By Nathan Pensky
Even in a community as amenable to progressive values as Berkeley, there are few small businesses so powered by idealism as BioFuel Oasis, which this month is celebrating its eighth birthday.
An environmentalist mainstay since 2003, the company specializes in the sale of biodiesel fuel chemically rendered from recycled vegetable oil, and shipped in from an off-site manufacturer.
Since moving to its current location at 1441 Ashby Ave., the company has diversified its product line to include urban farming materials such as organic chicken feed and beekeeping supplies, as well as teaching classes in DIY practices like beekeeping and home fermentation. Its clientele has swelled from a few environmentally conscious Berkeley residents to a loyal, 3,000-strong customer base.
As an all female/worker-run business geared entirely towards providing local residents with clean-fuel solutions and encouraging urban farming, to say that BioFuel Oasis is a unique exercise in entrepreneurism would be an understatement.
One could rightly say that the five owner-employees who make up the company’s staff are activists first and businesswomen second. They are: Margaret Farrow, Ace Anderson, Melissa Hardy, Jennifer Radtke, and noted author Novella Carpenter.
“We started selling biodiesel out of a little warehouse in west Berkeley,” said co-founder and co-owner Jennifer Radtke. “No one in Northern California was making biodiesel when we started. And so because of us and our distribution center, there are now places around here making it.”
The company’s main supplier is Yokayo Biofuels in Ukiah, Calif., which collects vegetable oil for rendering from the East Bay, and then drives it to Berkeley in trucks run on biodiesel. “We kind of created this community end-market,” said Radtke. “The Ukiah station was around when we started, but they were just distributing. Their goal was always to manufacture it, but there need to be enough people to buy it.”
BioFuel has also helped other stations get off the ground. For instance it advised San Francisco’s Dogpatch Biofuels, and supported them when they were getting started. “Now, we have this Northern Californian network of people who are doing biodiesel,” said Radtke. “We have co-created this whole local industry of getting your fuel from a recycled product. It’s sort of like the local food movement, but local fuel.”
One of the most impressive aspects of BioFuels is that it is partially funded through community donations. Aside from a small loan from the City of Berkeley, it has never taken capital from a bank or investment firm. “Instead, we made money in different creative ways, through events and from our customers donating,and having people pre-pay for fuel,” said Radtke who adds that they have raised $30,000 in that way.
But, as with any grassroots organization, not everything has been smooth sailing. Radtke said there had been some permitting hiccups with the Berkeley when they decided to relocate from west Berkeley, due to the city’s unfamiliarity with biofuel regulations. And, even among their customers, there has been some blowback, even subtle sexism, as the community learns to accept an all-female staff in a niche market for specialized urban farming equipment.
“We answer a lot of technical questions, about cars or beekeeping or chicken feed. And that’s not something traditionally that women are expected to do, you know?” she said. “The marketplace can be kind of an antagonistic place. It’s an educational thing about gender and women having technical knowledge. What happens sometimes is customers will ask another customer who is a guy a technical question, and the guy will say, ‘They know a lot more than I do’ and point to us.”
But Radtke is quick to point out that the very existence of BioFuel Oasis is a testament to the support of the local community, and the strength of its environmentalist values. “We’re very aware of the role of Berkeley in our success. There are a lot of people here for whom this is their lifestyle, to grow their own food in their backyard, to run their vehicle on a non-petroleum fuel. We have been cheered on by them.”
As far as Radtke and her co-workers are concerned, bio-diesel is a transitional fuel. “People ask us what we are transitioning to, and the answer is ‘walking and riding your bike’,” she said.
Biofuel normally costs about $0.50-$1.00 more per gallon than standard gasoline, and having it at a higher price encourages driving less, Radtke said.
“But if you do have to drive, biofuel is made from a recycled product, made locally. All your money is going to businesses that aren’t in the petroleum industry. And that’s not true of all the bio-diesel sold in this country. But for us it is, because we’ve developed those community relationships.
“Bio-diesel is carbon-neutral, and also non-toxic and non-flammable. It’s a lot like vegetable oil. You can even drink it, though I wouldn’t recommend it. When we had our grand opening here, we all did a little toast of bio-diesel. It’s not toxic, but it also doesn’t taste very good.”
The toast that Radtke and her fellow co-owners celebrated at their recent eight-year anniversary party no doubt tasted much sweeter. When asked what this anniversary represents to the company, Radtke responded: “In the beginning I thought we’d be out of business within two years. And so it’s beyond my wildest dreams, number one that we’d still be in business after eight years, and number two that we’d be thriving. But eight years. I guess if you turn it sideways it’s the infinity sign, so it means we’re gonna keep going.”
Berkeleyside profile: Novella Carpenter [04.30.10]
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