Salt Spring Coffee Company founder Mickey McLeod takes on the virtues of LSD and the challenges of island NIMBYism
It’s not often you hear a CEO talking about the upside of LSD while discussing business. But then lunch with Mickey McLeod—the “still-a-hippie-at-heart” president and CEO of Salt Spring Coffee Company and pioneer of organic coffee—was never destined to be conventional.
Brought up on Texada Island during the ’60s and ’70s, his move from counterculture to coffee culture is firmly anchored in the zeitgeist’s “revolutionary open-mindedness” and its different approach to life and work. “In the ’60s, there was heavy drug experimenting and use of LSD and that turned a big switch on for alternative thinking,” says the 60-year-old, in between bites of avocado and poached egg on toast at Edible Canada on Granville Island (punctuated, of course, with a Salt Spring Americano). “For me, it meant doing business without compromise—I would rather do things for the right reason. While money is important and we are profit proud, there are just certain ways to generate it.”
McLeod’s hippie credentials are unwavering: a former tree planter and seller of organic Okanagan fruit and vegetables in his 20s, McLeod became an organic market gardener in 1981 after moving to Salt Spring Island, which he did until launching Salt Spring Coffee Company 15 years later. For McLeod and his wife and co-founder, Robbyn Scott, the company’s enduring focus has been pushing sustainability and environmentally responsibility. That includes everything from creating a Fair to Farmer program, where they work directly with biodynamic coffee producers worldwide, to diverting 95 per cent of the company’s waste away from the landfill.
What it no longer includes is manufacturing locally. In 2009, the Islands Trust, which governs the Gulf Islands, scuttled plans to combine Salt Spring’s old office and roaster into a larger LEED-certified roasting facility, forcing McLeod and his 45 employees to move to a new 17,000-square-foot Viking Roasting Centre in Richmond. While the company has since grown into one of Canada’s largest microroasters, with annual sales of around $10 million, McLeod remains disappointed that his island “missed out from a leadership perspective” and lost the ability to showcase a sustainable, ethical business.
“We’d been a big part of the community, but when we wanted to change, get more organized and grow, all of a sudden we became a nasty big corporate company that was going to exploit the island,” he says. He rejects the complaints at the time of potential odours and smoke with the expansion, noting that the root of NIMBYism in general is a lack of good examples of industrial development (like his).
These days, McLeod commutes by float plane weekly from his island home (his daughter Metta lives close by with his two grandchildren) to his new suburban office. The new spot has many advantages, including functionality. “But with my radical, alternative ways,” he adds, “I just didn’t want to be in an industrial park in Richmond.”
Coffee has long been seen as a commodity to promote social awareness and change. McLeod—a long-time member of the Social Venture Institute community—was able to work his connections early on, securing an investment from fellow SVI members Joel Solomon and Carol Newell’s Renewal Partners. That money—about $150,000 in total—helped Salt Spring to grow its wholesale business and set up its first café (opened at UBC in 2010, it has since closed; the company has two remaining cafes on Salt Spring Island and at Tsawwassen Ferry Quay.)
“I never had a strong business plan; it was more of a mission. It’s always been about trying to be sensible and sensitive along the path.”
THREE THINGS ABOUT... MICKEY MCLEOD
1. McLeod’s first coffee brew came from a revamped popcorn popper in 1996. “You’re on an island, so you have no choice. It’s a good trait to have: I’m very mechanical and can figure anything out.”
2. He also has a strong love of technology, buying his first computer in 1982 and a mobile phone (“a lunchbox with a handset on it”) four years later.
3. McLeod left school at 15 and never graduated. With classes finishing on Texada at Grade 10 before pupils had to go to Powell River by ferry, he didn’t take to mainland lessons. “I felt so disconnected compared to the more relaxed education on the island.”