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Was the bread in your toaster or on your sandwich at lunchtime baked by the sun? If it came from the Alvarado Street Bakery it was. This commitment to renewable energy in its business practices got the bakery nominated for a People & Planet Award from Green America, though it is only one of many green facets of Alvarado Street Bakery.
From waste-reduction principles to a commitment to organics and non-GMO products to its worker-owned structure, the bakery embodies green principles throughout. We asked worker-owner Michael Girkout to tell us more about Alvarado's busienss model, its sprouted-wheat bread, and the mysterious cat on the logo...
Green America: What does your business do, and what is your most popular product?
Michael Girkout: Alvarado Street Bakery is one of the nation's oldest and largest certified organic bakeries, celebrating our 32nd year in business. We are a worker-owned cooperative owned and managed entirely by the people who work here. Our democratic workplace follows the "one person = one vote" principle, and we share our profits equally with all of our workers. We produce a truly unique line of whole-grain breads made with sprouted wheat, which means our breads are actually “flour-less,” made entirely with sprouted grains. They are available through retailers throughout the country, as well as internationally. Our best selling product (nationwide!) is “California Style Complete Protein Bread.”
What makes Alvarado Street Bakery a green business?
Michael: We have always considered ourselves a green company, long before that term was cool. We were an organic bakery long before there was government oversight or a national organic program. We were a founding member of the Organic Trade Association and are proud to be an active partner of the Non-GMO Project in an effort to promote the well-being of our customers and protect the health of our farmlands.
We’ve recently built a new bakery and a shiny new oven to meet our growing demand (currently 40,000 loaves daily!). Inside the bakery, we have installed a catalytic oxidizer that reduces our emissions by 99%, and on top of the bakery we’ve installed 1700 solar panels that smile up at the warm California sun, providing us with clean renewable energy. Just last month, we surpassed our first one million kilowatt hours!
Also, the principles of "reduce, recycle, and reuse" are are more than just policy here, they are ingrained in our culture. By recycling all of our packaging waste, composting our bakery waste, and reusing our giant grain bags, we keep more than 3600 cubic yards of waste from reaching our landfills – enough to fill more than 50 rail cars every year!
In effort to help our communities, we donate almost 80 tons of bakery products to our local food banks and shelters each year.
We love your sleeping-cat logo. Is there a story behind it?
Michael: In our very early days, when organic ingredients were not widely available, we would send a truck to southern California to pick up ingredients. One evening our driver inadvertently hit a freeway sign that said “Alvarado Street.” No one was around so he tossed the sign into his truck and brought it back to the bakery where it hung above our oven. At that time, we had an orange cat that lived at the bakery. Her name was Greta, and she was in charge of “pest management.” In the evening when the oven was turned off, she would climb up on the sign to sleep. We chose to call ourselves Alvarado Street Bakery even though we’ve never been on any Alvarado Street anywhere. Greta retired to an apple orchard and lived a happy life; she now lives on in infamy as the sleeping cat on our logo.
What advice would you give to other green entrepreneurs just starting out?
Michael: If we had one thing to offer up as wisdom, it would be to stay true to your mission. Don’t waver, don’t acquiesce, and push through when encountering resistance. You’ll find success and true social satisfaction on the other side. The old axiom is correct, “a company can do well by doing good.” Your commitment to sustainability should reach well beyond your operations to include the wellness of your workers and their families, your customers, and the planet we all live on.
What have been some of the challenges in pursuing social and environmental responsibility?
Michael: The challenges we faced early on was finding workers who understood and embraced the cooperative business model. But those that did share the vision and dedicated themselves to our mission found there was a wealth of value in participating in a democratic workplace and in forwarding the organic movement. To quote Mr. Garcia, “a long, strange trip it’s been,” but for us it’s been well worth the ride. We now employ 120 worker-owners with virtually zero turnover for the last decade.
What's been your proudest moment as a green business owner?
Michael: In 1997, we were presented with the “Socially Responsible Business Award” at the Natural Products Expo. This was in recognition for our efforts towards protecting the environment, providing education, and community involvement. This award, along with the “Green Jobs Award”, the “Healthiest Employer Award”, and our “Green Business Certification” from Green America tell us that we’re doing the right things. It’s really newfound recognition for things we’ve been doing for over 30 years. It’s a constant reminder of what 100 people working together can accomplish. We’re all quite proud of that.
What's the next green step you're working on right now?
Michael: We have a Vendor Sustainability Policy that requires all purchasing decisions to be made based on the suppliers efforts towards a greener supply chain. We work with our packaging providers to reduce the amount of packaging and to reuse whenever possible. Although our current bread packaging is 100% recyclable, we still want to be the first one on the block to use biodegradable packaging once that technology has been introduced. We continue our efforts in water and electrical conservation by utilizing low-flow fixtures, motion sensor lighting and rooftop skylights. We are working towards converting our fleet of delivery trucks to alternative fuel in effort to reduce the environmental impact of getting our breads onto the market shelves.
What green product (besides your own!) can you not live without?
Michael: I truly appreciate and admire the Clif Bar Company. Their attention to the needs of their consumers as well as their employees continues to inspire (plus… they make really terrific healthful products).