Autumn Sands' leadership helped Barfly Ventures earn West Michigan Sustainable Business of the Year honors. Photo by Justin Dawes
After eight years of working as a bartender, Autumn Sands said she couldn’t help feeling guilty about the amount of non-biodegradable materials she contributed to landfills. The bars and restaurants where she had worked often used plastic straws, plastic bags and other materials harmful to the environment.
She began researching compostable to-go containers and utensils in between shifts shortly after being hired at Grand Rapids Brewing Co. in 2012. She asked Mark Sellers, the founder of Barfly Ventures — parent company of HopCat, Stella’s Lounge, Grand Rapids Brewing Co. and The Waldron Public House — if they could try using the green materials, and he said yes.
That was the beginning of a journey that led to Sands’ role as the company’s self-taught, full-time sustainability manager and, under her leadership, earned Barfly the title of 2017 West Michigan Sustainable Business of the Year, awarded by the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum.
Creating a role
Barfly switched to compostable containers, but Sands continued researching and sharing what she learned.
She said the management team always was receptive to her suggestions and feedback about how to improve the business.
“That was one of the first times that I really felt like I could make a difference in the company I worked for,” Sands said.
She dove into reading and researching about sustainability and how it could work for Barfly, first during her personal time, eventually logging hours and earning a wage. She brought her books to the brewery during shifts and would research when business was slow.
It got to the point her bar manager told her she needed to refocus. At that point, the number of hours she was logging for research and coordinating sustainability efforts was greater than the number of hours she was working as a bartender.
That’s when she had the realization she wanted to work in sustainability full time.
“I don’t want to be behind the bar,” she said. “I have to be doing this work.”
Sellers said he already was convinced a full-time sustainability position was needed, but he wanted Sands to convince other people on the management team, as well. So, she put together a proposal and presented the information to the team. After some discussion, they hired her into her current role in 2014.
She said she essentially wrote her job description, with the goal of building and implementing the waste diversion program into all current and future Barfly stores.
Changing the system
Sellers said there were sustainability efforts before Sands started, but the company really needed someone who could develop and monitor the procedures full time.
When Sands started as a bartender at Grand Rapids Brewing Co., she said there were some good practices in place, such as giving away spent grain to a pig farmer and Nantucket Bakery. Though Barfly was trying, Sands’ research taught her the company wasn’t practicing sustainability as well as it could.
Barfly was bagging its recycling, for example. Recycling companies don’t have the capacity to debag items, so bagged recycling often goes to the landfill, Sands said. It also wasn’t rinsing its recycling well, which could mean those items were sent to the landfill, too.
The company was using the common to-go boxes made out of recycled paper, which Sands noted seem like a good option, especially because of the green recycle symbol on the bottom, but they’re actually coated in a plastic-based wax, making them unrecyclable and non-compostable.
The biggest reason for these mistakes was Barfly management and staff didn’t know better. Sands learned the proper methods and taught them.
Of Barfly’s refuse in 2016, 10 percent was landfill waste, 25 percent went to compost and 65 percent was recycled, according to the company’s sustainability report. In 2016, the company composted 3,870 cubic yards and recycled 13,800 cubic yards of cardboard, paper, metal, plastic and glass.
To be sure Barfly is making the best waste diversion impact, Sands understands the importance of reaching beyond the four walls of the restaurants. She goes to the point of making sure Barfly works with facilities and haulers who will “do the right thing” with the waste since those companies are not always financially incentivized to do so.
“It’s one thing to just throw something in a bin, but how do you really know, unless you have followed that truck, unless you’ve been to the facility, unless you’ve talked to the owners and seen that product firsthand?” Sands said.
When Barfly opens a new store, Sands travels to that area to be sure the sustainability program is implemented there. She meets with organizations in the area to better understand Barfly’s place in the community. And she researches the best companies to work with and strikes deals with them.
From a business perspective, Sellers said Barfly’s efforts toward sustainability have only been helpful. There’s really no difference in cost of compostable items, but he said many owners don’t implement programs because there’s not much demand for it from American consumers. The biggest initial cost, he said, is in training the employees in sustainability, which is “more than offset” by the benefits.
He noticed Barfly’s practices create loyal customers, and one of the biggest positive effects is a higher company morale, leading to lower staff turnover rates.
“The business is more than just about making a profit,” Sellers said. “It’s also about affecting the world in a positive way, and that’s always been my philosophy.
“It makes the business a lot more fun when you’re finding different ways to make the world a better place.”
Barfly’s role in the community
Sellers said he believes Sands has played a significant role in the state of Barfly’s sustainability program. That includes not only internal changes but also setting an example for other businesses.
“Barfly has worked very hard to stay in front of the community and make that a part of their brand, and the other businesses recognize that and appreciate that,” said Daniel Schoonmaker, executive director of the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum.
There were 64 qualifying organizations, plus 74 member employees and nonmembers, that voted to honor Barfly with the sustainability award.
Sands said receiving the award was “an honor,” and that it’s “a privilege … to work with so many amazing people that are making a positive impact within our community.”
“I think that everybody there deserves recognition,” Sands said. “When we get together and we talk about the things we’re working on, it gives us hope.”
Sands said there is much more to sustainability than just waste management; it’s also about protecting resources and caring for the environment overall. And Barfly strives to lead by example.
“Whatever claim we were making, I wanted to make sure that it was authentic,” she said. “If we were going to market our sustainability initiatives, we really needed to make sure that we were doing them to the best of our ability.”
Barfly is a founding member of several initiatives, including the Great Lakes Business Network, an organization that advocates decommissioning the Line 5 oil pipeline that runs through the Straits of Mackinac. The group was formed in January 2017 and has more than 60 members. Barfly is a founding member of the US Green Building Council’s 2030 District, a group committed to creating high-performance buildings.
The company also works to support organizations doing work in the community that aligns with their mission. In 2016, Barfly donated more than $60,000 to more than 170 nonprofits.
Each HopCat location also has a Green Team that works toward sustainability and volunteers at local nonprofits. Since January 2017, the Green Teams have logged 497 volunteer hours.
Sands said multiple businesses have reached out asking for advice about how to work on sustainability.
Among multiple awards, Barfly also has received the 2017 Zero Waste Award from the Nebraska Recycling Council and was first in 2017 in energy conservation in the entertainment category of the Michigan Battle of the Buildings.
With every new Barfly store that opens, Sands sees the potential for improvement, and she’s excited to take that on.
“I’m a huge nerd,” she said. “I live and breathe and eat and constantly think of our environment. I’m definitely not a 9-to-5, Monday through Friday person.”
She said they have been able to trace some of the soil made with their compost, and they’re learning more about different farms that are using the soil to grow more food.
Going forward, Sands hopes Barfly can grow some of its own food to use in its restaurants. She’d like to grow the food alongside plants that will support native bees, butterflies and bats. She and some other employees have started a garden in Grand Rapids during their free time to learn how this might be possible. For now, they’re consuming the food themselves or giving it away.
“I feel like it’s so crucial for people to know where their food comes from and to have some kind of connection because when we talk about sustainability, agriculture is such a huge piece of that,” she said.
Sands did not go to college for sustainability but said she’s “constantly learning” about her industry. After attending college part time while working for several years, she has about half the credits needed for a bachelor’s degree. She said she’ll probably finish, especially since there are now more options for sustainability degrees, but for now, she’s happy with exactly what she’s doing.
“I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.”