sustainable coffee beansSustainable Business Pioneer Bongo Java Continues Focus on Sustainability in Doing Business

Striking but soothing, the scents that meander wonderfully out of Bongo Java have tempted more than one passerby to stop for a cappuccino or mocha. Since its inception in 1993, Bongo Java has not only grown into more stores, but also found its way into the hearts of many Nashvillians, especially those with a focus on environmentally friendly practices. Championing the green movement in Music City’s cafes, Bongo Java has taken more steps towards sustainability than nearly all of its competitors, but more importantly, Bongo Java makes sure their customers know about their eco-friendly practices. By using local roasters, Fair Trade roasters, local organic foods, and participating in community events, Bongo Java actively encourages its patrons to live a sustainable life by setting an example.

Of course, many businesses strive to make use of sustainable practices and partners. It is the unique transparency of their business practices that sets Bongo Java (and Bongo World, the company that owns Bongo Java) apart. Traditionally, businesses rarely offered up the names of their partners or methods of productions, but with the growth of the green movement, businesses have begun doing just the opposite. Bongo Java freely advertises its roasting and production processes because customers have begun increasingly demanding that the coffee they are drinking comes from as humane and sustainable of a source as possible .

So with all this focused effort on creating a clear  business plan, what are the actual practices they tout? Let’s dive in, and see just how sustainable Nashville’s favorite coffee shop is.

Roasters

Whether its Bongo Java, Starbucks, or any number of other establishments serving joe around the country, the style and method of roasting plays an unparalleled role in their business due to the fact that roasting not only impacts the business’s relative sustainability, but also determines the actual flavor of the coffee. Depending on how long and at what temperature the beans are roasted, a wide range of different styles of coffee can be produced with different flavors accentuated. For instance, beans roasted at only 385 degrees will produce a light, toasted flavor, but turning up the temperature to 460 degrees will produce a dark French Roast. Clearly, the style of roasting is quite an important step in the coffee production process.

Bongo Java, like most coffee shops, uses a local roaster. Though this is of course preferable to outsourcing this work to another country, the actual reason behind this is likely to due to extended shelf life of green beans (beans fresh off the farm that have yet to be roasted). As soon as a bean has been roasted, its flavor immediately begins to decay; it makes sense then that a diligent shop such as Bongo would prefer a local roaster. In the past, Bongo Java used Drew’s Brews, a Nashville based roaster and coffee producer responsible for the delicious drinks at Sam and Zoe’s, Ugly Mugs, and even Whole Foods. Although Drew got his start as the roaster for Bongo Java, recently he opened his own company, as did Bongo. Today, Bongo Java roasts their own coffee; this process used to take place in their Bongo East location, but due to the growing popularity of this second location was moved to a new location in the Gulch. Regardless, one has to commend Bongo’s commitment. Roasting their own beans gives them much greater control over the methods through which their coffee is produced.

Farmers

Of course, no matter how meticulous one is about roasting methods, it is the production of the beans themselves that play the largest role in a company’s sustainability efforts. Consistent with their claims of transparent business practices, Bongo Java freely offers information about their farmers.

According to their website, Bongo receives more than 80% of its coffee from Cooperative Coffees Bongo Java sustainable coffee sources, which is a coalition of 23 small scale roasters across the United States and Canada. These roasters quite admirably pay their farmers in South and Central America and Southeastern Asia above Fair Trade prices. Although the market values of coffee wildly fluctuate, Fair Trade prices will either match the market price or pay $1.21 (at the time this was written) per pound, depending on which is higher at the moment. On top of this, Fair Trade certification and organic certification tack on an additional 30-40 cents. When considering that Bongo Java apparently pays a higher than Fair Trade value, its hard to argue the efficacy of this policy. Furthermore, the increased profits for growers help to offset the increased price of organic production. No matter one’s position on the ethical and practical applications of Fair Trade farming, the fact remains that Bongo Java is at least trying its best to raise their farmers’ living standards.

However, despite the economic benefits a farmer has by selling to a Fair Trade cooperative, it is the benefit of representation that is perhaps the most effective way cooperatives raise the levels of sustainability. In the standard coffee production scheme, growers will sell their beans to producers, who in turn will sell them to roasters. Fair Trade cooperatives, on the other hand, are made up of roasters and farmers. This not only cuts out the cost of a having an additional middle man, but also allows the farmers to directly contact the roasters and shops their beans will end up in. This is great since no one could possibly know with as much detail the impact coffee farming has on the land as the people who live on that land. By connecting environmentally aware buyers directly to farmers, an additional level of assurance of sustainable practices is created. It also allows for interesting efforts, such as Cooperative Coffee’s Fair Trade Proof project, where consumers can use a special code on their bags of coffee to follow the path of that bag of coffee from the farm to their pantry.

Food

Though the actual practices relating to the production and acquisition of coffee is definitely a coffee shop’s most pertinent practice, one cannot forget the importance of small food items. Coffee shops frequently build up a reputation for their utterly delicious muffins, fabulous bagels, or any number of other cafe items. These not only help a coffee shop to establish its own niche in the community (“We’re the only coffee shop with real quiche!”) but also gives them an easy opportunity to show off their commitment to sustainable ideals and practices.

coffeeBongo Java stands in a unique position regarding their stance to food. Bongo World, the umbrella company that contains several different cafes around Nashville, actually has locations such as Grins Vegetarian Restaurant, Fido’s, and the newly redesigned Bongo East that seem to focus just as much on their food products as their coffee. From this, any suspicious consumer can assume one thing: if Bongo Java pays that much attention to food and their businesses practices, surely they make an effort to use sustainable practices on their solid menu items.

This assumption would prove to be correct, as Bongo Java’s locations strive to buy only organic, locally produced food. The website for Fido, Bongo World’s more upscale establishment that is equal parts restaurant and coffee shop, even claims that Fido purchases more regionally produced food than any other Nashville restaurant. It’s hard to argue that using local farmers to produce all their ingredients not only guarantees Bongo World has fresher ingredients available, but also greatly reduces the carbon footprint created by producing these foods in the first place.

Grins, a vegetarian restaurant opened on the Vanderbilt campus and operated by Bongo World, took an even more unique approach to using local, organic ingredients. Not only does Grins meet the same quality and sustainability standards that the rest of the Bongo World family does, but it actually became Nashville’s first certified Kosher restaurant. Though this is undoubtedly due to their location inside the Shulman Center for Jewish Life, it also simultaneously contributes to Bongo World’s environmental practices. The average patron of Grins not only likely follows a kosher lifestyle, but also eats less meat than the average American. Most Americans eat nearly 50 pounds worth of pork in a year, which produces 325.35 pounds worth of greenhouse gasses. A kosher lifestyle forbids the ingestion of mammals who do not both chew their cud and have split hooves, meaning a person following this diet already must find 50 pounds worth of meat  to make up this difference. This does not even factor in the impact of the shellfish and other dietary restrictions facing a kosher individual. Furthermore, those dining regularly dining at Grins likely eat little to no meat; as meat production accounts for nearly 18% of creation of greenhouse gasses it is easy to see why the lifestyle choices Grins promotes are ecofriendly.

Community Efforts

What really makes a coffee shop unique is its employees and its regulars, and Bongo Java is not exception. Unlike many other businesses, coffee shops encourage their customers to spend time in the store and strive to make their experience as comfortable as possible. It is not uncommon for freelancers, students, and other workers to spend hours and hours in a coffee shop; though it would be quite strange if that happened in a grocery store. This practice encourages crafting strong relationships between a coffee shop and its community.

Bongo Java not only strives to do this, but also manages to incorporate its sustainability practices into the relationship. For instance, their Fido location recently hosted online business review site Yelp with a community dinner focusing on organic, local ingredients. Grins has a series of Summer Suppers where customers can enjoy locally grown, organic kosher food in a family style setting.

Another hallmark virtue of Bongo World is their humanitarian and philanthropic efforts. As stated on their website, Bongo donates thousands of dollars worth of free coffee, merchandise, and gift cards to local nonprofits that support “the environment, education, children and the arts.”

However, simply donating to environmentally conscious nonprofits was not enough for Bongo Java, which also offers a service in which unique blend of coffee can be created to help raise funds for a nonprofit. Groups such as the Elephant Sanctuary have been known to use this service to create distinctive, delicious coffees.

While the total impact of Bongo Java’s sustainability efforts are unknown, their dedication to using Fair Trade, organic ingredients from local producers leads me to believe that Bongo is at least trying their best to improve the environment for today and generations to come. Whether you agree with this or not, feel free to leave a comment below about your views on Nashville’s favorite coffee shop. To find more articles relating to sustainability, visit the official Nashville Green Magazine.

By Jack R. Smith