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Carbon neutral cafe coming to Oakland

on December 28, 2011

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, 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.

Photo Courtesy of Noble Cafe

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.

Photo Courtesy of Noble Cafe

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. 


  1. Jason Ferrier on December 28, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    The following quote has no meaning and is probably misquoted:

    “The whole cafe uses 300 volts of electricity,” Thompson said of the cafe’s lighting, even if it’s left on overnight.

    The power grid in the US is 110V and 220V (for heaver appliances). You probably meant to use a measure of power consumed such as milliampere-hour (mAh) or ampere-hour (Ah) like the utility companies use.

    • Nate on December 28, 2011 at 11:12 pm

      Exactly right. Volts are a measure of potential energy (similar to water pressure). Amp-hours or watts are a measure of energy consumed over time.

    • John C. Osborn on December 29, 2011 at 9:45 am

      Thanks for the info. I’ll contact the owner and verify if that’s what he meant.

      • jim on December 29, 2011 at 2:43 pm

        He meant watts. So he has 15 20 watt LED bulbs lighting the place, one could assume…

        He’ll be paying less than SF’s minimum wage.

        In&Out pays people $15 an hour, right?

        • Dimitri Thompson on January 1, 2012 at 9:58 pm

          Every employee will start at $10 minimum and after 30 days on $12.
          Noble Cafe pays more or same as any other Cafe/restaurant. At In/Out they have no tips at Noble Cafe is estimated around $20 a day per person.
          D Thompson, Principal
          Noble Cafe

      • Dimitri Thompson on January 1, 2012 at 9:54 pm

        Yes, that is correct, I meant watts.
        D Thompson

  2. Matt Chambers on December 30, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    Okay, so he meant 300w… let’s beat a dead horse people.

    Jim, since you think I&O pays more then look into it. $10/hr in Oakland isn’t bad for a young person, minimum wage in CA is $8/hr. SF housing (one’s single largest monthly expense) is ~30% higher, so it makes sense if the wages are lower in Oakland.

    I wish fewer people enjoyed being critical for the sake of it. This guy took on a monumental effort to bring a new business to Downtown (uptown) Oakland and I really appreciate that. There was a time when the area’s nicest meal was Hof-Brau (now Luka’s).

    • Dimitri Thompson on January 1, 2012 at 10:04 pm

      Thank you, Matt.
      I don’t know why people don’t appreciate $600k investment in downtown Oakland, with all sustainable furniture from reclaim materials. As example, each table cost us $760 where we could have get those, as everybody else, for $120 (Restaurant Supply).

      Please let me know if anybody knows commitment from any other establishment of approx. $600 a month, that Noble Cafe will give to the Parks of Oakland.
      Thank you.
      D Thompson, Principal

      • Joshua Daniels on January 6, 2012 at 9:01 pm

        I just think that when you are getting over $50K in grants from the city you could spend it on things other than $800 tables (perhaps buy used tables that don’t need to be specially manufactured – that really cuts down on carbon emitted and resources used) and instead maybe focus on changing more of your long-term practices to minimize the need for carborn offsets to begin with. Like, perhaps, self generated renewable energy so that you could actually make the business zero net energy instead of mainlining your slightly lower power consumption from PG&E. Just one of many suggestions.

        Also, who exactly do you pay carbon offsets to, and how much do you plan to pay into carbon offsets per month? The article made it sound as if you would pay $600 per month into offsets, but you make it clear that money is going to Oakland Parks, not carbon offsets.

        • Dimitri Thompson on January 12, 2012 at 4:44 am

          Thank you for your comment. On tables, actually by using Oakland small business that get reclaimed wood from Monterrey, CA is more sustainable than buying $200 table made China at restaurant supply. Keeping small business alive and money in Oakland community is better, I think. Grant was used for to employee 7 people where one of them was homeless till recently. Hope this makes sense.
          As for energy, we save a lot, not slightly. We will not get power from PG&E but from solar and wind made power company. We eliminated beverage and food display fridges, we have only existing in US espresso machine and only one that is Certified in the World that saves up to 42% energy.
          Same for carbon offset, we can buy carbon offset from rainforest in Brazil but we think money is better to spend for our Oakland parks. Please let me know if you know any other cafe and restaurant that would give back to Oakland Parks estimated $7k cash, too. We would love to partner with them and make Oakland even more green.
          Please give us some credit for our efforts.
          At the end, we will try to install solar panels next year, too.
          Thank you, again.

          • Joshua Daniels on January 12, 2012 at 11:38 am

            Giving money to a “good cause” doesn’t count as a carbon offset though. If you’re not directly doing something to balance out carbon use — planting trees, investing in renewables, etc. — then you aren’t offsetting carbon use and your business is probably carbon neutral in name only.

            There is a company called KEMA right across the street from you that is pretty good at this stuff.

            Anyway, this is about what I suspected. You got a “grant” to be carbon neutral, but you’ve decided not to be carbon neutral and your grant looks more like a $55K 0% interest loan that you will pay off to the city as a monthly pollution fee.

            Do the very thing that you received the grant money for — i.e. become carbon neutral — and I’ll give you some credit.

  3. Zaria Blomquist on January 2, 2012 at 1:16 am

    Zaria Blomquist…

    This is one awesome article post.Thanks Again. Keep writing….

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