Before organic, shade-grown, fair-trade coffee was cool

Perhaps you haven’t heard that the Delta Café in Sparks is one of the few (maybe only) coffee shops in the Truckee Meadows making lattes and mochas out of triple-certified coffee beans.

The owner keeps this fact under wraps. He fears announcing his use of certified organic, shade-grown and fair-trade coffee beans might be bad for business. When Mal Sanford—that’s Mal, as in “maladjusted” or “malfunctioning,” he says, smiling—attended coffee conferences years ago, industry leaders recommended not advertising “organic.”

“They were adamant about it,” Mal, 62, says. “They said it would drive people away. People think it’s too expensive, too specialized.”

Delta’s drinks are priced slightly under those of the two Starbucks nearby on Pyramid Way.

“I have nothing against Starbucks,” he says. “It’s pretty hard to compete against them.”

The Delta Café opened in 2005 at 1500 Prater Way, between Scooper’s and Rock Boulevard. The drive-thru serves wraps, fruit salad, smoothies and espresso drinks, all made with organic ingredients—thanks to Mal’s mom, who raised her son to eat healthfully.

The only non-organic ingredient on the Delta’s shelves is the syrup in my soy latte. My latte’s ideal—not too sweet, not too strong. And I’m not just saying that because my daughter Tabbie made it.

Tabbie met Mal, a retired builder who specialized in passive solar, while delivering the RN&R to the café each week. When he needed help, Tabbie quit her corporate coffee-making gig and went to the small, independent business. I was happy for her, even before I knew about the guilt-free bean-buying.

I make tiny efforts to live well on the Earth. I shop with canvas bags, recycle and buy triple-certified coffee through a UNR group called SEEDS—Students and Educators for Environmental Development and Sustainability. The group works to encourage recycling and green building on campus and has lobbied for campus coffee vendors to sell triple-certified coffee.

Why triple-certified? Certified organic coffee is grown without the use of pesticides, herbicides and artificial fertilizers. Certified shade-grown coffee means no rainforests were hacked down for the mass production of my caffeine fix. The “fair trade” stamp on a bag of coffee ensures coffee farmers receive fair wages for their labor when selling beans.

When I ran out of my SEEDS-bought coffee, I complained to my daughter.

“You can’t just buy triple-certified coffee at Safeway,” I said.

“We sell ours for $9.95 a pound,” she replied.

I figured she didn’t get it. Surely the Delta Café didn’t serve organic, shade-grown, fair-trade coffee. And certainly, they weren’t selling it bulk for $10 a pound. I was wrong. For two years, Mal’s been buying only all triple-certified Royal Blue Organics Café Mam (say “mom") blends. The beans come from—where else?—Mayan farming cooperatives in Chiapas, Mexico.

Before setting up shop, Mal went to a Seattle coffee conference to taste dozens of brands. Café Mam reminded him most of his first European coffee turn-on in the early 1980s. He’d been traipsing across Italy with his daughter. Though he wasn’t a coffee drinker, one morning he stopped at an espresso bar in Venice.

“I was exhausted and I thought, ‘What the hell, I’ll try this,'” he says. “I drank about five double-shots that morning. It was so good. That piqued my interest.”

Now Mal may rethink his business plan to covertly serve unsuspecting java addicts his healthful, sustainably-grown coffee for which farmers in developing nations have been paid fairly.

“Organics have gained popularity in the past two, three years,” he says.

But for Mal, marketing seems a bit beside the point. “The bottom line is being kind to the planet.”