This PGF Story was written by Laura Bonds.
If you’ve ever been to Otherlands Coffee, you’ve felt the cozy charm of the coffee shop and restaurant. The array of colors around the café, the art on the walls and the buzz of the café entice customers to enjoy their visit. What started as a gift shop and futon store by owner Karen Lebovitz evolved into a funky and friendly coffee shop on Cooper. When it opened as a coffee bar in 1994, there “weren’t that many places to hang out,” Karen explained, so she provided a community space where people could spend time. In 2008 the business closed during the recession but reopened with the tech boom. Despite its shifts, Otherlands remains a community hub committed to its customers.
Karen instills community in her space by encouraging patrons to enjoy beverages in the restaurant instead of taking them to go. With an environment as inviting as Otherlands, it’s hard to imagine doing anything but grabbing a seat and enjoying your order on the spot. The only to-go kitchenware Otherlands provides is cups for beverages, and the café asks that visitors bring their own mugs. This helps Karen and the Otherlands staff avoiding using to-go cups that might otherwise end up in a landfill. Customers wanting to take water with them are invited to take a glass jar available by the water station, and the food is served on plates that are washed and reused. Though COVID-19 has limited the number of patrons who bring their own drinking vessels, Karen believes it’s important to try to make a difference in cutting out take-out containers.
Since the beginning of Otherlands, Karen has cared about recycling, and she committed to driving the cardboard to the recycler herself to ensure it was being disposed of properly. Otherlands recycles all cardboard, and most glass and metals. “We try to be as non-disposable as possible,” Karen said. Other areas of environmental responsibility for Otherlands include smart water usage and shopping with reusable bags. With so many dishes, water usage adds up quickly, and Karen is a self-described “pest” to her staff making sure they use a three-sink system to save water. She also encourages staff to take reusable bags to the grocery store to eliminate their use of plastic bags. To make this more fun and keep it top-of-mind, Karen calls this “shopping like you’re French.”
Part of the daily routine for Otherlands staff includes picking up trash around the building. This desire to create a clean and appealing space for her customers follows Karen in her work outside the café as well. Karen is involved in a city beautification project in midtown between Angelus and Avalon Streets. Karen and others in the project are fundraising to improve the streetscape in collaboration with the city by adding trees, moving dumpsters, and curbing litter. “It really affects your state of mind,” Karen said of being around a clean and aesthetically pleasing area compared to an unsightly atmosphere.
Explaining why she cares about the environment so much, Karen stated, “Every time I throw something away, I imagine it in the dump.” She laughed at the thought of envisioning that image each time she goes to the trash can, but it drives her to be conscious of her waste and is the reason she implores her staff to be diligent about recycling and smart environmental practices in the café.
Karen ensures caring for the environment remains a priority for Otherlands. Sometimes, it can feel bad to run a business because “it’s a big garbage-creator,” Karen ruminated. “But it has its plusses too, just providing a place for people to be.” The Project Green Fork mission seeks to aid business owners like Karen looking to make a positive environmental impact. Project Green Fork certified businesses ensure there are forward-moving steps at scale in our community. While a business may start off with one small act like Karen’s commitment to recycling, the collective actions culminate into a larger movement supporting the environment.
The next time you visit Otherlands, bring your own mug and sit down for one of their lattes or lemon ginger zingers. Look around to appreciate the comfortable space, lack of trash, the unique scene, and the sense of community present. As you stick your fork into a bite of food, remember the environmentally conscious steps the café took to provide your meal and the impact you are making by dining in and diverting a to-go container from a landfill. While you take your last sips and bites, be comforted knowing behind the scenes Karen and the Otherlands team are working to create a better environment for you and their community.