Thursday, December 2, 2010

Company Interview with Cafe Flora - Seattle, WA

As I am thinking of relocated to the city of Seattle, WA in the spring of 2011, I chose to find and interview a business leader in this city, rather than my current city of Las Vegas, NV.   Finding a leader in sustainable business in Las Vegas, is a challenge, however in Seattle it was quite simple.  Seattle is one of the leading U.S. cities engaged in sustainable practices.  With a simple walk down the block or with a quick search on the Internet, one can find a vast variety of sustainable businesses.  I chose to interview Café Flora restaurant, as they have been engaged in sustainable practices since 1991, well in advance of most businesses in Seattle, or any other city.  The interview was conducted over the phone and specific questions pertinent to leadership in sustainability were asked; yet many other topics came in conversation as well.  
Seattle, WA ranks number 8 in the “top 10 green U.S. cities”, ranked by Mother Nature Network (2010).  Seattle has been a leading city in sustainability and in many cases decades ahead of the game; Café Flora, a local vegetarian restaurant in the Seattle area is prime example of this.  For nearly 20 years, Cafe Flora off East Madison Street has been engaged in sustainable practices.  Whereas the majority of businesses today still do not understand what it means to make their business greener, Cafe Flora has written the manual.  From recycling cooking oil for conversion to biodiesel to buying food directly from farmers markets, Cafe Flora built their company on sustainable practices and continues to grow the concept with everything they do.  
In speaking with Nat Stratton-Clarke, now the present the owner of Cafe Flora, I was astounded by the amount of sustainable practices this quaint vegetarian cafe has implemented.  When Cafe Flora was first opened in 1991, sustainability was a top priority and is shown by their mission statement: “to establish a friendly, community based vegetarian restaurant close to home, to develop a restaurant that could stand as a model business in attending to the health of the planet and to start a restaurant that would introduce superb non-meat dishes from culinary traditions around the globe utilizing local, organic and sustainable produce” (Café Flora, 2010).
Sustainability is also shown by how the restaurant was designed.  An herb garden graces the outdoor patio, which not only provides a wonderful ambiance, but also provides the freshest possible herbs for the dishes.  Meanwhile, nature is still felt indoors, as natural plant walls embrace the surroundings.  The building was also designed with many skylights in order to maximize the amount of light within the kitchen and other areas, in order to cut down on lighting costs and the environmental impacts of power usage.  The website explains further how the initial owners of Café Flora went about designing a sustainable restaurant:
Architectural and environmental consulting firms were brought in based on their compatibility with the goals of environmentally sensitive, energy efficient design and construction along with the owner's commitment to hiring minority and women owned businesses for all of the sub-contracting work. The kitchen was designed to be appropriate for a vegetarian restaurant - that is, spacious and open with large amounts of prep space, and maximum opportunity for interaction and collaboration among the cooking staff (Café Flora, 2010).
The choices of designing a restaurant are typically made only once, as the investment can be quite substantial. By seeing the design of Café Flora, one can understand that sustainability was by and large their main concept, and not just implemented as part of a fad.  
As the design of Café Flora shows that sustainability was part of their strategic plan, their daily practices would be the main way to show how they stayed true to their sustainability plan.  The impacts of daily business choices can have much more of an impact on the environment, especially in restaurants where goods and resources are consumed at a very high rate.  Restaurants and their patrons consume large amounts of water, food, and dry goods.  With increasing consumer awareness and demand, it is progressively more important for restaurant owners to understand the impacts of the carbon footprint of food.  Café Flora has understood this concept from their inception.  Whereas many restaurants buy from vendors that ship the foods and goods across the country in freight trucks, which add thousands of tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, Café Flora held true to their sustainability plan and only purchases from local companies and farms.  The term “farm to table” is relatively new to American consumers, however Café Flora has shown to be once again ahead of the game, as they have been buying their food direct from local farmers markets for nearly 20 years.  Not only are their produce, dairy, and grains bought from local farmers, but Cafe Flora also supports local wineries as well.  Their wine list contains only vintages from Washington and Oregon.  Although California an Europe have an outstanding selection of wines, once again it is more important to have the lowest possible carbon footprint and the wines from Washington and Oregon provide a comparable quality without the environmental impact.
My interview with Nat Stratton-Clarke continued, and in addition to learning about all that Café Flora has accomplished, I wanted to learn more about how her career progressed and how leadership played a role in her business and with sustainability.  While working her way through law school in the Bay Area, Nat was employed with a local catering company.  The allure and love of the hospitality industry captured her heart, and after she completed her Bachelor of Arts degree she chose not to continue with law and focused on furthering her career in hospitality management.  Five years ago, in 2005, Nat joined the Cafe Flora team in Seattle as the General Manager and primary purchaser.  Three years later she became the owner.  In both of her roles, maintaining the vision of Cafe Flora’s strategic plan for sustainability was a top priority.  When Nat became the owner of Café Flora she initiated a remodel of the restaurant in order to give it a revitalizing new look for her regular patrons and a fresh look for new customers.  The remodel included refinishing of the floors with natural soy-based wood floor stain and a transformation of the décor and functionality of the restaurant.  The new decor was adopted from one of the local farms that the cafe purchases from: a cattle-gate serves as the staff entrance to the bar and beehive boxes from the honey farmer grace the shelves for functionality and ambiance.  In addition, the majority of wood used within the restaurant is reclaimed.  Choosing to remodel in a sustainable fashion not only saved the restaurant money while giving the physical space a fresh look, but they gave a new life to the farm goods that would have otherwise ended up in a landfill.  Ms. Stratton-Clarke explained that, “sustainability is not just about decreasing your environmental impact, but looking for opportunities to collaborate with others in order to preserve and find uses for as many resources as possible.”
My interview with Ms. Stratton-Clarke resumed to discussing more about how leadership plays a role as a business owner of a sustainable company.  Ms. Stratton-Clarke feels that innovation is the single most important leadership trait one engaged in sustainability can possess.  “Sustainability will continue to play a predominant role in my business,” she explained, “as the movement grows, more avenues will be opened and I will have to learn to integrate and adapt to them.”  She elucidated that she feels that sustainability is not a fad and I could tell she was excited for the changes and challenges ahead.  Business owners such as Ms. Stratton-Clarke need to be open to the changes and new opportunities in sustainability.  Innovation is vital for gaining a competitive edge and she must be ready and willing to adjust wherever necessary to maintain Cafe Flora’s strategic goals.  
Ms. Stratton-Clarke noted that one of the challenges she has seen moving through sustainability over the past decade is the exchange of ownership of farmers.  Although Seattle is fortunate that the farms remain a family business and are not bought out by large corporations, which is happening more and more in the Midwest, passing along the family business also brings its own set of challenges.  Ms. Stratton-Clarke explained that when the younger farmers take over the farm, the struggles are visible to their buyers.  For example, one of the on-going challenges for farmers is that of increasing accessibility and variety of products.  In order to stay competitive in a global market, farmers must provide a wide variety of quality produce, or consumers may choose to purchase outside the local area.  As she explained with her own experience with innovation, she feels that these farmers need to keep up with the demands of consumers and business owners, being responsive and adapting to the changes quickly.  It is important for farmers to provide what is demanded to further the sustainable trend of farm to table.  
Local farmers must continue to meet the needs of local restaurants, providing the quality products they demand.  In return, the businesses must continue to support the local farms so they are able to survive and can continue to provide in difficult times.  Ms. Nat Stratton-Clarke explained that educating her staff and customers is her way of giving back to the farmers, ensuring their survival against large farming corporations.  Café Flora employees, from prep cook to server to hostess, are taken on regular visits to the local farms and the farms are given recognition on the restaurant’s menus.  By seeing directly where the food is grown and produced, the staff becomes engaged and develops a deep relationship with the food.  The staff then passes this compassion and knowledge on to the customer, further enhancing the bond of “farm to table.”  The spiritual connection with food has been lost in America and consumers no longer value what they eat.  A Big-Mac to the majority of people is simply no more than an inexpensive meal; the time and consideration to think about all the components is rarely taken.  By educating consumers about how and where their food is produced, as Café Flora continues to provide, the respect for food will spread far and wide.  This, Nat explains, is how sustainability will survive and continue to grow.
Not only is supporting local farmers important to enhance the sustainability movement, but so is supporting other types of local businesses as well.  For example, the company Café Flora uses for food composting also converts these composted materials into to-go containers for resale. Rather than buying a more inexpensive product, which is most likely produced from raw materials and shipped across the country, Nat chooses to support the local business that reuse precious resources, even though the cost may be slightly higher.  This is the issue of intrinsic cost vs. perceived or actual cost.  This intrinsic cost is also associated with the aforementioned concept of carbon footprint.  Even though a product may cost less in monetary terms, the unseen environmental impacts of producing the product may be much higher, which we will have to pay back in monetary terms someday, as we are starting to see with the impacts of global warming.
It is up to business leaders and those involved with sustainability to set the standard and pave the way for green techniques.  Many are fearful of jumping on the sustainable bandwagon because it is unfamiliar territory.  As leaders in sustainability, we must show that “going green” can be quite simple to integrate, that it can save business money, and that learning to live within the means of the planet is important for our survival on Earth.  Ms. Stratton-Clarke’s advice to sustainability students and aspiring business leaders is to, “jump in, learn as much as you can, and talk to as many people as you can”.  In addition, Nat explained that to be successful you should “make sure that you have the passion and desire for your chosen field, such as hospitality, for the challenges will only become greater with the added challenges of sustainability.”  She provided the example of students that go to culinary school before ever working in a restaurant. The restaurant industry is a whole different animals and the sheer love of cooking is not going to paint the picture of what a career as a chef will be like.  Real world experience is the way to find out if your passions align with your career goals.  She also explained that talking to purveyors is an excellent start, as they are well rounded and have experience with many different styles and types of business, “they can really help guide you in the right direction,” Nat claimed.
For learning more about sustainability, Ms. Stratton-Clarke suggests reaching out to as many different organizations as possible.  Many national organizations have outstanding information and the local chapters provide additional advice on how to adopt and implement specific practices within the community.  Nat recommended specifically “Slow Food” and “Chef’s Collaborative.” This was the primary way Nat honed in on her own sustainability skills, in addition to what she learned from her community.  These types of organizations provide particular benefit to those who may not be in such a “green” city to find the resources and means they need to achieve the goals they desire.  
Café Flora is a beautiful example of a sustainable restaurant and can be used as a model for many types of businesses.  In learning to adapt sustainable business practices, it is often less about the products you are servicing and more about the leadership practices you adopt and bring into your organization.  With innovation and adaptability, sustainability can be integrated anywhere.  This combined with passion for your chosen industry will help ensure that the sustainability movement continues to mature.


Café Flora. (2010). Our Story. Retrieved from http://www.cafeflora.com/aboutUs.php
Mother Nature Network. (2010). Top 10 green U.S. cities.. Retrieved from