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Spilling the beans: how coffee consumership shapes sustainability

In roughly two years, Dos Gatos Coffee Bar in Johnson City, Tennessee has composted 10,046 pounds of waste, which is equal to the weight of an African elephant.

Dos Gatos has modified their hours during the pandemic to accommodate for the safety of their staff and customers. (Photo contributed by: Allison Winters)

Dos Gatos is an example of one of many coffee shops in the Appalachian region that has been making a consistent effort to be environmentally conscious and sustainable. According to Hannah Huffines, the staff and social media manager at Dos Gatos, this passion has been at the forefront of their mission from the beginning.

“We used to be up in Nelson’s Fine Arts, Dick Nelson owns both businesses,” said Huffines. “It was one of the first businesses in Johnson City to utilize all solar. Dick is not a very braggadocious person, so he doesn’t really act like the things he prioritizes are that big of a deal, but it is a big deal, and it does affect all the decisions we make, which is great.”

Owners Dick Nelson and Kate Pierce implement some of these sustainable practices outside of the coffee shop space as well. They were among the first to install solar panels for their business for around a decade.

Huffines, as a vegetarian, is very aware of her own eating habits and carbon footprint, which she considers a theme with staff and customers alike. Decisions made for the store usually place emphasis on what kind of impact those choices will make.

“We use a lot of local and regional ingredients, so smaller farms that use organic practices, less of a footprint with travel and transport obviously since it’s local,” Huffines said. “We use composting through Hoffman Composting, we have for 5 years now; we compost food scraps, coffee grounds, straws are compostable, and lots of different things.”

Dos Gatos takes the proper precautions at their walk-up window for customers. (Photo contributed by: Allison Winters)

The business orders milk from one smaller farm called Duchess Dairy in Rural Retreat, Virginia. Located less than 100 miles from the coffee shop, their proximity to the location as well as special use of jersey cows makes them an asset to Dos Gatos. In terms of sustainability, Duchess Dairy’s website mentions that jersey cows release less of a carbon footprint than the average Holstein cow, as well as require less land and water to produce milk and cheese.

Huffines explained the choices for providers and partners are intentional and make sure they are transparent as to how they do their part, including selecting Counter Culture Coffee as their roaster.

“They actually work with [farms] to have more environmentally friendly and organic practices,” said Huffines. “They’ve been doing that since they started roasting. In 1995, they actually started as coffee roasters that emphasized bird habitats, because there’s a lot of bird deaths in coffee when they have to cut down forests to have coffee farms.”

Coffee trees can take three or four years to bear fruit, which is why Huffines found the issue of climate change to be such a pressing one for the coffee community. Farmers must think ahead to what could happen many years down the line at the expense of their crop being ruined.

“Farmers are planning years at a time forecasting climate change,” Huffines shared. “What does that look like? Not good, especially in the global South, where coffee is almost entirely grown. South America, Central America and in Africa. That takes a resounding amount of knowledge, but also again, a lot of stress when the world around you is changing and the product that you’re making is very dependent on it.“

Dos Gatos has incorporated many practices to encourage a minimal waste environment, such as choosing to recycle and offer incentives for customers willing to contribute to environmental efforts. From selling drip coffee to customers with reusable cups for $1 to using old jam jars as cups, their internal resource list goes on and on.

Open Doors Coffeehouse is another coffee spot in Johnson City working towards sustainability. Owner Sherry Marion believed that the business goes through 120 milk jugs in one week, which can have a severe impact on the environment.

While Open Doors Coffeehouse focuses on the premise of being a welcoming community, their sign also reflects the open "door" policy, made from actual doors. (Photo contributed by: The Colin and Carly Group)

“We try to be resourceful, we try to recycle,” said Marion. “Right now, you know, since COVID, we've had to not use our dishes, which means we used a gazillion amounts of Styrofoam and paper products, but we just decided to do that for safety reasons. At a normal time we would not use that much, we would use dishes.”

In the past, Open Doors has left out bags of coffee grounds for community members to use as fertilizer for their gardens; Marion hopes that they can get back to offering that option soon.

“We also have an older gentleman that comes every other day and gets all of our cold brew ground and filters that we use for our cold brew,” she added.

Open Doors promotes community sustainability and resilience by teaming up with other businesses in the surrounding area. Mayfair Market, Cake Buds and Kamela Chocolate are just a few places that offer products inside the shop that you can purchase.

“We are very big about collaborating with local people and local businesses,” said Marion. “We're very community-minded, so whenever we can connect and collaborate we love to do that.”

Their coffee roaster, Crimson Cup, emphasizes sustainability through fair pay for their farmers and providing educational resources on the quality of coffee. The Friend2Farmer initiative started by Crimson Cup invests in the farmer and their community, which they believe ultimately leads to the best outcome of coffee.

Patrons enjoy sitting inside Open Doors Coffeehouse. (Contributed by The Colin and Carly Group.)

For all coffee providers, the immediate problem of COVID-19 might improve, but the threat of climate change will always be looming. With coffee prices continuing to increase, it’s important to Huffines to educate people on what causes those changes.

“Even just a change in humidity can affect how the coffee fruit will grow,” Huffines said. “There’s not a reason to know that if you have not looked it up, but people will be like, ‘Why is coffee more expensive now?’ Well, it’s like, you want a specialty-grade product that’s very sensitive to climate change and climate change is affecting the countries that grow your coffee.”

Dos Gatos has tentative plans to continue indoor seating again this year, but until then will continue to utilize their walk up window to ensure safety protocols are in place. Open Doors has remained consistently open since the start of the pandemic while following social distancing procedures, and Marion is thankful people have chosen to give them business.

“Our drive-thru has continued to produce a large percentage of the sales,” said Marion. “Even though it's not a fancy drive-thru, we don't have a fancy ordering system, you just pull up to the window and you make your order. You have to wait and people know that. So people who love us and love our products know that part of it and they just go with it.”


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