Air Date: Week of September 8, 2000
It sometimes seems there’s a coffee shop on every corner. Ever wonder where all those used coffee grounds go? Mike Theuer, owner of a small café in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania decided to make use of his excess grounds. As Peter Clowney of member station WHYY reports, Theuer is marketing a coffee ground mixture as Grow Joe, a natural plant fertilizer.
You may have heard that dumping used coffee grounds into the soil of your potted houseplants can actually be good for them. And you may have tried working coffee grounds into your back yard garden. But here's one thing I bet you didn't do: patent the idea. That's because Michael Theuer, owner of Cool Beans Coffee and Tea in the small town of Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, has the only patent pending in the U.S. to make plant food containing coffee beans. He calls his product Grow Joe, and we sent producer Peter Clowney to check it out.
(Ambient voices, music)
CLOWNEY: Cool Beans Coffee and Tea is just four years old, but it's tucked into the basement of the oldest building in Bellefonte, built around 1795. A few steps down from street level, the cafe is bright with sun from the front windows and from the two orange fuzzy chairs that sit against the right wall. Wood tables and chairs fill much of the room, and against the left wall stands a bookcase holding paintings and games and 12 volumes of journals kept by customers and employees.
THOMAS: This is for our house coffee. This is the Colombian.
CLOWNEY: This particular Friday at noon, John Thomas and Janet Armstrong mind the coffee bar at the end of the room. Stuck to the edge of the bar, next to the muffin basket, is a sheet of clippings about Grow Joe, the store's very own coffee ground plant food.
ARMSTRONG: It got mentioned along with a whole bunch of other products like cricket crap, and poo pets, stool toads and turtles, squanto's secret, all natural products that are out there on the market these days.
CLOWNEY: Cafe owner Mike Theuer walks into the room. He immediately spills hot chocolate on his shorts, mutters "Jiminy Cricket," and reaches under the bar for the messy bucket that inspired his invention.
THEUER: Two Februaries ago I was standing here, dark as heck, and a friend was over there on the other side of the counter. And I was lamenting about all these disgusting coffee grounds. They weigh a ton. It was not only difficult but obscene to throw away that much stuff. And he said, "You know, earthworms. Instead of growing your earthworms in them, throw it in your garden." And then I thought yes, plant food! That's it!
(Footfalls down stairs)
CLOWNEY: Theuer's careful to credit not just his friend but his grandmother. He says she used to spread coffee grounds on her roses, and then sprinkle some eggshells on top to cut the acidity. Armed with conventional wisdom and an untried marketplace, Theuer revved up his entrepreneurial spirit.
THEUER: Here's the drawing operation. Just pallets with one level of board removed, quarter inch wire, and then window screen on top of that, onto which I pile the wet coffee grounds. The air comes in from underneath and the heat lamps from above dry it all.
CLOWNEY: Theuer's operation is small. He's invested only $800 in his fertilizer business so far, and a family friend lent him the use of the cellar up the hill from Cool Beans. From here, Theuer hauls the beans to another borrowed site, an old carriage house in which he's built a three by three by three-foot bin for combining the coffee with Grow Joe's other ingredients.
THEUER: Dried blood. Here's the lime. Here's the potash. Bone I've run out of. Coffee grounds in this tub. I'll scoop it out with this scooper.
CLOWNEY: Theuer looked at books and at the ingredients of other fertilizers to create his formula. He worked out a nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium ratio of 6-8-6, which he says is lower than what he sees in some commercial products but as effective. Theuer sells about two bags of the mix each day in his store, some online at his Web site, and some in garden stores around the U.S. Nestle and Folgers have each offered to give him ten 24-ton truckloads a week of used grounds, if he pays for transportation. Theuer plans to take advantage. He's got an old feed barn lined up with 60-ton stainless steel mixing bins. He says he's not just doing this for the cash. It also feels good to make something natural.
THEUER: Chemical, chemical, chemicals everywhere. That doesn't make sense. It's kind of like, why don't we just remove the plant from the dirt and spray the chemicals directly onto the roots? Why don't we make it all hydroponic stuff? Because that's all the chemical is doing is going right into the ground, going directly into the plant and making it look green. Nothing's sustaining the soil or nourishing the soil. Natural fertilizers do.
BURGHAGE: Bottom line is, it's the same stuff. Whether it's inorganic or organic, nitrogen is nitrogen and the plant can't tell the difference.
CLOWNEY: Rob Burghage is extension specialist in floriculture at Penn State University, which is about ten miles up the road from Bellefonte. Mike Theuer brought Grow Joe to him to see if he liked the product. Burghage passed it on to a colleague, Jay Holcolm, who asked two undergrads to test Grow Joe against a commercial inorganic fertilizer. The results: they performed about the same on cauliflower, and Grow Joe's beets grew up scraggly. Both professors say Theuer needs to fine-tune the dosage. Generally, they support the impulse to find something good to do with all those grounds. And guess what? Burghage says coffee with really good flavor might even be better for a plant.
BURGHAGE: The same thing is obviously going to be true for coffee. You know, there are potential for some organic compounds out of the coffee that could also either feed the plants or feed the microbes that are in the soil, which can help the plants, too.
THEUER: Oh, I'm bad at plants.
CLOWNEY: In the car ride with Mike Theuer back to Cool Beans Coffee and Tea, talk turns to the hanging plants in the cafe window. They're not looking so good, because he neglects them.
(To Theuer) So what do you mean, you're bad at plants. That doesn't bode well for Grow Joe.
THEUER: No, it doesn't. I stink. Everyone who comes into the shop says, "These are horrible advertisements for Grow Joe." They are, they're crappy.
CLOWNEY: But Theuer's not much of a coffee drinker, either, and the cafe's going fine. He says Grow Joe's going to get its shot. He's just found five investors who put up a total of $48,000 to build his operation in that old barn.
THEUER: I work it, I work at this, but no one appreciates it.
CLOWNEY: For Living on Earth, I'm Peter Clowney in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania.
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