Food by VICE

What It’s Like to Run a Coffee Shop During a Water Ban

Over the weekend, the 500,000 residents of Toledo, Ohio were banned from drinking tap water, which was contaminated by a toxin traced to an algae bloom in Lake Erie. Now, local food purveyors are steeling themselves against future water outbreaks.

by Peter Moskowitz
Aug 5 2014, 3:00pm

Photo by Flickr user Klearchos Kapoutsis

There are two ingredients in coffee: water and beans. So it's hard to make a cup of the stuff without one.

That's the unfortunate situation Scott Ciolek, the owner of Bleak House Coffee in Toledo, Ohio found himself in over the weekend, when city officials announced that none of the 500,000 people who rely on the city's water system were allowed to drink or cook with tap water.

The culprit of the water ban was a toxin called microcystin, which most likely came from an algae bloom in nearby Lake Erie that made its way down to Toledo's water intake. The toxin can cause severe liver damage and even death.

Beginning early Saturday, restaurants, coffee shops, and bars in the struggling post-industrial city made due with Macgyver-esque creativity. "We had to shut down all our commercial equipment because it was hooked up to the tap," said Ciolek. " We were using equipment we brought from home. It took a little longer to make the coffee, but people were grateful to come in, get a cup of coffee and talk about the water crisis."

Patrick McCune, the owner of My House Diner, located in the north of the city, got through two 24-hour days with about ten five-gallon jugs of bottled water, 33 cases of individual bottles of water, and more paper plates than he could count. "We kind of pretended we were having a picnic," he said. "It was quite interesting."

And Emily Gessner, a barista at Black Kite Coffee and Pies in downtown Toledo, used an Aeropress—a $25 plastic tube manufactured by a company that mostly sells frisbees—to make espresso. She used a hand steamer and distilled water to froth milk for cappuccinos.

Thankfully, the water ban was lifted on Monday. But people in in the food industry in Toledo say that despite getting through the crisis just fine, the underlying issues that caused it—namely pollution and global warming—should be truly concerning not only for Ohioans, but for anyone who cares about food and water in the US. I.e., everyone.


Eileen Ionone and Dakota Cousino make coffee at Bleak House with equipment brought in from home and bottles of water. Photo by Scott Ciolek of Bleak House Coffee.

"When you go look at Lake Erie, it just doesn't look right," said Gessner. "These issues have been put on the back-burner for a really long time, and now it's a crisis."

The problem with microcystin is that it's not a question of if it will rear its ugly head again, but when. The toxin, which can't be boiled out of water, is a sign of a truly sick ecosystem in Lake Erie. The lake has endured decades of algae blooms that choke out animals and create toxins like microcystin.

The algae blooms occur for a variety of reasons, but the truly nasty and huge ones are thought to be a byproduct of intensive phosphorus usage on farms around the lake and the rivers that surround it.

Phosphorus is present in most commercial fertilizers and more if it has been leaking into Lake Erie every year, according to environmental non-profit Circle of Blue. The problematic fertilizer is favored by farmers growing crops including soybeans and corn, which are becoming more popular choices across the US as the industrial food system demands ever-greater amounts of easily processable commodities.

Once phosphorus gets in the water, it's basically superfood for algae. And global warming exacerbates the issue, producing stronger storms that create more runoff, and the hotter temperatures favored by algae. As global temperatures increase, it's virtually guaranteed that algae blooms will get more frequent and bigger, according to Tim Otten, a postdoctoral scholar at Oregon State University, whose research on algae blooms has been funded by the National Science Foundation.

That's probably bad news for everyone, but it's especially bad for people who live in northwest Ohio. That corner of Lake Erie is particularly shallow and stagnant, allowing the algae and toxins to concentrate like almost nowhere else.

A few measures can be taken to stop the algae blooms from getting into a large drinking-water system. The most realistic are to train farmers to better incorporate phosphorous into their soil, teach them the best times of the year to use fertilizer, and to update the aging filtration systems used by many municipalities, according to Laura Johnson, a research scientist at Heidelberg University in Ohio.

But both of those things will be hard to accomplish because there's no pressure to accomplish them. As of now, the Environmental Protection Agency doesn't consider the toxins produced by algae a big enough threat to monitor their flow, and there are no national laws (or ones in Ohio) to stop so much phosphorus from leaking into water.

That means people in the food industry in Toledo should be prepared for the next microcystin outbreak.

But Emily Gessner of Black Kite says she believes there's another way for Toledo, and the rest of the country. Black Kite is one of several recent food ventures that have opened in the last few years in the city—the kind of places that seem to be cropping up in small cities across the US: unpretentious, delicious, and deeply concerned with the quality and origin of their food.

That's what made the water crisis so frustrating to Gessner and others. Black Kite and similar establishments are trying to get away from the industrial food system that helped create the crisis, yet their businesses are the ones most affected by it.

"With most places, it's the same food that's going to ruin their restaurant that they're using to make their money," Gessner said. "But we have a few new, local businesses doing things differently. That's why it sucks that when we do make national news it's because we don't have water."