Biz Buzz Extra

A look at 5 green businesses in SLO County

Special to The TribuneJuly 17, 2013 

Green businesses are on the rise again in San Luis Obispo County.

Employment in the county’s green sectors — such as solar energy companies and environmentally conscious businesses and institutions — rebounded in 2011 and is now larger than it was in 2008, before the recession, according to statistics compiled by the Economic Vitality Corp. with the assistance of Collaborative Economics.

Green job growth is also outpacing job growth overall. Green jobs grew 14 percent from 2010 to 2011, while the rest of the economy grew at a rate of 4 percent. Green jobs grew even more — 31 percent — between 2003 and 2011, while overall employment increased just 10 percent.

San Luis Obispo County lags behind several other regions in California, including the San Joaquin Valley and the Inland Empire, which saw employment growth in green sectors of more than 50 percent between 2001 and 2011. According to EVC Program Manager Christine Rogers, this indicates that “we have additional capacity and opportunity.”

The decision to run an environmentally responsible business often has roots in personal convictions, yet is subject to considerations relevant to any business decision, such as allocation of staffing resources, capital outlay and market potential.

“When a business case can be made and the return on investment makes sense, I believe our businesses are more than willing to take action and invest in being more sustainable, be it in how they manage their purchasing, resource conservation or operational practices,” said Rogers, who oversees the San Luis Obispo County Energy Watch Partnership, an outreach to the business community promoting energy efficiency.

Here is a look at five local companies’ decisions to invest in sustainable business practices, and how they fared as a result.

New Frontiers

New Frontiers began in 1987 as two small natural food stores in Salt Lake City. The company has since grown to encompass five locations, including three in Arizona, one in Solvang and a 33,000-square-foot store in San Luis Obispo. Still, it has retained its focus on promoting a healthy lifestyle.

“The founders of New Frontiers wanted it to be a place where people could come to make positive, healthy changes in their lives. That intention caught hold and has blossomed throughout our company,” said Ron Colone, marketing director at New Frontiers.

Many of the healthful products sold by New Frontiers are also environmentally friendly. Foods sold in bulk, such as grains and nuts, require minimal packaging. Other items are produced in sustainable ways, such as antibiotic-free pork, sustainably caught seafood and eco-friendly cleaning products. New Frontiers also actively avoids products containing GMOs, or genetically modified organisms.

The company operates an 82-acre organic farm near Buellton that provides 10 to 15 percent of the fresh produce sold by its markets. It also sources produce from small, family-owned organic farms.

In 2010, the San Luis Obispo store moved to a larger location with features such as an expanded deli offering a variety of freshly prepared foods, a gelato counter, a gourmet cheese shop, a larger meat and seafood department, and a greater selection of locally made products.

New Frontiers incorporated energy-efficient systems in the new store, including a 100-kilowatt rooftop solar system, solar tube skylights and LED lighting in the freezer doors. Refrigerator systems use glycol that reduces the amount of Freon needed. The store was the second in the nation to use refrigeration condensers on the roof that adjust to outside temperatures and humidity, thus reducing energy consumption, the company said.

The building was constructed with several sustainable materials. Wooden produce and bulk bins were built from recycled snow fencing sourced from Wyoming. Floors are concrete and naturally derived Marmoleum. Walls are coated in low-VOC paints.

According to Colone, sales at the new San Luis Obispo store have “met and exceeded our projections,” and New Frontiers as a whole has seen “steady growth throughout the life of the company.”

Colone believes that New Frontiers’ success is due in part to its fulfillment of several niche markets not addressed by conventional grocery stores. This includes their gourmet food items, as well as a broad selection of dishes prepared fresh onsite. New Frontiers also carries hard-to-find health items such as an extensive selection of gluten-free products and nutritional supplements.

Colone foresees a bright future for the natural food industry, and for New Frontiers.

“People care — about their health, their families, the community and the future,” he said. “People are more educated than ever before about their food, and that’s good for the companies offering high-quality food and other choices for healthy living.”

AmByth Estate

In 2003, Phillip Hart and Mary Morwood-Hart went from “garage winemakers” to professionals when they planted 20 acres of vines, interspersed with olive trees, on their ranch in Templeton. The couple, who also own a flooring company in Costa Mesa, immediately sought biodynamic certification, mainly for personal reasons.

“We knew we wanted to build a home in the middle of our vineyard, and we didn’t want to live in the midst of a place where chemicals were being sprayed,” Mary said.

Biodynamic farms cannot use chemically synthesized fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, hormones, antibiotics, growth regulators or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The farms must be free of these prohibited inputs for 36 months, and be under biodynamic management for 12 to 24 months. Other practices, such as integrating livestock, recycling nutrients and soil maintenance, are not mandatory, but are strongly encouraged.

Biodynamic certification differs from organic certification, although AmByth Estate has attained both. Organic certification is largely government-regulated, whereas biodynamic certification is handled by a nonprofit organization. AmByth is certified through Oregon-based Demeter Association Inc., which has certified more than 60 wineries and vineyards throughout the United States. According to Mary, biodynamic requirements are also “a little more in-depth with regards to farming procedures.”

Biodynamic certification is not inexpensive or simple — which may explain why, according to Mary, AmByth is the first and only certified biodynamic winery/vineyard in the North County. (Chequera Vineyards in Paso Robles is also biodynamic.) Fees range from $2,000 to $2,500, plus AmByth pays 0.5 percent of sales in order to use the Demeter logo for marketing purposes.

Instead of using chemical fertilizers that produce quick results, AmByth uses the 30 to 40 tons of animal manure produced by its cattle, sheep and chickens. AmByth composts aggressively and uses biodynamic preparations of herbs, such as yarrow, chamomile and oak bark, to supplement the vines’ supply of nutrients, which include nitrogen, phosphorous and calcium. Pest and weed control are achieved by natural means. AmByth also dry farms, forgoing irrigation so plants will grow deep roots to seek out moisture in the soil.

In addition, AmByth has biodynamic certification as a winemaker, which means grapes are minimally handled and wines are made with native yeasts, without sulfites or other additives.

Have AmByth’s efforts paid off financially?

The farm certainly sees a large savings on water costs. “On the other hand, we’re not getting the crops compared with farms that irrigate,” Mary noted.

AmByth, which means “forever” in Welsh, has found a loyal following in small “indie circles” that, according to Mary, are typically a younger set.

“Young people are much more emotional, excited and adventurous about alternative farming, and they put their dollar and their passions behind such endeavors,” she said.

The couple has observed that even those who are avid about buying organic produce often don’t give a second thought to how their wine was produced. “There seems to be a disconnect between the tomato and a bottle of wine,” she said. “Phillip and I believe this is because you don’t want to walk into a wine shop and think about how the grapes are farmed. You just want a nice bottle of wine to open and enjoy.”

The Harts’ newfound definition of prosperity includes knowing that their 6-year-old son, Bede, can wander through the vineyards without being exposed to toxic chemicals.

“The word ‘prosper’ doesn’t mean you have financial success; it means you have a healthy farm, rich in its fertility and output,” Mary said.

Green Goods

Brothers Mikel and Brian Robertson were students of sustainable living long before they learned the ins and outs of retail. After graduating with a B.S. in zoology from Portland State University, Mikel renovated historic homes, then set off to study sustainable practices in El Salvador, Wales, France and Africa.

Brian learned woodworking as a student at San Luis Obispo High School. He became interested in renewable energy and sustainable living practices as a community studies major at UC Santa Cruz. During that time, he secured an internship at the Midwest Renewable Energy Association and ran one of the world’s largest sustainable living and renewable energy fairs.

The brothers partnered to open Green Goods in 2005. Originally, it was a 400-square-foot showroom in Atascadero showcasing building materials such as flooring, countertops, paints, wall coverings and tile. Their aim was to carry products that conserve natural resources and also contribute to better indoor air quality.

They quickly added general contracting and interior design services. After finding scarce options for green cabinets, they learned how to build custom cabinetry with materials such as sustainably harvested woods, reclaimed woods and bamboo.

Green Goods moved to San Luis Obispo in 2009, then to a much larger 4,000-square-foot location in 2011 that includes both their showroom and woodshop. The brothers have developed several of their own products under the Green Leaf brand, notably Green Leaf Bamboo Doors.

Despite the economic downturn, Green Goods continues to grow and be profitable. It had approximately $50,000 in sales its first year and more than $1 million in sales in 2012. The brothers believe they are on track for more than $2 million in sales this year.

The mainstreaming of green products has allowed Green Goods to offer a greater variety of merchandise; however, it also means that even large chain stores such as Home Depot are selling products marketed as green.

According to Brian, Green Goods sets itself apart by researching the manufacturers it works with to ensure not only sustainability, but also quality and social responsibility. The Robertsons actively seek out products with third-party nonprofit certifications such as FSC, a certification given to sustainably harvested woods and grasses by the Forest Stewardship Council.

According to Brian, Green Goods sells products in various “shades of green” in order to offer a range of price points. But he believes that most truly green products compete well against their more conventional counterparts.

“People are sometimes spending even more on products that aren’t environmentally friendly, so I think we can compete just fine when you are comparing the same quality,” he said. “I think we are neck-and-neck with any other company selling quality products.”

Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort

Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort has been a mecca for health-seekers since prospectors discovered its sulphur mineral springs in 1886. Today, the 100-plus-acre facility hosts tens of thousands of visitors per year who come for its mineral spas, hotel, restaurant and spa treatments.

Although, according to its website, the 1970s saw a shift in focus away from the therapeutic benefits of its mineral springs and toward becoming a “destination resort,” Sycamore still offers a holistic approach toward health and rejuvenation. Part of this involves embracing a natural and environmentally friendly philosophy.

Sycamore Mineral Springs is owned by King Ventures, which owns several hotels, resorts and restaurants in the area, including Apple Farm Inn, the Cliffs Resort and SeaVenture Resort.

Over the past four years, Sycamore has implemented a variety of sustainable practices. Its reasons for doing so were twofold.

“We believe that sustainability is everyone’s responsibility. We are all caretakers for the environment,” said General Manager Charles Crellin. “Furthermore, it is good business on a variety of different levels.”

The most significant change came in 2009 when the resort renovated its 20 (now 22) hillside hot tubs with an automated system by which a heater continuously circulates water to the tubs, keeping the water at a consistent, state-regulated temperature. Previously, tubs were filled manually by guests, often several times each day. Now, they are drained and cleaned approximately every 10 days. Crellin estimates the new system saves about 10,000 gallons of water per day.

The resort’s Gardens of Avila Restaurant emphasizes local, seasonal and organic foods. Last year, Crellin and his staff planted a 1-acre garden that now provides the majority of the restaurant’s produce.

“People talk about farm-to-table, but here you can tour the garden and really see it in action,” Crellin said. “From a PR perspective, it’s a really cool thing.”

Other sustainable shifts included eliminating plastic foam take-home food packaging in favor of biodegradable products made of potato starch, using nontoxic cleaning products, replacing incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs and placing recycling bins in all guest rooms. Ozone generators were installed in hot tubs to cut down on the use of sanitizing chemicals. In addition, all salaried employees take turns picking up trash on Avila Beach Drive once each quarter.

Although Crellin said there were sizeable upfront costs related to many of these changes, he added that the benefits outweigh them in the long run. For example, he estimates that the new automated tub systems have resulted in a 33 percent reduction in the cost of natural gas to heat the water, which represents a savings of $8,000 to $10,000 annually. Switching to compact fluorescent bulbs cost about $4,800, yet now provides about $28,000 in annual energy savings. The resort’s vegetable garden has accounted for significantly lower food costs for the restaurant.

The sustainable focus of the resort has attracted eco-conscious travelers, according to Crellin. The travel website rates hotels after conducting an audit that takes into consideration everything from energy efficiency to purchasing habits. The site gives Sycamore Mineral Springs and Gardens of Avila a rating of four out of five “eco leaves.”

“Without question, environmentally friendly practices are very important to travelers, especially guests that stay at a health and wellness resort such as Sycamore,” Crellin said. “Industry statistics show that when hotels and resorts implement sustainable practices, it does positively influence buying decisions.”

Digital West

Digital West’s San Luis Obispo data center powers more than 1,000 devices around the clock, along with a sophisticated air-conditioning system to keep the machinery from overheating.

“Data centers have long been under fire as notorious energy wasters because they consume far more power per square foot than a normal office building,” said Kirk Coviello, director of business development for the company whose services include colocation, email and Web hosting, fiber-optic networks, managed networks and cloud computing.

To address this, the company implemented a “green initiative” in 2009, which, according to Coviello, was “the best way for Digital West to demonstrate good stewardship of Earth’s limited resources while adding value to our customers for whom this is important.”

Air-conditioning units are now designed to run at half-capacity when heat demand is low. The center uses filtered exterior air by means of air-side economizers. Grate air panels in the floor allow for better air flow. Cabinets holding equipment are now oriented so that cold air is only needed in specific aisles. Blanking panels in empty cabinets keep that cold air in place.

The company’s VMware-based cloud computing platform allows hundreds of virtual servers to run on just a handful of host computers. When the demand is low, the VMware system will move virtual servers to other active host machines with available resources and power down the unneeded host machines until the demand begins to rise again.

Data centers measure their energy efficiency by means of a PUE (power usage efficiency) rating. According to Coviello, data centers typically have a PUE of 2.0, and recently built data centers have a PUE of 1.75. Before their green initiative took effect, Digital West Networks had a PUE of 1.75. Now, it is 1.59, which “is potentially an 8 percent drop in electricity demand.”

The cost of these improvements was about $40,000. Calculating savings in energy costs is difficult because of fluctuating energy demands and rising power pricing in California. Digital West CEO and founder Tim Williams believes that conservation efforts have yielded “a greater environmentally conscious benefit than a financial one.”

Digital West also has a plug-in hybrid company car, responsibly recycles decommissioned computer hardware, and supports both biking to work and telecommuting.

A larger San Luis Obispo facility is in the planning stages and may be completed in 2015. Among the features expected to be included is a system that, approximately 95 percent of the time, will use outside air for cooling with VFD (variable frequency drive) fans that adjust their speeds according to outside temperatures.

“This is a huge design improvement and will add to qualifying our data center to LEED certification,” said Williams. He noted that Digital West hopes to achieve improvements of about 30 percent in cooling efficiency and up to 11 percent in power efficiency.

Aside from potential savings in energy costs, Digital West continues to pursue green initiatives because it believes the issue is important to its clients. According to Coviello, its client MindBody has stayed abreast of green improvements “so that they can advertise this benefit to their customers.”

Coviello sees Digital West’s efforts as part of a larger industry trend. “People who are in the high-tech business love all sorts of technology — especially technology that creates a more-efficient method for delivering equivalent or better results,” he said.

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