Coffee Shop Sustainability: A Q&A With Ryan Castelaz, Discourse

We recently had the opportunity to speak with Ryan Castelaz, the Milwaukee-based barista behind the new experimental coffee shop  discourse. Ryan's brand has grown with the coffee movement in Wisconsin. But he developed a number of impressive strategies to ensure that his business runs with sustainability at the forefront. Featuring local and seasonally-focused menus and a closed-loop waste reduction system have drastically reduced the eco-footprint of his business and set a positive example for café owners and coffee enthusiasts across the region.

For more information on how you can implement your own environmentally-friendly solutions in your café, check out our tips for How To Run A Sustainable Coffee Shop.

Q: Why is it important to consider your eco-footprint as a business owner?

Ryan Castelaz: As business owners, we are community leaders and it is our responsibility to set a positive example for our staff as well as for other local, regional, and even national establishments. It is widely recognized that real change must occur to bring emissions to net zero by 2050 and we simply cannot afford to be negligent at the organizational level. While it is essential for the planet to consider our waste and eco footprint, it can also be an area of significant cost savings, a cornerstone for our brands, and a driver for innovation, creating a truly win-win situation for all those who partake.

Q: What efforts have you made to reduce waste and/or operate your café more sustainably?

RC: At discourse, we've implemented a closed-loop ecosystem that drastically reduces our overall waste footprint. On a simple level, we've moved towards metal, hay, and paper straws, and upon settling into a post-pandemic service environment, will be looking to transition from paper and plastic to go cups to swappable, re-usable, and easily cleanable coffee husk and glass to-go services. We've also developed many new products from by-products; such as yogurt from extra steamed milk, oleo saccharum and citrus broths from juiced citrus husks, powders from spent fruits, coffee kombucha from spent grounds, and a library of tinctures and infusions from leftover seeds, stems, and trimmings.  

Q: Have you had to adjust how your café operates in order to prioritize sustainability efforts?

RC: The biggest adjustment we've made, aside from simply spending a bit more money on sustainable to-go service ware, is taking the extra minute between using something and discarding it to consider it's possible applications. This moment of reflection has led us to some of our greatest innovations and our tastiest beverages, and has yielded immense returns both fiscally and creatively. We've found that most items destined for discard have a second life hiding within them, and it's become a fundamental tenet of discourse to do our best to discover what that may be. 

Q: What are the benefits of developing menus that are locally and/or seasonally driven?

RC: The benefits are almost too numerous to count. Engaging with your local community of producers is both empowering and inspiring, and supporting sustainable local agriculture is one of the best and simplest ways to operate a more sustainable business. Giving yourself boundaries for creation (i.e. using only local / seasonal ingredients) creates a unique set of problems which calls for a unique set of solutions, inspiring drinks that never would have existed if not created from a place of limitation. On a less philosophical note, customers love supporting local, and seasonal menus ensure you stay relevant, greatly increasing your chances of fostering long standing customer engagement and repeat visits. 

Q: Are there cost-saving incentives to operating a sustainable café?

RC: Absolutely. The most obvious would be a lower energy / water bill, and the cost savings on dry goods for those who have transitioned to a swappable to-go cup system like the one offered by Huskee. Less on the nose, a closed-loop waste reduction system yields a much higher level of innovation in your drink program, while drastically reducing your CoGs (any and all waste products are essentially "free", as their cost was absorbed by their first use). In my work as a consultant, I've seen the stories behind these closed-loop strategies boost drink sales by upwards of 35%, while dramatically lowering CoGs.

Q: How have customers responded to your efforts?

RC: Customers love to hear the stories of how we reduce and reutilize our spent ingredients, and several have even adopted the strategies in their own homes. Composting coffee grounds, turning spent melon and gourd seeds into alternative mylks, and repurposing citrus husks into syrups and oleo saccharum, are a few easy tricks that our customers have adopted over the years to better their pantries, and reduce their eco-footprints at home. 

Q: What advice would you give to café owners and managers looking to implement sustainability efforts into their business plans?

RC: In the food and beverage space, we need to stop thinking of our menus as a collection of independent offerings, and start thinking about them as a living ecosystem, where each drink can play a hand in another. If I'm making Phoenix, a delicious combination of carbonated orange juice and cold brew, I can also include Channel Orange (the oranges are used for juice, orange oleo saccharum, and candied orange powder) and Coffee Kombucha (using the spent grounds). Thinking about your menu as an ecosystem, where each drink plays into the next, fundamentally changes the way you design your menus, drastically increasing innovation and lowering CoGs.

For more information on Top Note Sparkling Mixers, head to our Industry Home Page, curated just for bars, restaurants, cafes and distributors.

Please reach out to us with any questions regarding our products, distributors near you or how to serve Top Note Sparkling Mixers in your cafe. We’re your biggest fans!

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