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Coffee has a serious carbon footprint, and it all starts in the production. Fossil fuel is needed to power a traditional coffee roaster, and much of the equipment is manufactured overseas.
Vincent Emery is trying to change all that. The 19-year-old has been interested in coffee for nearly half his life, and he thinks the standard business of beans needs a climate-friendly refresh.
Emery cofounded The Lil’ Rhody Coffee Company while he was still a student at St. Raphael Academy in 2022. Now he’s a global supply chain and data science student at Bryant University and is overseeing operations at the Pawtucket-based roaster with his family.
Bags of Lil’ Rhody are already available online, where customers can purchase coffee and espresso beans at a discounted rate if they subscribe. You can also find them for sale in retail stores like Urban Greens in Providence, the Newport Mansions’ gift shops, Plant City, West Greenwich Grocery. The beans come from small farms and producers all over the globe, and are named after Rhode Island places like Bellevue Avenue (the decaf blend) and Federal Hill (the espresso blend). But that’s only part of the business plan.
In the warehouse, Lil’ Rhody is using an off-the-shelf electric coffee roaster to reduce CO2 emissions by 80 percent per kilogram of coffee.
But, Emery claims, Lil’ Rhody isn’t “just” a coffee company. The company has big, green plans to help spread its methods to other roasters.
“When you get under the surface, we’re more of an engineering and design firm,” he said.
The startup is working on building new technology to help accelerate the coffee industry’s adoption of sustainable energy.
Emery estimates that in “about two to two and a half years” Lil’ Rhody will be rolling out with a new product: a fully electric industrial-size coffee roaster for companies to use that has carbon capture technology built in. The roaster will run completely off solar power.
The company is calling it “Kestrel,” and he estimates it can roast 1 kilogram (about 2.2 pounds) of coffee with as little as 2.5 kWH of energy. That equates to as little as 15 cents of solar energy costs. Emery also said the machine will feature AI technology that can learn over time a customer’s individual preferred roast profiles, and someday in the future, will allow for fully autonomous roasting.
Lil’ Rhody is also in the very early stages of building a solar-powered, 55,000-square-foot factory in northern Rhode Island where it would manufacture the roaster, as well as the company’s own brand of coffee. The company will need between $75 million and $100 million to build the factory and the roasters, Emery said. They’ll begin raising money soon to create a prototype.
“This factory wouldn’t be taking power from the grid, which has been generated using fossil fuels,” he told me. “The new normal to pushing for more sustainable coffee starts with smarter production.”