Once a scrappy third-wave roaster with a few coffee shops across the Bay Area, Blue Bottle now spans the globe, with cafes in Boston, New York, D.C., Japan, and Korea. With that growth has come a remarkable level of waste, CEO Bryan Meehan says. The company is committed to reducing the waste by this time next year by turning its U.S. cafes into “zero waste” operations and eradicating things like single-use cups and bags for coffee beans.
Dissatisfied musician James Freeman launched Blue Bottle in Bay Area farmer’s markets back in 2002, telling CNBC that he roasted his beans in a potting shed then sold them at markets, in the hopes that the coffee business would give him an “opportunity to not play clarinet anymore.”
Everyone knows what happened next: The company pulled in round after round after round of venture capital (about $120 million in total), and in 2017, Nestle paid $435 million for a 68 percent stake in the company, in a deal significant enough that most characterized it as a full-on sale of the once-upstart brand.
At the time, Freeman told Eater SF, “People want to know, are we going to lose control of the company... The answer, of course is no.” That attitude of separation from Nestle is evident in a recent blog post from Meehan headlined, “How climate change is inspiring us to waste less and do more,” which announced the now-Sacramento-based company’s plans to make every one of the chain’s U.S. cafes “zero waste,” beginning with two as-yet-unspecified spots in San Francisco and the East Bay, the SF Chronicle reports.
This pilot project, Meehan says, “will celebrate reuse as an act of aesthetic delight,” by which he means patrons will be expected to bring a cup from home for their beverages or to pay a deposit on one of their cups, “which you can return to the cafe for cleaning.” (Folks who bring their own cups, it appears, are on their own in terms of dish duty.)
The chain’s whole-bean coffees will no longer be sold by the bag in those pilot cafes (and eventually, it’s implied, at all across the U.S.), but will instead be sold in bulk to customers who either bring their own bag or rent one of Blue Bottle’s, the Chron reports.
Sustainability concerns aside, taking this wider could eventually have a remarkable impact on Blue Bottle’s business. Meehan says that the company presently goes through 15,000 disposable single-use cups in its U.S. cafes per month (that’s 12 million per year). Meanwhile, recently instituted tariffs have since this past summer caused a significant uptick in the prices for products like cups, straws, and carry-out containers made in China, typically the least expensive provider of those goods. Being able to cut those costs, and to instead charge (as Meehan told the Chron) somewhere between $3–5 for a cup deposit could have a positive impact on Blue Bottle’s bottom line.
One thing worth noting is the focus Meehan places on “the children” when making this announcement. “My three daughters,” Meehan writes, “have also helped spark this effort. They, like their whole generation, are angry and concerned about the health of our planet.” Speaking with the Chron, he elaborates, saying, “It’s our children who are most concerned about what’s happening in the world... If everyone rethinks, our children’s generation has a chance.”
That concern for future generations is hard to argue with, but it stands in stark contract with Nestle’s alleged treatment of children, including repeated allegations of child slavery in its cocoa farms along the Ivory Coast and separate claims that Nestle purchases palm oil from a company that allegedly forces migrants (some allegedly underaged) into forced labor.
Those accusations of exploitation go unaddressed in Meehan’s announcement even as he says that he has “been impressed by Nestle CEO Mark Schneider’s commitment to implement serious environmental change,” saying that the company “has also committed to make all its packaging reusable or recyclable by 2025.”
An issue that strikes closer to home might be access to Blue Bottle’s cafes by people with disabilities. When Meehan (and other local coffee shops) brought up a desire to dump paper cups in favor of reusable ones in November, advocates for people with disabilities spoke out against the move. Speaking with the Chron, Disability Visibility Project Alice Wong said that getting rid of paper cups “adds another layer of difficulty to me as a disabled person to just enjoy a drink like anybody else,” as people with limited hand sensation or mobility issues are reliant on the featherweight nature of single-use cups.
Speaking with the Chron, Meehan says that the pilot cafes will keep some cups behind the counter for people who ask for them, raising another challenge for cafes that try to move away from single use. Are people going to attempt to game the system, faux “service-animal” style, by claiming a disability to get their drink to go? Will baristas be placed in the position of interrogating people regarding their accessibility needs? The outraged Twitter posts on both sides of the issue seem inevitable, and a spokesperson for Blue Bottle tells Eater SF that they’re still working those bits out. “As part of the zero single use pilot, Blue Bottle will consult with the disabled community on how to best meet their needs and keep their cafes inclusive for everyone,” Blue Bottle said via email. “As this is a pilot program, the learning process associated with these changes are a very important aspect for us, and we welcome feedback from the community.”
The closest Meehan comes to acknowledging those concerns is the closing of his announcement. “We know some of our guests won’t like it,” he writes, “and we’re prepared for that. But the time has come to step up and do difficult things... It’s our responsibility to the next generation to change our behavior. It’s all hands on deck.”
- Blue Bottle Coffee: How a struggling clarinet player used $15,000 in credit card debt to launch a $700 million brand [CNBC]
- Blue Bottle Cashes in on Coffee Authenticity [Wired]
- Blue Bottle Raises $25.75 Million, Including From High-Powered Friends [NYT]
- Blue Bottle Has Sold the Majority of Its Company to Nestlé [ESF]
- Blue Bottle Coffee pledges to go ‘zero waste’ by end of 2020 [SFC]
Correction: December 9, 2019, 3:30 p.m. This article was corrected to show that Blue Bottle’s reusable cup and bag initiative will apply only to its two pilot cafes, not all U.S. cafes as originally reported.