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Coffee company turns to biodiesel

Thanksgiving Coffee's move signals growing acceptance of emission-reducing fuel derived from vegetables

July 4, 2003


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Premium coffee company Thanksgiving Coffee has converted its delivery fleet to run on biodiesel, a vegetable-based fuel its proponents say is cleaner than gas and diesel engines and lessens dependency on oil.

"One of the reasons to do it is so we are not using petroleum-based products," said Paul Katzeff, who co-founded the Fort Bragg coffee company in 1972. "And the emissions reduction is substantial."

Thanksgiving Coffee's switch is part of a broader acceptance by businesses and individuals of the alternative fuel, which provides performance similar to that of normal diesel engines, but with environmental benefits. Earlier this week, Berkeley city officials said they were starting to convert city vehicles to biodiesel.

"We get calls from new customers all the time," said Sunny Beaver, co-founder of Yokayo Biofuel in Ukiah, one of two North Bay biodiesel stations. "We have doubled sales in the last year."

Beaver said she's selling 13,000 gallons of biodiesel a month, twice what the company sold a year ago.

The switch will be costly for Thanksgiving, even with an $11,000 state grant the company recently received, Katzeff said. The company spent $8,000 on a 2,000-gallon tank to hold the biodiesel and the fuel costs 50 cents more a gallon than diesel. The company uses about 30,000 gallons of fuel a year.

And the switch could potentially be risky, because Ford will no longer honor the warranty on their trucks, said Larry Tholberg, direct delivery coordinator for Thanksgiving Coffee.

"I was concerned at first, worried about the warranties," Tholberg said. "But it hasn't hurt the company, our efficiency or our ability to deliver coffee on time and in a profitable manner."

Added Tholberg, "The trucks run just as good as normal. The one difference is that there is not the diesel smell. It really smells like French fries. I got up beside one and I was looking around to see who was cooking."

One of Yokayo Biofuel's business customers is Fetzer Vineyards in Hopland, which began switching to alternative fuels in November 2001.

The company runs its tractors, pumps, backhoe and farm equipment with a blend of 20 percent recycled kitchen grease and 80 percent diesel fuel, according to Patrick Healy, Fetzer environmental manager.

It has started the process of switching its 13 delivery trucks to a similar blend.

"It has worked fine, we have had no problems whatsoever," Healy said. "We have been doing extensive testing with our big trucks -- we don't want one breaking down on the way to San Francisco. Within a year, all of our trucks will use biodiesel."

Healy said with a blend of fuel, they don't have a dropoff in performance or mileage, but still have emissions that will meet the more stringent 2006 California standards being proposed for diesel trucks.

Fetzer is known for its environmental practices, which include organic farming, a photovoltaic power system, an energy-efficient administration building and hillside cellars.

"To further reduce our greenhouse-gas-emission profile, we were looking for a way to do that with our tractor and truck fleet," Healy said. "All the emissions factors go down except for nitrous oxide. It goes up slightly, but all else goes down. That you can amend with an additive, also."

Biodiesel is a fuel made from vegetable oil, either from pure oil such as canola or soybean, or from recycled cooking grease. During the process, it is thinned so that it can be run in diesel engines without modifications.

It sells for about $2.50 a gallon, compared to $1.90 for diesel.

Yokayo's Beaver says companies are weighing the price against the benefits.

"With a company like Thanksgiving, they have a commitment to environmental and conservation issues, so that is the attraction right there," she said. "And a lot of people like it because it is made from food stock from the U.S., so it is a domestic form of fuel."

Thanksgiving Coffee specializes in organic and fair trade coffee. It has installed low-energy lighting in its Fort Bragg plant, and spent $12,000 to have 75,000 trees planted in Ethiopia to absorb the carbon that Thanksgiving Coffee produces in its manufacturing and delivery operations.

Thanksgiving Coffee sells about 1 million pounds of coffee a year, the bulk of which is sold in Northern California. Sales last year were about $5 million.

You can reach Staff Writer Bob Norberg at 521-5206 or

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