How to implement a cold brew coffee bottle return programme

JP Blignaut
September 21, 2023
cold brew coffee, cold brew coffee bottles, cold brew coffee bottle return programme, Anticonquista Café

In order to build consumer awareness about environmental challenges within the specialty coffee industry in the US, Anticonquista Café recently launched a closed-loop cold brew coffee bottle exchange programme. As finalists for the 2023 Circular Economy Grant, owners Elmer Fajardo Pacheco and Lauren Reese explain how the brand has seen over 2,148 bottles returned between May and October 2022.

Glass is 100% recyclable and can be recycled endlessly without loss in quality and purity. Yet, the recycling rate for glass containers used for food and beverage was only 33.1% in the US in 2018. On average, more than 7.6 million tons of recyclable glass containers end up in landfills each year across the US. 

In countries such as Denmark and Germany, however, recycling rates for glass bottles have soared since the early 2000s. Notably, both countries now recycle more than 90% of glass bottles and single-use beverage containers. 

Elmer and Lauren, the owners and co-founders of Anticonquista Café in Chicago, Illinois want to educate consumers about the environmental impact of their coffee habits. The duo have done this by providing customers with incentives for playing their part. 

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Anticonquista Café: Bridging the coffee gap during a pandemic

Elmer and Lauren started Anticonquista Café in 2018, intending to only source coffee from his family coffee farm in Guatemala. Elmer was raised in the small village of Aldea Valle de Jesús, located in southeastern Guatemala. 

He spent most of his childhood working alongside his family on their farms, located on the border between Guatemala and Honduras. By the age of thirteen, he was working for his father full-time. 

However, due to the record-low price of coffee at that time, Elmer swapped the farm for the city and made his way to Chicago. 

“In Chicago, I worked in restaurants for 10 years,” Elmer explains. “I immediately noticed the disconnection between the price we received for our coffee back home, and the price for a cup at a large coffee chain restaurant, and other local coffee shops.” 

Fast-forward a few years, and by June 2018, Elmer and Lauren were married. They then launched Anticonquista Café, sourcing coffee directly from Elmer’s brother’s farms, back in Guatemala. 

The Covid-19 pandemic, along with supply-chain disruptions, and stringent agricultural policies, provided the couple with a unique opportunity. They had the chance to establish direct links between Chicago and Central America, allowing them the bragging rights for having the freshest Guatemalan coffee beans in the city. 

“During the pandemic, shipping anything from abroad was a nightmare,” Elmer explains. “As a small producer, we didn’t have the resources to pay for bulk shipments. Luckily, through all of this chaos, the Asociación Nacional del Café or National Coffee Association (ANACAFE), and FedEx launched a joint venture for discounted air freight pricing. 

“By this time, we were desperate, so we tried it out, and to our surprise, our coffee was delivered within 5 to 8 business days,” Elmer says. 

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Starting a closed-loop cold brew bottle recycling programme 

With the opportunity to ship coffee directly from Central America, the pair launched their business and began selling coffee at local markets. 

The brand uses a coffee bicycle, allowing them to move their operation between neighbourhoods. Now, the brand serves anyone within the 77 different community areas of the city of Chicago. 

“The city of Chicago has strict health and safety laws in place for vendors selling consumables at markets,” Elmer says. “We also found selling bottled cold brew coffee and freshly roasted beans in glass containers was more accessible to people of all income levels. 

The food restrictions got them thinking about the best way to package their cold brew and ensure the quality of their coffee, without it being entirely wasteful. 

This inspired an idea from Lauren, who grew up close to the border of Wisconsin, which is considered to be the Dairyland of the United States. She suggested replicating what dairy farmers and local grocers have been doing for decades – packaging and selling their products in glass containers. 

“We experimented with countless options, designs and techniques, and we decided that printing on the bottles saves a lot of time and resources,” Elmer explains. Additionally, he says customers who purchase a cold brew are reminded they can return bottles to receive a $1 discount on their next cold brew coffee. 

“Reminding people with an economic incentive of a discount is most effective when getting bottle returns. It also works far better than a punch card loyalty programme, in our opinion,” he adds. 

From May until the end of July 2023, Anticonquista Café received around 1,154 bottle returns, representing a 36% increase from this same period last year. Elmer shares that aside from the dollar discount, customers often talk about the things they want to do with their bottles after they’ve finished drinking their cold brew. 

“We’ve heard of customers saying they’ll reuse their bottles at home for salad dressing, plant propagation, you name it!”

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The benefits of a community support coffee subscription

After noticing the same customers were returning to the market each week, Elmer and Lauren decided to add to their business model. The pair launched a community support coffee subscription.

“We became more conscious of our business too, and how many bags we were filling each week,” Elmer adds. “At first, it was a bit of a challenge, especially being a mobile-friendly business. However, we managed to make it work, and now we see customers bringing their containers each week to be refilled.”

Currently, Anticonquista Café offers two enrollment periods: October & April. “Those who enrol will have the option to pay as they go with the subscription or pay it all upfront. Customers are then scheduled and entered into our invoicing system and receive an invoice via e-mail, along with their pick-up date at the market.

“For us, the planning is just scheduling out who is coming what day, and bringing the right amount of coffee loose in a separate container,” Elmer says. 

Convenience is key for the duo at Anticonquista Café. That said, it hasn’t come without its share of challenges and endless obstacles. 

“Since starting this project, we’ve met a few other coffee roasters who are Guatemalan and get their coffee directly from family connections. In fact, there’s one not too far from us in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.”

Elmer and Lauren have learnt that through humble beginnings, they’re able to make a direct impression on their community. More importantly, they’re able to make a difference for farmers, producers, growers and families in Central America. 

Get to know the finalists of the MTPak Coffee Circular Economy Grant. Read our exclusive interview with Heitor Hilberto, the co-founder of Minas Coffee, about how the brand is honouring its cultural heritage by giving back to the farmers who help shape its success. 

Images from Anticonquista Café

For more information on BPA-free, recyclable bottles for cold brew coffee, contact our team

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