Salt Spring Coffee Goes Mainland

Salt Spring Coffee founder trades an island ?idyll for a Richmond warehouse.

Mickey McLeod, Salt Spring Coffee
Salt Spring Coffee founder Mickey McLeod is proud of the company’s new digs in Richmond. But it’s a long way from the island.

Salt Spring Coffee founder trades an island 
idyll for a Richmond warehouse.

Trucks rumble along Viking Way in Richmond, the rattle and clatter of their semi-trailers interrupted by the occasional explosive fart of engine brakes. Amid indistinguishable rows of corrugated tin warehouses, one entryway bears the suitably generic names of its industrial tenants: Techniweld Products Corp., Pioneertek Enterprises, Technic Inc. And above unit 105 is the name of the industrial park’s newest arrival: Salt Spring Coffee.

It’s a long way from the forested six-hectare property on Salt Spring Island that founder Mickey McLeod calls home and where he roasted his first batch of beans in his kitchen in 1996. McLeod’s company was voted off the island in August 2009 when the Islands Trust, the Gulf Islands’ governing body, nixed his plans to consolidate operations in a new, state-of-the-art LEED-certified roasting facility.

McLeod continued to operate his $10-million-a-year roasting operation from its badly outdated digs on Salt Spring while he wandered the countryside seeking a new home for the company. He found it in this Richmond industrial park last October: an 18,000-square-foot space with temporary storage room for the approximately four tonnes of beans that will be roasted each year in its three roasting machines.

From a purely practical point of view, McLeod admits, the move was long overdue. Operations had previously been spread across multiple sites on Salt Spring, with one roasting machine at another Richmond location. Even minor repairs meant flying in a technician and parts, and meeting with distributors and sales reps meant at least a full day’s journey by car and ferry – not to mention the logistics of moving several tonnes of coffee on and off the Gulf Island every year.

Still, on a purely personal level, the move was a disappointment for McLeod, who had dreamed of establishing a model of sustainability and ethical business on Salt Spring Island. He had envisioned a “green coffee campus” that would not only rely on solar power and recycled rainwater but would serve as an instructional model of responsible business practices. An experienced handyman with a well-equipped tool shop of his own, McLeod had envisioned a hands-on role in designing and building the showcase facility.

Because he’s just a renter in the new Richmond facility, McLeod says, there’s not much he can do toward achieving his dream of being a model of sustainability: “The best we can do is change the light bulbs and turn the lights off and try to conserve water, but we can’t do much beyond that.”

McLeod continues to live on Salt Spring with his wife, Robbyn Scott, and plans to commute to Richmond, spending two days a week on the mainland. Four of the company’s 60 employees also chose to retain their residences on Salt Spring and commute weekly; another three moved to the mainland. Others can perform their jobs remotely from their island homes, while others, such as operators of the three company-owned cafés on Salt Spring, Vancouver’s Main Street and the Tsawwassen ferry terminal, won’t be affected by the move.

Seated at a long wooden table in the tasting room in his new digs, the 55-year-old McLeod tries to make the best of an obviously disappointing turn of events. He explains that the increased efficiency of the new operation, for example, will allow for growth of about eight per cent a year without having to invest in new equipment. But still, it’s a long way from Salt Spring.

“The last place I wanted to be was in a warehouse in Richmond,” he says with a sigh. “Mind you, this is a pretty nice one,” he adds, glancing out the window dubiously. “It’s well maintained, lots of greenery around, but it just . . . it’s not what I had in mind.”