Anne Weaver has been a Portland business owner for 30 years. In that time, she’s pushed the home-grown Elephants Delicatessen to soaring heights as an exemplary sustainable business. With four locations, Elephants is dishing their hand-made green menu to a grateful crowd of eco-minded citizens and picking up some sustainable bling along the way. In this episode of The Green Line Series, Weaver details the advantages and challenges of being a small business with a deep commitment to sustainability, points out the importance of engaging your employees and community, and reminds us that the little things add up to big results.
GG: You’re a small business owner. In what ways does working on a smaller scale help you achieve sustainability faster than a big corporation?
AW: One great thing about being a small business like Elephants Delicatessen is that there aren’t too many layers between the people who make our fresh foods every day and those who run the company. In a large corporation it could take quite an effort for one employee to be heard, but here at Elephants everyone from the top down is interacting with all of our employees daily. This is especially important for our managers because they very quickly can let upper management know when someone has a suggestion or a great idea. Sometimes something as simple as a tiny tweak in our kitchen can equal huge returns in terms of sustainability.
We also have a Green Team that is made up of employees from all levels and departments. These team members become ambassadors of our company’s message and help spread the word throughout the company. Because we’re small, our staff pretty well knows each other by name. That is really important for us. We’re not a business where everyone sits at a computer and reads company emails. We’re working together, face to face, every day, and that means we don’t have too much of a delay from suggestion to implementation.
GG: On the flip side, what are some road blocks to being sustainable that you’ve run into as a small business? How have you overcome them?
AW: Elephants Delicatessen is in a unique position in that we are not too small, but we’re not the big dogs either. If you’re a paper supplier and Starbucks wants a certain type of compostable cup, the suppliers can’t wait to make it happen. A business of our size can ask, but at the end of the day, the bigger account may get more attention. Instead, what we have chosen to do is work to forge strong relationships with vendors. We outline our own sustainability goals and ask them to partner with us in meeting them.
GG: How does making your food from scratch provide an advantage to Elephants in terms of keeping things green?
AW: The closer you are to your food, the more control you have over its impact on the environment. One example is reduced packaging on the front end because we buy individual ingredients such as flour, sugar and butter. Then, we use those bulk ingredients to make our own breads, cakes, cookies and pastries. Since the finished products are made fresh daily, we use minimal – if any – packaging to transport foods to our retail stores. These simple steps save a lot of unwanted waste.
GG: What are some of the most important, most impactful components of your business that help you be more sustainable (recycling, power conservation, etc.)
AW: In the food business, composting is huge. It sounds like such a small thing, everyone’s doing it in their backyard, right? Well, when you produce the volume of food that we do, every day, it adds up to a lot of waste. We have compost bins throughout our kitchens, and we train staff about what food waste can go into those bins.
Energy conservation is another huge opportunity for us. Through PGE’s Clean and Green program, the electricity used to power our entire operation is generated from wind farms in Oregon and Washington. We also purchase high efficiency food service equipment through Energy Trust of Oregon, and energy efficient fluorescent light bulbs from Pacific Lighting.
GG: How viable is purchasing wind power for small businesses? Is it affordable?
AW: As we mentioned, we participate in PGE’s Clean and Green program. That means 100 percent of our power is generated from a renewable source – wind farms in Oregon and Washington. One challenge small businesses can face is determining how to make the switch to wind power when you are one tenant in a large building. We fought that fight, and we’re proud we did. We think it helps raise awareness for everyone involved.
Wind power was more expensive when we first signed up, but we assumed power rates would rise in general. We were right, and we are proud to have been among the first local businesses to pursue wind power.
GG: Has being an award-winning sustainable business helped your bottom line?
AW: We think so. We think our customers appreciate our efforts. It certainly means that we have to put some energy into rethinking things at times, but ultimately, being sustainable isn’t a cause we’re into – it’s simply our business standard.
GG: Going green is sometimes an overwhelming concept. Do you have to go big to go green?
AW: It certainly can be overwhelming. We have a Green Team committee that meets weekly to discuss our sustainability efforts. We can spend weeks debating the merits of one type of green packaging versus another. Ultimately, starting with a few small things can really get a team moving, though. Start with the closet full of cleaners. Do a little research and find more environmentally-friendly alternatives. Then, train your staff to use them appropriately. Before you know it, everyone in your company starts to think in the green mindset. Then, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect your employees to start coming forward with their own suggestions. We have absolutely taken advantage of how easily we are able to make changes because of our smaller size.
GG: Do all the little things—things that businesses can add in stages—add up to dramatic changes?
AW: Absolutely. We did not start out doing all of this at once, and I’m pretty sure we’ll always have more to do. We bought an efficient machine to clean our Central Kitchen floors. It uses significantly less water and cleaning solution than traditional mopping. That may sound like a small thing, but when you think about how we clean that 10,000-square-foot kitchen 365 days a year, that adds up to a lot of savings.
GG: How did you get started making these choices?
AW: Since opening 30 years ago, Elephants Delicatessen has aimed to be a green company. Our business took off the same time as the major green movement in our area. It was a perfect match, just making sense that our business follows the regional green motto. We have made it a point to include thinking green into our decisions as business has grown. When we need a new appliance, we choose Energy Star. When we need new packaging, we research recyclable or compostable materials. As delivery business grew, we sought out alternative fuels and ways to reduce vehicle emissions on the road. Our next step is to deliver by bike. It seems there is always a way to improve.
GG: How do you recommend other small business owners get started down a path to sustainability?
AW: Start taking action immediately. Small, simple steps will lead to bigger ones. Open the closet and check out the chemicals used in your business. Put out recycle tubs. Take away the paper cups near the water cooler and coffee pot and ask employees to use their own, reusable cups and mugs.
Companies must invest in bringing their employees on board. Think of it as a group effort. Training and spreading the word through the company has a trickle-down effect. Eventually everyone from your vendors to your clients will see your efforts.
GG: Why is it so important for America’s small business owners to get on the sustainable side of the green line? What is their impact on the greater whole?
AW: Being green is the new business standard. Small businesses have the advantage of being close to their customers, and customers are more and more savvy about what it means to be a green business. We have to make sure our community knows we care about sustainability, and once customers are able to see a business’ efforts, we believe they’ll respond with return business. Small businesses making sustainable efforts puts pressure on larger businesses to take action. It proves that it doesn’t have to take deep pockets, just a genuine effort.
Anne Weaver is a speaker the GoGreen ‘09 Conference, October 7th, 2009 in Portland, Oregon. To hear more from Weaver and our other 40+ eco-visionary speakers on embedding your business with a sustainable commitment , register today at www.gogreenpdx.com/registration or call 503.226.2377.
For more information about Anne Weaver and Elephants Delicatessen, please visit: http://www.elephantsdeli.com