Each month, we feature the story of a recognized EnviroStar business. Find full interview content below.
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.
Interviewer: What advice do you have for other small businesses who may be looking for creative ways to give back to their community?
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."
Interviewer: What advice do you have for other small businesses who may be looking for creative ways to give back to their community?
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!