In one of the most severe economic down-
turns in memory, small businesses are struggling
to stay afloat. For these businesses — almost 97
percent of all companies nationwide — finding
ways to cut expenses by reducing energy con-
sumption is more important than ever. For many,
it can mean the difference between survival and
bankruptcy. Larson and Bobal have found a way
to incorporate energy-saving technologies into
their two converted warehouses without break-
ing the bank.
Running a successful coffee company is not a
simple task, even during good economic times.
The competition is tough, and many consum-
ers on tight budgets can scale back their coffee
habits. Larson and Bobal report that demand
for their fair-trade, shade-grown organic coffee
beans has remained high, even during the reces-
sion: More than 500 coffee shops and grocery
stores carry their products, and the company’s
growth curve shows no signs of leveling off.
“We want to innovate and to inspire people
to make a difference in the world,” Larson said.
“We want to use the company as a soapbox for
fair trade and other issues we care about, and
making coffee is the perfect vehicle.”
What accounts for their popularity? Of course,
marketing a high-quality product is essential.
Customers also respond to the company’s com-
mitment to sustainability, the environment and
community engagement. For example, the com-
pany, in collaboration with Maverick Enterprises
( maverickent.net), developed biodegradable
coffee bags. It also maintains a biodiesel filling
station, which sells Piedmont Biofuels products
( biofuels.coop) for community use, and its local
delivery bus runs on vegetable oil collected from
neighborhood restaurants. (Clients know when
the bus has arrived because the exhaust smells like
Chinese food.) And walk-in customers cannot
help but be impressed by the company’s simple
but effective steps to conserve energy.
A warehouse roof was modified with sky- lights that run the length of the building. The skylights provide ample daylighting and, during the winter, some solar heating.
In quest of Larry’s Beans, a coffee roaster in Raleigh, N.C., we drove winding roads and oak-shaded boulevards through one of the city’s oldest residential neighbor- hoods. The route took us onto the last remaining gravel road within city limits and into an industrial area, right in the
middle of town. Old structures and equipment,
worn and rusty with age, made the district look
more like an abandoned construction site than
the backyard of one of the city’s more comfortable neighborhoods.
Off to the side of the road, we saw signs of
life. First, an old bus painted bright colors, then
a biodiesel pump, flowers, resident cats and a
metal sculpture gateway opening into a courtyard between two renovated warehouses.
The Larry’s Beans facility is an eclectic mix of
reclaimed building materials, new and hand-me-down furnishings and modernistic architectural
elements. No beige walls and drab carpeting in
this corporate environment. Instead, we found
a menagerie of colors, textures and shapes reminiscent of an art studio or creative workshop.
And natural lighting is everywhere.
The coffee roasting area — the heart of the
operation — is tidy and meticulously organized,
and the equipment is sparkling clean. Nearby,
resembling a college research lab, is a glassed-in
tasting room where coffee blends are sampled
early each morning by a certified cupper to
ensure consistency of flavor and aroma. The
smell of freshly ground and brewed gourmet
coffee is irresistible.
Owners Larry Larson and Kevin Bobal have
clear priorities: To spend money on what really
matters — the quality of the coffee — while
maintaining a good work environment for 16
employees. They are also committed to energy
conservation and sustainability, believing that a
green approach to business is not just the right
thing to do, but also the smart thing to do for
today’s successful small business operation.
TIM MAR TIN
solartoday.org SOLAR TODAY November/December 2009 39 Copyright © 2009 by the American Solar Energy Society Inc. All rights reserved.
HELPING SMALL BUSINESS
IS GOOD FOR AMERICA
Of the 5 million businesses oper- ating in the United States, only
about 3 percent are medium- or
large-size companies. The rest are classified as small businesses. With the
tight credit market and marginal sales
volumes, many small companies are
reluctant to invest in solar systems and
other energy-efficient technologies.
To encourage greater use of these
technologies, most states provide
free energy consultation services, and
some offer low interest loans. Because
job creation today is driven more by
small businesses than by larger firms,
helping small businesses survive and
prosper by reducing their energy costs
is good for America.