By Vince Meehan
Café Virtuoso has been a landmark in Downtown for over 10 years. The coffee Mecca is tucked away on the edge of the Gaslight District behind Petco Park. Laurie Britton is the CEO and Founder of Café Virtuoso and has a passion for both sustainability and the environment. Recently, she teamed up with a local non-profit to create an environmentally-friendly way for her customers to enjoy their favorite beverages.
Clear Blue Sea is a San Diego-based foundation dedicated to cleaning our ocean and has partnered with Britton to launch the Zero-Waste Coffee Container Program. The idea is simple: Clear Blue Sea provides Café Virtuoso with insulated sleeves created from 100% recycled plastic bottles that were directly removed from our coastline. Britton then uses them to insulate reusable glass jars with metal lids that her coffee lovers can take home and bring back to reuse on their next visit.
“Café Virtuoso is a twelve year old company and we’ve always been certified organic, so sustainability has always been at the forefront of our mission,” said Britton. “The way we’ve designed the program is that you bring your glass jar in with your lid – keep the sleeve – and then we make your drink off of a freshly sanitized jar.”
Britton always encouraged patrons to bring in reusable containers, but when Covid hit, that was not possible. So instead of using the normal disposable cups that are lined with petroleum products, she instead bought environmentally friendly compostable containers. But she was bothered by the idea that San Diego does not have a proper composting facility and realized that most of these cups were destined to end up in a landfill. So when Covid restrictions were lifted, she jumped at the chance to start the Zero-Waste Coffee Container Program.
In addition to being environmentally friendly, Britton loves to help the community as well. She installed the San Diego Coffee Training Institute in her café where anybody can learn the ins-and-outs of what it takes to become a premiere barista. One of her participants is Father Joe’s Villages who offer their clients job training in the hospitality industry as a gateway to graduating and becoming independent with their own home and career.
Britton is thrilled about her Zero-Waste Coffee Container Program and also about partnering with Clear Blue Sea — who share the same passion for the environment as she does. Venezia Zandrelli is the director of sustainability at Clear Blue Sea and is just as enthusiastic as Britton about the program.
“Clear Blue Sea is devoted to discovering and implementing many methods of accomplishing our mission to rid our oceans of plastic pollution,” Zandrelli stated. “With the development of our Floating Robot for Eliminating Debris (FRED), we’ve created a scalable solution that we foresee becoming an indispensable tool for cleaning plastic from oceans around the globe. By creating and encouraging more participation in programs like this one with Café Virtuoso, we can help to ensure less plastic from ending up in our ocean ecosystems in the first place.”
Britton’s baristas are also passionate about being a part of the solution as she is. Britton said, “You know what’s funny is that – and I knew immediately when I told the staff about it they would be happy to wash these reusable jars – I knew they would because it’s a good cause, you know? So, if you can get your staff to buy in, that’s a huge part of the success of any program.”
This goes for her customers as well who are very loyal to her organic brand. “I think overall, our customers are pretty receptive, and a lot of the people that come here – because we’re organic and we have really good customer service and we’re really friendly – I think those are the type of people that are more drawn to that kind of a process anyway.”
On weekdays, it’s mostly local Downtown workers who come in with their jars to fill with coffee or tea. But on the weekends, there is a cult following of fellow ecology aficionados who drop in from all around to support her. And Britton appreciates the loyalty that comes with them. “On the weekends, it’s people from all over the county that drive here, we’re kind of a destination. We’ve been doing this for a long time and the café is so well known that people will come out of their way which always makes me happy and sort of surprises me too!”
— Vince Meehan is a local freelance writer.