By Nadine Daher and Jennimai Nguyen
Four Letter Word, the coffee company based at The Plant in a refurbished meat packing warehouse, brews up exotic flavor, cleanliness and minimalism with whole new meaning.
Their distribution coffee bags are simple — nothing on them but the name of the coffee beans’ country of origin, while the company logo itself remains a small paper boat on a vast ocean. Overall, Four Letter Word is aesthetically mysterious, allowing consumers to judge the coffee only with their taste buds. The coffee company takes this cleanliness even further, extending it to the environment by working to minimize waste production, the model for all the businesses working with Plant Chicago, the not-for-profit operating at The Plant.
Plant Chicago is a revolutionary organization, creating a circular economy in partnership with the participating businesses where a unneeded byproduct from one company can be repurposed as a resource for another. “There are 25 different businesses inside the building,” said Kassandra Hinrichsen, the education and outreach manager at Plant Chicago. Four Letter Word is one of the tenants taking part in this system, playing its role to ensure efficiency in material reuse.
Four Letter Word is a company born of passion and friendship. Partners Eylem Ozkaya and Ria Neri co-founded it in Istanbul, Turkey, before introducing it to Chicago.
The specialty coffee they serve undergoes several production processes that unsurprisingly result in a large amount of waste. Following the process of storing and roasting the green coffee, there are leftover burlap bags in addition to coffee chaff, said Stef Funk, Plant Chicago education associate.
Finding the most efficient way to utilize these byproducts and waste materials is where the role of Plant Chicago comes in. Working with the other companies at The Plant, “the burlap bags are used to grow microgreens,” said Ari Sofiakis, the barista at Four Letter Word.
A notable waste produce of roasting green coffee is the chaff. “It is the silver skin that layers the raw coffee and comes off as it “cooks” during the roast,” said Sofiakis, “The coffee chaff is being used to test different ways to fire the wood oven” with briquettes that also incorporate spent grain from the brewery and some sawdust..
Sofiakis is referring to the wood oven used by Pleasant House Bakery at The Plant. Baked goods made here are sold at the Pleasant House store at S. Halsted St. Recycling the chaff demonstrates the interconnectedness and degree of harmony that exists between the businesses of the plant – what one sees as waste output, another can utilize as a resource.
Hinrichsen presented another use for this ‘waste’: “Plant Chicago uses the coffee chaff as bedding in our chicken coop.” Some locals in Back of the Yards neighborhood also come pick up this chaff for their own chickens.
Not forgetting the remaining leftover waste products, Four Letter Word offers its grounds and filters to the composting project at The Plant. This process decays organic matter to be used as a fertilizer.
The environmental mindset this company upholds extends beyond the production process. “We recycle our wholesale bags used with major accounts through Terracycle — a company that recycles items that would typically go to the landfill,” said Sofiakas.
Even the delivery processes offer an opportunity for Four Letter Word’s pursuit of ultimate sustainability. The bins they use for distribution are often boxes from other companies in the building, or reused bags made of the burlap received with the initial green bean coffee shipments.
From the coffee plants in Brazil, Kenya and Columbia, to the compostable cups in Chicago, this rich coffee goes through an extensive process that is more artistic than industrial. It is an example of how one can use passion for history and quality in addition to awareness about the environment to weave together a process that produces close to no waste, according to the company’s mission. This is what Four Letter Word does at The Plant, and they are not done yet.
“We are working to create new packaging for our retail items to make them 100 percent compostable and recyclable,” said Sofiakas, proving that once you place cleanliness as the goal, there is no finish line.
Photo at top: The Plant mural painted by local artists. (Medill photo)