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Case study: A little solar with your coffee

By on 03/16/2009

It’s no surprise that Randy Talley runs a “green” coffeehouse that sports solar panels on its roof. Back “before it was cool” (and he was 18), says the entrepreneur, he got hooked on healthy foods and thought he wanted to be an organic farmer. Talley went so far as to attend the progressive and organic-minded Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. But to earn a living, he worked in some of the country’s first health-food stores: the Puget Consumer Cooperatives in the Pacific Northwest and Wellspring Grocery in the Raleigh-Durham area.

Look on the sunny side: The rooftop solar panels at Green Sage Coffeehouse & Café power the restaurant’s hot-water system. photos by Jonathan Welch

His health-food-grocer career evolved into more entrepreneurial roles: helping create two health-food stores in North Carolina (Weaver Street near Chapel Hill and Talley’s Green Grocery in Charlotte). And in Asheville, Talley took part in transforming the natural-foods grocery Dinner for the Earth into Earth Fare, and he also consulted for Greenlife.

Next on the list for the 49-year-old, self-described “reluctant businessman” was a coffeehouse—but not just any ol’ coffeehouse. With partner Al Kirchner, Talley stepped up his desire “to get involved in green ventures.” The common thread in his business-career choices, he explains, has been a little something he calls “green-mindedness.” The pair set their sights on creating “a model green restaurant”—one that provided natural-food choices and operated with environmentally friendly, sustainable principles, says Talley.

As Kirchner and Talley formed Sage Enterprises, LLC, they considered buying an existing coffeehouse and “greening” it, but the first part of their equation was location, location, location. When the site of Asheville’s seminal (and decidedly quirky) coffeehouse, Beanstreets, became available, Talley and Kirchner took it on. A post-Beanstreets restaurant that took over the space—C. F. Chan’s—had remodeled much of the space, but Sage Enterprises went further.

Plexiglass dividers at the kitchen counter and between levels at the coffeehouse are made out of recycled plastic bottles; in between the translucent layers are real gingko leaves. The concrete countertops are composed of 75 percent recycled material from Buncombe County (and created by the Asheville-based Mandala Design). Cabinetry comes from reclaimed rafters out of a Montford house. The low-VOC paints come from a local company, Earthpaint, says Talley, mentioning how many of these choices were made easier by another local company, Build It Naturally.

As for Green Sage’s coffeehouse fare, all the teas and coffees are fair-trade. The food is local and/or organic, such as the burgers made with meat from the Leicester-based Carolina Bison. For to-go orders, the coffeehouse eschews plates and silverware for compostable products supplied by a local company, Jack’s Boxes. The restaurant also prominently features a recycling and composting station that’s practical as well as educational (signs remind diners that napkins go with the compostable food trash; newspapers get their own bin). The compost-and-recycle system makes Green Sage a bit unique among restaurants: It doesn’t have a big garbage bin out back.

The changing skyline: Green Sage owner Richard Talley hopes these solar panels will entice others to try the technology.

And, of course, there’s the solar-energy system.

“When Progress Energy [proposed building] a coal-fired power plant in Woodfin [in 2007], I made a decision. We’ve got to change things,” says Talley. He started at home, making three different trips to the hardware store so he could replace all his incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs (“I couldn’t believe how many light bulbs there were in my house,” says Talley about the multiple trips.) About the same time, his home-heating system failed, and the local solar-energy company, FLS Energy, helped him come up with a method that combined what he calls a “new-fangled natural-gas heat pump” and solar panels; working in conjunction with the heat pump, water is pre-heated by energy from the panels, Talley explains.

Most importantly, the project showed him how tax credits worked for solar-energy installations—and how to get the most from them.

He got FLS to evaluate how he could install a solar system at Green Sage. Talley wasn’t interested in hiding the rooftop solar array—part of the idea is to put the system on display so other businesses might be encouraged to go solar, he emphasizes. But there was one dilemma to be solved. “When you realize the implications of doing a large-scale solar water-heating system, you have to have water storage,” says Talley. And part of the equation in any green project is taking into account the economic, ecologic and sociologic implications of everything you do, he continues.

To avoid taking up main-floor space at the coffeehouse, the FLS team considered installing a 480-gallon storage tank in the basement. A single tank would have been the most efficient, says Talley, but technical problems with the proposal led to the installation of six 80-gallon tanks instead. It was a challenge to make sure there was enough hot water storage to meet all the coffeehouse needs—“such as cleaning dishes, which we do a lot of,” says Talley. Installing six smaller tanks instead of one larger unit was “what we had to do,” he states.

Such decisions go hand-in-hand with his overall philosophy for a green business. He had a whole-house water filter installed, offering customers drinking water that doesn’t come in the environmentally problematic, but prevalent, plastic water bottles (Green Sage sells stainless-steel bottles customers can fill on-site). The men’s bathroom features a waterless urinal, which can save 40,000 gallons of water per year. “I wanted to make sure this wasn’t a fake green business or a ‘greenwash,’” says Talley. “With ‘green’ in our name, we didn’t cut any corners.”

And while it’s true that Talley remains optimistic about Green Sage’s business prospects during tough economic times, he’s adamant about making a statement when it comes to sustainability. Says Talley, “Asheville sees itself as a green city, but there aren’t that many visible signs that it is.” But with the prominent solar panels on Green Sage’s roof and other businesses and homeowners doing the same, perhaps that will change.

As Talley notes, it’s all part of changing our habits and taking notice. Local officials, for example, didn’t realize the panels hadn’t been inspected until they looked up and saw them on the roof. An inspection preceded forthwith—along with a chance for Talley to spread the word and make it easier for the next business owner or homeowner to negotiate the process of going green.

Margaret Williams is contributing editor at Mountain Xpress, and writes a weekly environmental news column for the newspaper called “Green Scene.” She can be reached at or at (828) 251-1333, ext. 152.