Sunday, May 25, 2008

HEAVY PEDAL - Peace Coffee Delivers

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In 1978 I was in the Army ROTC and on their marathon running team. I was recruited not for my fighting ability or potential to lead men into battle, but because I could run. We trained for and ran 26.2 mile races around the country. One of our rituals was to get up early in the morning before a race and drink cup after cup of coffee….bad coffee too. We did it so that we’d have a better chance of cleaning ourselves out before the three hour or more commitment to the road. In hindsight it probably wasn’t the best thing for my performance, but remember those were back in the days when “training” meant simply running (or riding) as many miles as you possibly could every week.

Fast forward thirty years, and maybe because of the content of the former sentence, my knees can no longer hold up to the 220 pounds I’ve become, so I turn to riding bikes again. This is something I’d done first back in the eighties during a recovery period from a blown knee I’d suffered during the Chicago marathon in 1982. I knew it as a form of exertion less traumatic on my spindly little legs than running.

Over the years, I’ve gotten fatter and slower, and performance is no longer an issue to concern myself with. Today, it’s mainly a matter of surviving the training rides. So, I figured what do I have to lose from developing a snobbish view of the coffee I consume. I’m a dark roast, drink-it-black, pre-heat the mug please, drinker. It’s all twisted up in my mind because while the coffee is better, more expensive certainly and righteous as all get-out, (organic, fair trade, no aphids were killed here, etc.), it still serves the same basic purpose for me before mounting the bike for a long ride in the country. Caffeine is of course one of the active ingredients in Ex-Lax after all.

This is all meant to convey to you why we should have a story on this fixed gear bicycle-specific website about a coffee company in the first place. The connections will get clearer as you read more, I promise. So, while in Minneapolis I decide to SMS Admin back at FG-HQ to ask for a local assignment. He suggests that I stop by the folks at Peace Coffee and take a look. “They’re great folks,” he says, “supported us the first year of the symposium.” You may remember Andy Lambert and Brad Wilson and their colorful Peace Coffee van from the 2005 symposium.

I’ve got my bike with me this week strapped to the back of the Saab. I get it off the rack and wander around this city I lived in many years ago. What a change! There’s suddenly a rich and diverse bike culture here. When last I lived here, I rode my clunky mountain bike from my home in south Minneapolis to my job at MPR in St. Paul about ten miles every day. At that time, I was a quirk of nature; big yellow GoreTex-clad thing in white leather military surplus mittens making his way across Grand Avenue in all kinds of weather. BTW: I’m still riding that same Schwinn High Sierra today…..fixed of course.

Today, there are bike riders and bike shops of all sorts at every turn. Fixed gear rides chained to street lamps and parking meters, single-speed contraptions zooming this way and that. I even saw a guy calmly riding a six foot tall-bike through the city streets like it was no big deal. He looked down on me from his welded-up perch with feigned interest. I am not that quirk of nature any longer, not here.

I find the new Greenway Rail Corridor and quickly head from downtown to the Peace Coffee warehouse operation on 21st Ave south. It’s a quick and smooth ride adjacent to the new light rail system. If you’re looking for Peace Coffee though, beware. There’s no big sign announcing the presence of the company. It’s housed in a modern building that I had to circle a few times before finding a couple of cardboard signs hanging in a window. It’s not a retail establishment. The building itself begins to tell the story of Peace Coffee before I even get in the door. The name on the building is EcoEnterprise Center and it’s a project of the Green Institute whose mission is "sustaining the environment and our communities through practical innovation.” The roof of the building is unusual; what’s not covered in solar panels is covered in plant material. It houses many businesses of like mind; foundations, community service agencies, nonprofit organizations and commercial companies. All of these tenants seem to share a common vision of sustainability.

To find Peace Coffee, on the other hand, I could’ve just followed my nose. Coffee is one of those smells that intoxicates even the unsuspecting among us. I remember when I was a kid in the Bronx, I hated the thought of drinking coffee; didn’t touch it until my first late night cram session at college. But, whenever my mom opened a can of Medaglia D’Oro brand coffee on the kitchen counter, I begged to stick my nose down in the can. The power of the olfactory sense is truly amazing!

As I round the back of the building, still looking for a way in, I get a strong whiff of the burnt and bitter aroma of roasting coffee beans. It comes in wafts, once subtle and then overwhelming. I know I’m in the right place. The scent jogs my memory of some twenty years ago, when I stopped by guitarist and songwriter Dakota Dave Hull’s house near the West Bank neighborhood of Minneapolis for a cup of coffee. He introduced me then to the wonders of roasting your own beans on the stovetop using an old omelet pan, there's nothing quite like enjoying the coffee while the beans are still hot from the roaster. The entire kitchen filled with acrid grayish brown smoke. When I started to cough and tears began streaming down my face Dave said, “Ah, must be about ready.” The experience, the aroma, and the taste of the coffee were unlike anything I’d had before, and they’re embedded in my memory.

On the Friday I visit, the Peace Coffee production facility is humming with activity; people roasting, and bagging, and shipping, and counting. Natalie Ryno, Peace Coffee’s delivery coordinator greets me with a big smile and gets right down to business showing me the facility. First stop is the center of their universe… the big roaster. By now, many of us know what these look like….mysterious chrome and metal contraptions designed to take raw green coffee beans and, using hot air, roast them until they’ve reached a predetermined degree of dryness and color. It’s the length of the roast and the temperature that turns the green beans into the brownish black – sometimes oily - critters we’re used to tossing in our grinders. The degree to which you roast the beans determines the characteristics of the final cup. Coffee aficionados will tell you that in the lighter roasts you taste the qualities of the beans and where they were grown. In the darker roasts, you taste the eccentricities of the roaster. The latter style we coffee snobs refer to as “burning” or “over-roasting”. It’s what America has grown to appreciate as quality coffee thanks a great deal to Starbucks. These days, however, things are changing. There is a new advent of estate grown coffees that, much like great vintage wines, bear the flavorful trademarks of the regions where they are grown… a Terroir of sorts. This requires more of a masterful touch as the beans are transformed from green to brown.

Those who can appreciate the gentler aspects of a cup of Joe are more likely to brew a light colored fragile temptation resembling strong tea, rather than the thick black sludge my untrained palate prefers. And the parallels to wine continue here as these exotic roasts are often described with rich prose, “Hints of berry reminiscent of a good Sunday morning jam and the type of freshness imagined only in a mountain cloudburst.” Yeah, whatever, just don’t leave the Mr.Coffee plugged in too long and I’m all good. I’m happiest with a little brass pot of Turkish coffee that requires the artful application of my teeth to strain out the layer of grounds left in the bottom. Fact is, no matter what I think, more and more people are discovering the pleasure of the real flavors buried in coffee beans. Here in Traverse City the local roaster, Higher Ground Trading, offers monthly "cupping" events. These are the exact equivalent to wine tastings.

Standing next to Natalie, and more importantly next to the roaster, is Ryan Seibold. He’s watching a big batch of coffee beans as it exits the 450 degree roaster. He calculates the time over temperature necessary for each individual roast with the help of a simple spreadsheet graphing program.

Ryan is the equivalent in our analogy to the winery’s vintner. He keeps an eye on the coffee as it morphs from a tasteless hard green pea to something so elegant and valuable that wars have been fought over it. The beans come out of the shiny beast with a loud and pleasing swish, ending up in the round tray in front. Here the beans are cooled quickly so they don’t keep cooking. Ryan stops mid sentence to reach down and grab one errant black overdone bean out of the hot swirling batch. He says, “That’s left over from the last roast. You see those, you pull ‘em out. That could ruin a cup of coffee.” Mind you that was one bean out of a 40 pound batch! Ryan is ever vigilant; just the right kind of person for this important job. Before the first batch is done cooling down, Ryan is already dumping several five gallon buckets of raw beans into the top of the roaster again. When the original batch reaches its cool-down temperature he then unleashes the batch into a big tub with another resounding whoosh. This cycle continues throughout his entire shift.

Also moving around the shop floor are Meagan O’Brien, Liz Wawrzonek, Anna Canning, and Keith Tomlinson, all busily filling orders of fresh roasted beans. I won’t bother listing their titles here as it seems fairly inconsequential. Everyone I saw had their hands in multiple aspects of the operation. In short their jobs are to take what Ryan has metamorphosed and parcel it out into smaller batches; some in loosely packed five pound bags, some in vacuum sealed one pound sleeves. Each gets its proper label and is sent on it’s way to the customer.

The first thing that stands out upon walking into the production area of Peace Coffee is the tall wooden racks holding the burlap sacks of green coffee beans from around the world and the plywood hoppers that help the staff more easily access the beans. The second thing, and I stress this because it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with coffee, is the prevalence of bikes everywhere. Take a look at the photos. In almost every shot, there’s a bike somewhere in the frame, leaning, hanging, lying on the floor, some meant for leisure, some for labor and others simply for decoration. This is first-nature to these people. It’s not secondary in any way. Biking is a clearly understood part of the culture of working here. And I guess that’s really what’s brought me here and what still holds our attention at the fixed gear gallery.

Natalie coordinates the deliveries around the Twin Cities by van and by bike. It’s important to note here that the van is powered by bio-diesel. Peace Coffee presents a clear and concise message about the way it uses energy on several fronts; the neighborhood it chooses to reside, the building within which it operates , the people it hires, the sources of its raw materials, the way it delivers and prepares products, and the efficacy of who benefits from its profits. As someone who works with businesses of all types every day, this is a rare thing indeed.

The bike / trailer deliveries are mainly commercial and office accounts including café’s, grocery stores, health food stores, and the like. All bike deliveries are limited to within about a twenty mile radius of the warehouse. Natalie goes on to say that each bike delivery person gets about two to three routes a day, making it a good workout for most people. She says that the riders deal with most weather situations in the north with ease. About the only thing that makes them whine is the wind. “They can deal with any kind of climate, any kind of thing Mother Nature wants to throw at them but the wind. That’s really hard to deal with.”

Josh Lavelle is thin, athletic, and has a wry smile betraying a deeper and more complex sense of humor than he is want to admit. It’s that healthy sort of look young folks get when they’re in the middle of something rich and expansive. Worry not; I’ve got far too many miles under my saddle to worry myself with the peculiarities of vanity any longer. I thought it worth mentioning only in the guise of his job as a bike delivery guy. It’s got to have some healthful impact on him. I’d be interested to see the output of a watt meter on Josh while hauling one of the big loads. I’d imagine the results would be impressive.

Josh is prepping to head out on a delivery run across town. He uses the company mountain bike in combination with a large aluminum trailer. The trailer, made by the fine folks at Bikes At Work, Inc. in Ames, Iowa, is a simple and steady behemoth. Visit them at . The trailer used by Peace Coffee has two 20” wheels about midway through its oversize aluminum frame members. This leaves something of a tongue weight on the rear of the bike. I asked Josh about that, thinking it might be a negative attribute. “No.” He said, “I need some weight there especially in the winter. It allows for more traction in the snow.” (Did he just say snow? These are hearty people in Minnesota!) On any given winter day I feel I’ve accomplished something just to ride my bike the five blocks to the brew pub. Somehow I’d imagined this delivery process as a quaint little operation doling out small quantities of coffee beans to back porches around the city, maybe a hundred pounds or so for a trip. Josh laughs as I suggest this while quietly lowering the third tub of bagged coffee into the coffin sized trailer. I realize too late that I’m way off base.

“This is a pretty light load….about 150 pounds,” he says. “A good load is more like 400 pounds at a time!” What suddenly comes to mind are the web images of bike riders in third-world countries carrying crates and boxes and cages of chickens; serious utilitarian efforts, not a novelty at all.

Along with the tubs of coffee is a clipboard with delivery locations and invoices. Josh dons his helmet and cleated shoes attaching the trailer’s Gimble to the hitch on the bike with a spring-loaded pin. This is on the non-drive-side rear triangle of the bike and serves to allow the trailer tongue to float and move freely as the bike shifts and turns. (Josh’s ride is an old Bridgestone MTB donated by the first bike delivery guy - check out the photo of the trailer carrying an entire retail coffee display!) He also covers the trailer with a tight-fitting red tarpaulin. Then he walks the whole thing towards the inner doors of the warehouse easily, if awkwardly, opening the door and moving the whole contraption through it. Now he mounts the bike and makes his way down a long hallway to the garage doors and exits.

I catch up to him at the front of the building and together we find the east-west running Greenway Corridor that bisects the central neighborhoods of south Minneapolis. It’s an old Milwaukee Road railway right of way with its grade some fifteen feet or so below street level. This section of the Greenway was first opened to the public in 2000 with constant expansion and improvement in process. Old concrete railroad bridges cross the trail every few blocks providing a beautiful repetition of structure as you look down the length of it. Many of the factories and warehouses along the route have been renovated into trendy condos, or more commonly brand new condos have been built to resemble old warehouses. It’s an architectural inside joke; the equivalent of tossing “salt-peanuts” into the middle of a jazz tune. Josh says he likes using the trail for deliveries as much as possible.

We ride leisurely but briskly westward and Josh appears unencumbered by the weight of the ten foot long sled following him. The length of it gives the impression he’s moving slower than he actually is. It also adds a certain gracefulness to the ride. He tells me he’s moved here from Madison….from one bike cultured city to another… though he seems to prefer Minneapolis now. We continue along the Greenway chatting until we reach the Bryant Avenue exit where he tells me there’s a sharp hill that can test him in the winter months. Here he jumps ahead and stands hard on the pedals, yet easily maneuvering around a pedestrian on the same path. We top the hill and take a hard right onto Bryant Avenue following it northward to 22nd and then turn towards Lyndale where the Wedge Coop sits.

I notice that Josh doesn’t seem too concerned about the trailer behind him. He easily cuts through thick traffic, taking sharp turns, stopping, starting and doing most anything you’d expect to do with a bike in the city. I felt more comfortable with him next to me on a bike in the confines of the city than I feel with a lot of riders who don’t have 300 pounds worth of trailer to worry about.

We pull up to the food coop and Josh takes two of the blue bins in the back door. “It’s about 100 pounds for them today,” he says. A couple minutes later, we’re back on the bikes and threading our way through city streets towards downtown. We’re making a delivery to a café’ inside the Hennepin County Medical Center. Josh runs the load upstairs while I watch the bikes, (along with the pigeons,) under the building’s skyway bridge. Twenty minutes later we’re back at the Peace Coffee warehouse, where he parks the bike and trailer, changes his shoes and jumps back to work on the production floor. It’s all in a day’s work for Josh.

I should also make it clear that Josh is just one of the bike delivery riders. Last year, the guy who normally drives the bio-diesel van on the longer excursions around the region Tom Hudson, decided to shock his customers by doing his route on the bike. He loaded up the trailer with beans and made deliveries on an eighty mile roundtrip loop starting in Minneapolis and extending as far Stillwater/Hudson. That’s pretty much to Wisconsin and back. I guess the nice thing is that in an emergency you could easily bivouac under the tarp in the trailer and sleep pretty comfortably.

As a reward for finishing our little ride, Natalie brews us a cup of coffee in Peace Coffee’s CLOVER machine. This is a cross between a home espresso maker, a Swiss watch, and the space shuttle. It’s a stunning piece of industrial design that does just one thing.

It makes the best single cup of coffee in the world. Natalie doles out the proper amount of the staff’s favorite blend, Heavy Pedal Blend, (No kidding here.) and makes us each a cup. Yumm! Light bodied and flavorful. So good is the coffee coming out of this thing that Starbucks just purchased the little company that makes it.

Peace Coffee is the brain child of a consortium of people. It’s hard to nail it down but somewhere during the fall/winter of 1995, a group called the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy started what would later change into Peace Coffee as a result of discussions with invited Mexican farmers about the US Farm Bill. Their solution was to create a process where small coffee producers in Mexico and elsewhere benefit directly from the retail coffee boom in America. This concept of Fair Trade has caught on to a degree today around the US. On its website Peace Coffee defines it this way: “No one human becomes obscenely rich by making another human disgracefully poor. Fair Trade coffee is grown by small, organized cooperatives of farmers. Lives are given a fair chance to flourish. Businesses are driven by a desire to fairly exchange and share the benefits of the world's second most traded commodity after oil. Fair Trade is simply fair-minded thinking put into practice. “

In its essence Peace Coffee is the result of a community putting words into action while answering the simple question: “How can we, as a small group of people, have a positive impact on this troublesome situation?” It’s a monumental task that suggests a move away from doing nothing, towards a practice of taking action. We can all learn from this.

The promotion of local bike delivery in Minneapolis is a natural outgrowth of the same conversation used that started the company itself. For the staff at Peace Coffee, bike delivery makes a subtle but measurable difference in their community. Andy Lambert and Josh Lavelle did a pretty scientific study of their delivery efforts over a six month period so that they could improve the process. The data generated shows an impressive result even before changes were made. Andy logged over 2100 miles with the bike trailer, toting over 32,000 pounds of coffee beans around the city. Comparing the savings in estimated CO2 emissions for he and Josh over a year with the same miles using standard delivery vehicles, they calculate CO2 savings averaging well over 2 tons per year. Read Andy’s story here:

While this green practice certainly pleases me, as a business owner I’m hungry for a different answer. How would it help my business? So I ask myself, “What kind of savings is there for Peace Coffee over paying for a truck, the driver, the gas, and time?” Knowing city traffic as it is in the Twin Cities, I seriously expect someone like Josh can make it around the city on his bike towing that trailer much faster than a truck having to take city streets, getting caught in traffic, and looking for parking. There’s also the real and ever more serious notion of paying for fuel. Josh’s fuel to get that 150 pounds delivered was a cup of coffee and a banana! Additionally, outdoor physical activity of this nature must make for very healthy and happy employees. This kind of practical approach is what can make a difference in whether businesses look towards a greener future. “Show me the money!”

When they first started this venture, delivering bags of high-end coffee by bike likely seemed like a novelty. We’re in a different place now. As I write this the price of a barrel of fuel oil just hit a daily high for the sixth day in a row, peaking at over $135/bbl. That’s the first time in recorded history! When they started in 1996 the price per barrel was closer to $30/bbl. Efforts like that of Peace Coffee help point out the more serious side of this conveyance we all love. It suggests that stories like this are more than just “human interest,” or “specialty” reporting. What does all this have to do with fixed gear bikes? Not much. What does this have to do with the philosophy of riding fixed? Probably a lot. Making a commitment to riding your bike every day is suddenly more than a personal conviction. It helps to put in perspective that individual efforts, no matter how small they may seem, can eventually add up to significant change. Peace Coffee does a lot more than just “walk the walk.” The company lives by a code of values with a vision that is imagined and understood by every employee. As such, every person working there, no matter what the job, contributes in their own way to fulfilling that vision. It’s the kind of company I spend my working days trying to replicate, and one I’d be proud to work for myself.

Keep riding….. and drink good coffee!

Big thanks to Josh and Natalie for special consideration during my brief stay at Peace Coffee and to Mel Meegan and Dennis Bean-Larson for setting it all up. Also a shout out to the rest of the staff. Sorry I missed you. On the this page is a photo from the Peace Coffee website featuring the 2007 Peace Coffee Cycling Team. The photo of the company bike with the retail rack on the trailer is also from their site. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy provided the rooftop photo of the EcoEnterprise Center building. All other photos © Copyright All rights reserved.

Peace Coffee:

The Fixed Gear Gallery:

Midtown Greenway Coalition:

WTRG Economics:

Please check the LostGears blog for more full-res images and video: And never forget our home base:

1 comment:

swiggs said...

Nice Post! Good investigative reporting riding around with "the man" Josh Lavelle. Peace Coffee is a great part of the Minnesota economy!