Oaklanders Sara Heady and Vanessa Pope wanted to do something for the environment but at a larger scale than just sorting their own recycling and carrying a canvas shopping tote.

“We like to say it all starts with a cup of coffee,” said Heady. Emphasis on the cup. The two, dismayed by the amount of disposable foodware they saw ending up as street litter, saw an opportunity to spark change.

While the city of Berkeley looks to curb waste through legislation, Pope and Heady are going at it business by business, customer by customer. Together they launched For Here, Please, a nonprofit that helps businesses reduce their reliance on single-use plastics, and MudLab, a community resource center, event space and zero-waste grocery store. (The ‘mud’ refers to coffee, and the ‘lab’ as a place to experiment with low-impact choices.)

The two-fold approach means reducing waste at both the retail and consumer end. For Here, Please is a combination consultancy and broker, working with local cafés and restaurants to incentivize owners and customers to order their drink “for here” or opt for reusable containers. They’ve worked with Oakland cafés, including Perch Coffee House, Farley’s East, Awaken Café, Haddon Hill and Subrosa.

MudLab is a community resource center, event space and zero-waste grocery store in North Oakland.
MudLab is a community resource center, event space and zero-waste grocery store in North Oakland. Photo: Cirrus Wood

Their storefront business, MudLab, is tailored towards individuals, a one-stop-shop for consumers looking to reduce their footprint. The shop stocks books, works by local artisans and shelf-stable groceries. It also hosts events and an upstairs co-working space. Pope describes MudLab as a sort of dual-purpose resource and recruitment center as well as an operational HQ of For Here, Please.

“Our goal with MudLab is to provide a space for the community to come together to learn about sustainability and to have access to tools for adopting a zero or low-waste lifestyle,” she said.

For the moment, MudLab’s grocery offerings are on the slim side while the business undergoes permitting. In the meantime, it’s restricted to selling only shelf-stable bulk items, such as honey, bread, pasta, flour, protein bars and dog biscuits. Pope and Heady are working on sourcing additional items, such as rice, beans, grains and home-prepared foods.

Once health permits and food licensing are approved, they will also offer produce purchased as overstock from local farmers’ markets. Farmers traveling from the Central Valley to Oakland markets are generally loathe to bring unsold items back with them. MudLab wants to offer them an additional outlet and income while addressing neighborhood needs for fresh produce.

“Our bottom line is reducing waste and of being aware of what we are contributing or not contributing to the environment,” said Heady.

By some estimates, 30-40% of all food produced annually in the United States goes to waste. Not all of that is at the retail level, but certainly grocery stores are a significant part. Where MudLab differs significantly from most markets, even small, independent ones, is its commitment to zero waste, or at the very least low waste. Its aim is to get waste to under 10%.

MudLab’s business model is a subscription service. Customers join a mailing list and fill out their preferences. MudLab sends an email alerting customers to incoming produce. Customers reply with their shopping list and requested amounts, which MudLab then orders and sets aside.

“To really eliminate food waste means really making sure people know quantities of what they want and then we take that in and fulfill their orders,” said Heady.

Pope and Heady are not alone in their concern about the impact of the grocery business on the environment. In Berkeley, the owners of House Kombucha and People’s Café have partnered to launch their own zero-waste grocery store, Eternal Foods. People’s Café will debut its zero-waste pantry next month.

A sign at Perch Coffee House in Oakland explains the cafe's reusable foodware policy.
A sign at Perch Coffee House in Oakland explains the cafe’s reusable foodware policy. Photo: Cirrus Wood

Pope and Heady are looking at sourcing some dairy products from producers in nearby counties, but some products, like meat, will never be offered. And since they plan to source produce from local farmers’ markets, customers will have to look elsewhere for pineapples and bananas.

Although Pope and Heady want customers to consider their purchasing habits before coming in, they don’t want to operate as a members-only business. They will always order a bit in overstock to ensure there is enough product for walk-ins as well as for regulars looking to change their orders. But only a bit.

MudLab is open 8-10 a.m. and 2-7 p.m., Monday through Friday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, and by appointment.

Avatar photo

Cirrus Wood is a freelance writer and photographer living in downtown Berkeley. There are few things he enjoys as much as playing around with the alphabet.