. Let’s appreciate it.
Interviewer: What a beautiful piece of advice! Thank you so much for your time and answers! How can people order food from Casa Mixteca right now?
Doña Lourdes: For Burien, call 206 244 2572, or through Facebook.
For Renton, call 425 235 5494, or through Facebook.
Interviewer: Thank you! We greatly appreciate you taking the time to answer these questions for us, and we cannot wait to visit and eat at Casa Mixteca soon!
Read the full article in Spanish here.
"Yes, I wanted to make nice stuff, but the purpose-driven model is what my business is all about."
Interviewer: We know this is a very difficult time for the small business community, so I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me. We have been so inspired by your story of action and resiliency in the face of social and economic upheaval to support your community. We’d love to learn more about you and your business and to share your story with our EnviroStars business community. To start, you’ve been such a champion and sustainability leader over your career – I’d love to hear what inspires you to implement sustainable practices and give back to your community?
Molly: I worked in the corporate sustainability field for 15 years, and one thing I learned was that profit and sustainability aren’t exclusive. Businesses can be purpose-driven, make beautiful products, be a fixture in the community, and still have a profit. These foundational values are what can make for a truly sustainable business that’s going to stick around and provide value to their local community.
I created a program within my brand called Perfume with Purpose. Yes, I wanted to make nice stuff, but the purpose-driven model is what my business is all about. For each perfume sold, we donate a travel sized perfume bottle to Mary’s Place in Seattle. Mary’s Place provides safe, inclusive shelter and services that support women, children and families on their journey out of homelessness. The number one item requested in these communities is perfume. To be able to provide women with our perfumes is truly humbling—it’s about restoring dignity though fragrance.
Seeing the impact of COVID-19 on the hospitality industry, I partnered with Big Table. Big Table provides resources to hospitality industry workers, through relief funds, unemployment application assistance, food bank access, legal advice, baby supplies, and lots of other resources. Through the end of May, 30% of my online sales proceeds go directly to Big Table Seattle.
Interviewer: How has your experience been as a small business owner, and how have you been able to adapt your business to the changing situation?
Molly: Through the Seattle Good Business Network Weekly Happy Hours, I have been able to hear about a variety of businesses and their challenges facing COVID-19. Everyone has had to pivot. For me, it’s meant that I am unable to sell my products at physical locations, like the airport, museums such as MOHAI, or yoga studios.
It would’ve been easy to just put everything on pause, but I wasn’t comfortable with that. I started to brainstorm on how I could support my community through my business while creating virtual experiences for my customers.
Before COVID-19, my partner and I coordinated a series of workshops called “The Perfumer & Barman.” At these workshops, participants design their signature fragrances and my partner creates craft cocktails using ingredients that complement the fragrance notes we are designing with in each session.
This led to the concept of doing virtual cocktail workshops— “Cocktails Under Quarantine.” We sent out a list of suggested items to all of those who registered online beforehand so they could have ingredients ready to go prior to the workshop, such as herbs and citrus (the basic building blocks of a cocktail) and then encouraged and guided participants to use items they already had at home. There were 40 people who attended the workshop, and we certainly learned a lot! We are going to be doing more workshops in the future, potentially with more specific cocktails. I am also working on developing virtual fragrance design workshops for mid-May where participants can create a spray to revitalize their home exercise area (including their yoga mat).
Through this workshop, we were able to use the space to provide people with a new, unique experience and some entertainment in an otherwise serious time. All the money generated from the workshop was donated to Big Table Seattle.
As a creative person who enjoys being productive, it has been challenging to feel grounded during these times. The workshop has given my partner and I a fun opportunity to work together and a sense that we are evolving and creating.
Interviewer: We know there’s a lot of information out there for small businesses but it can be hard to know where to start – What resources, information, or assistance on sustainability, resource conservation, and cost savings measures would you like to see to help small businesses during this time?
Molly: Seattle Good Business Network is exploring the development of a Materials Marketplace to help source materials responsibly and locally. Our economy is more sustainable and resilient when we actively support our local businesses. Sourcing locally may also expand partnership opportunities amongst small businesses—now more than ever, collaboration is so important!
I use locally sourced products whenever possible but there are several products that I can’t get. For example, the glass fixtures, pumps, and caps I use for my fragrances are hard to find locally.
"...this is a time for us to dig deep for ourselves, our small businesses, and our communities."
Molly: The best place to start connecting to community is to see where there’s synergies with your products or services to fulfill some unmet need. My partnership with Mary’s Place wasn’t something I already had in mind – when I came across the wish list of women in the community, I realized there was an opportunity for partnership there. It worked out perfectly – the recipient’s needs lined up with my business offerings.
As business owners, we are being forced to shift in major ways – we might as well try to shift the way we do business in the most positive way possible! My advice to other businesses would be to not be afraid to stretch and let this be a fresh canvas for your business-- this is a time for us to dig deep for ourselves, our small businesses, and our communities. We need our small businesses, so hang in there!