For Dimitri Thompson, it’s all or nothing.
Whether its the rectangular chillers to keep the milk cold and sanitary, the energy-efficient espresso machine that draws little power or the reused materials that make up most of his furniture, Thompson left no detail unattended while crafting the blueprints for his Noble Cafe. But the attention he is paying into the equipment and materials of the cafe pales next to the ultimate goal of his establishment: a carbon neutral cafe — the first in the United States.
The idea behind carbon neutrality is bringing one’s carbon footprint — the amount of carbon dioxide produced through your energy-using activities, like driving a car — to zero through a mixture of reducing one’s energy use and paying money to a fund, such as CarbonFund.org, to offset what cannot be reduced. Such organizations reinvest funds toward renewable energy projects.
The carbon neutral café idea has been implemented in the United Kingdom and Australia, but it has yet to take hold here in the U.S. “I need to give back to my community,” Thompson said. “It’s my duty.”
With plans to launch on January 9, the Noble Cafe will be the newest café in a city that’s not hurting for them — in the downtown, Uptown and Lake Merritt areas alone, there are 28 businesses that identify themselves as coffee and tea shops, according to a search on Yelp. But what makes Noble Cafe different is its scope; it’s a cafe where patrons can do their part to offset carbon use. For example, patrons who come in with laptops can opt to pay a 50 cent electricity fee that goes to help offset the power used to run their computers.
Energy efficient equipment, like the espresso machine that shuts off when not in use, the transportation practices of his employees, like bicycling to work, and on-site composting will help reduce the cafe’s footprint, Thompson said. He estimates that after all the energy saving reductions he makes, he will likely pay $600 a month to a non-profit fund to offset the carbon he uses.
Thompson paid meticulous detail to materials he used to build the cafe on the bottom floor of the One Grand building on Grand Avenue in Uptown. The medium-sized cafe has spacious seating of wicker chairs at wooden tables constructed from reused Monterey cypress, and dangling wooden boxes contain energy efficient light bulbs that cost $70 a pop.
“The whole cafe uses 300 volts of electricity,” Thompson said of the cafe’s lighting, even if it’s left on overnight.
The cafe will feature a menu that includes Belgian waffles and smoked duck breast salad, Blue Bottle Coffee and French-pressed loose teas. The ingredients, Thompson said, will be mostly organic and sourced from within 200 miles when possible.
One of the more interesting experiments Thompson plans on trying is SMS-based room service for the 248 residential units inside the Grand building. By allowing people who live in the building to buy pre-paid cards for use at the cafe, a resident could wake up, text for tea and have it delivered within 30 minutes with no money exchanged, he said.
Although Thompson plans to have a small staff, it will be a well-paid one. He plans to hire people at $10 per hour and offer full medical insurance after 45 days. But the planned perks don’t end there: one pedicure/manicure a month, free Yoga at a studio next door each week and one massage per month.
The lavish benefits for a café staff beg the question of whether the business model will be affordable, but Thompson said that there is little difference in wages between the minimum wage ($8.50/hour) and what he is proposing. He also said he would rather spend money on well-being of employees than on energy costs. “I just believe that people are here trying to squeeze water out of stone,” he said. “If a business cannot make that extra money, it shouldn’t be in business.”
And Thompson knows a thing or two about the hospitality industry. He was trained by the Buckingham Palace Butlers and is a member of the International Guild of Professional Butlers, worked on the Radison Seven Seas Cruises in Tahiti and has consulted on a number of restaurants, including Bing Crosby’s in Walnut Creek before it closed.
His investment partners, Jeffrey Harry and Dana Santa Cruz, are also part of a non-profit formed to give back to community. Twice a month, the cafe will host events, including one where they have already lined up partners to give school supplies and meals to low-income children.
Thompson said he was able to reduce his costs through private and public partnerships. The city of Oakland gave him a $55,000 grant because of his goal of making the cafe carbon neutral. Clover Stornetta, a milk company, is giving him $6,000 a year to have their brand attached to special milk refrigeration devices that are both energy efficient and more sanitary than the jugs traditionally used. The company that owns The Grand reduced the cost of renovating the café, in part because of the room service idea, Thompson said.
With all the subsidies, Thompson said it was cheaper to go green than to open a more traditional cafe. But costs aside, he truly wants to leave a mark on the coffee business with his cafe, and he hopes others will replicate it by elevating wages for workers and expanding their environmental practices.
“I believe this is my mission,” Thompson said.
This story was amended to include Thompson’s business partners and fixed his work history.