Good Afterburners Make Good Neighbors


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[Y]our coffee shop is nestled into the neighborhood and you’re proud of your location and your execution. You’d like to take your product to the next level and roast your beans onsite for maximum freshness and quality. But coffee roasting is an industrial operation, producing emissions and aromas that can affect people who live nearby and even turn off potential customers. Just how well do roasteries and their neighborhoods mix? Roasters in Brooklyn, Portland, and Seattle say the key to a successful business lies first and foremost in being a good neighbor.

For Caroline Bell, owner of Café Grumpy in Brooklyn, being a good neighbor means inviting her customers to see her operation. “To many people it’s a mystery how coffee gets roasted,” Bell says. “People are curious. We try to keep things as open as possible.”

To help satisfy her neighbors’ curiosity and promote her business, Bell hosts events in her shop and offers tours to let people see the space. She further interacts with her neighbors by supplying local rooftop farmers with used coffee grounds for compost, and she donates chaff to local chicken owners who use it as bedding for their birds. Bell will also give, or sell for a nominal sum, her spent jute bags, which her customers use for gardening or art projects. She’ll often display the finished art projects in her shop.

No doubt as a result of her efforts, reviewers on Yelp and other websites mention the friendly ambience of the shop as a reason to buy coffee there, as much as the quality of the freshly roasted brew. In addition, Café Grumpy has achieved a certain measure of fame by being featured on the HBO program Girls.

Café Grumpy’s afterburner-fitted Probat . At top of page, Cindy Wallace just outside her roastery, Blue Kangaroo Coffee Roasters, in Portland.

Bell says she’s careful to comply with local environmental regulations, filing all the necessary permits and installing an afterburner on her Probat roaster to reduce emissions. But these measures haven’t prevented one particular neighbor from complaining, based on his belief that roasting coffee can cause cancer. His calls to New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection have resulted in DEP representatives coming out to inspect Bell’s operation dozens of times. The problem, Bell believes, isn’t the emissions, but the aroma of roasting coffee that wafts over the neighborhood, especially on muggy days. To address her neighbor’s concerns Bell installed an extra exhaust fan to disperse the aroma more effectively. She also altered her roasting schedule to avoid roasting on the weekends, but her neighbor still isn’t satisfied.

Bell has become philosophical about the situation. “Compromise, being open, afterburners—that’s all we can do,” she said. “It’s just part of being in business. We file all the permits, and hopefully things will work out.”

Cindy Wallace, owner of Blue Kangaroo Coffee Roasters in the Sellwood neighborhood of Portland, has never had to face disgruntled neighbors as a result of her roasting operation. However, she’s no stranger to roasting complaints. Years ago, before she started a business, she and her partner roasted coffee beans in their backyard. They realized their roasting affected their neighbors when one of them came to the door to ask if the house was on fire.

Those smoky days are in the past. Now she reduces both emissions and energy use with a Smog Hog, an electrostatic filter, on her Diedrich roaster. Using the smog hog takes care of any smoke or particulates, leaving only the aroma of roasting coffee, which her customers have likened favorably to the smell of popcorn or toast.

Tin Umbrella selling native plants outside its shop.

To minimize the impact of the aroma, Wallace roasts her beans at different times every day. “By varying the times, people don’t really notice our roasting,” she said. “I know I wouldn’t want to wake up to the smell of roasting coffee, no matter how much I liked it, every Thursday morning.”

Wallace takes an active role in neighborhood and community events, sponsoring sports teams and contributing to school fundraisers. She supplies free coffee to the local fire station and gives her coffee grounds and empty burlap sacks to local residents. She doesn’t just sell coffee, she’s become an integral part of the neighborhood. Most mornings you’ll find the tables full, with customers spilling outside to the sidewalk seating.

A few miles away, Nossa Familia is a bit larger than a typical neighborhood roastery, roasting 800 to 1,200 pounds of coffee beans daily. But they’re located in the middle of Portland’s trendy Pearl District, an area once mostly industrial but now home to high-end condominiums and apartments. Owner Augusto Carvalho Dias Carneiro says most of his customers are regulars who live nearby and claim they like the roasting-coffee smell. To draw his neighbors in, he conducts tours of his shop and hosts weekly cupping events.

“I think everything’s better when you’re a good neighbor,” said Iverson. “Roasting included.”

He roasts his beans on a Loring Kestrel machine that burns less fuel than most roasters.* The Portland Department of Environmental Quality requires coffee roasters like Nossa Familia that roast more than thirty tons of green coffee beans annually to obtain permits and control their emissions. The DEQ won’t monitor smaller operations, like Blue Kangaroo, unless a complaint is filed. According to Carneiro, Nossa Familia’s has only had one complaint, concerning the aroma, in its three years of operation. He quickly followed up with the DEQ to resolve the matter.

Carneiro strives to be a good neighbor by keeping a small carbon footprint. He buys power from renewable resources, and even the shelves in his shop are constructed from repurposed lumber— old school bleachers, to be exact. As for fuel, he estimates that it costs approximately a penny a pound in gas consumption to roast his coffee. “I really love it when sustainability is just smart,” he said. “It’s better for the environment, the neighborhood, and your pocketbook.”

Further north, in Seattle’s Hillman City neighborhood, Joya Iverson of Tin Umbrella Coffee Roasters is also passionate about minimizing the carbon footprint of her business. She works with CoTAP, an organization that offsets carbon emissions by planting trees in developing coffee countries. Initially, her roastery had to pass a fire department inspection and use fire-approved special venting. Her operator cleans her refurbished Diedrich roaster after every roasting, per local fire department rules. In the two years she’s been roasting coffee she hasn’t had a single complaint.

One of the reasons Tin Umbrella was so well received in the neighborhood, she says, was that it represents a positive development in a formerly overlooked, very troubled corner of South Seattle and has given new life to a long-abandoned historic building. And now that Tin Umbrella has been in business for a while, the feedback Iverson has gotten—from next-door neighbors to people living blocks away—is how much they enjoy the smell of her coffee roasting every morning. “Even a few self-proclaimed non-coffee drinkers have commented how pleasant they find it,” she says.

Like other coffee roasters, Iverson endears herself to her local community by getting involved. She supports local artists with art shows in her shop and gives her burlap bags to her customers, who come up with creative uses for them, like the beekeeper who uses the burlap for smoking hives. Gardeners stop by to fill their buckets with coffee grounds that Iverson leaves out them. One neighbor collects the grounds for his worm bin, and by all accounts the worms are big fans.

But her favorite reuse is coffee soap. She’s teamed up with a local skincare company, whose owner takes bags of used espresso pucks to produce an exfoliating soap.

“We sell it at our shop, she sells it at her shop,” says Iverson. “The soap supports two small businesses and is way more environmentally friendly than the plastic-micro-bead-junk on the market today.”

Bell, Wallace, Carneiro, and Iverson have found that implementing sustainable business practices not only benefits the environment, but also helps them successfully integrate their retail and roasting operations into their surroundings. Roasting with an eye towards maintaining air quality, conserving resources, and recycling to reduce what goes into the local landfill has helped them build a loyal customer base and be perceived as a welcome addition to their neighborhoods.

“I think everything’s better when you’re a good neighbor,” said Iverson. “Roasting included.”

—Maureen Mackey is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon. 

* An earlier version of this article mistakenly said that Nossa Familia’s roaster had a catalytic converter. It does not. Return to story.

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