Creating the Ideal Eco-Resort with the Stanford Inn's Jeff Stanford

This episode originally aired on June 27, 2014
Northern California's Stanford Inn is the embodiment of a green retreat, emphasizing all the ways to live well.

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JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good. We’re so excited today to have Jeff Stanford with us. He’s the co-owner and founder of the Stanford Inn by the Sea and Mendocino Center for Living Well at The Stanford. Welcome to Green is Good, Jeff Stanford.

JEFF STANFORD: How is it in New York?

JOHN SHEGERIAN: It’s a wonderful day today in New York City, and how is it in Mendocino?

JEFF STANFORD: It’s absolutely awesome. We don’t have our normal weather, no fog at all, sunny and extremely bright, but unfortunately, quite dry.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. Well, welcome to Green is Good, Jeff. You have a great story to share with our listeners today and before we talk about all the great work you’ve done at The Stanford Inn, I want you to first share with our listeners your journey, the Jeff Stanford story. How did you even start The Stanford Inn? What was your background leading up to that before you even had the vision to start your wonderful eco-resort?

JEFF STANFORD: Well, first I didn’t do it alone. I did it with my wife, Joan. We’d been together for quite some time, and during that time, I was doing research as an anthropologist on what was something called The Human Potential Movement and those people that remember things like est and subtle mind control and those different things, as well as shamanism, which of course, leans on anthropology. What I discovered was a great dissatisfaction. People were really unhappy and with my experience in anthropology, I realized that people were much happier living integrated lives, working together with the people that they lived with, worshipping together with the people that they live with, educating their kids in that kind of community, and all that, so we really thought about working in an area that was more like the small family farm when we were kids. They don’t exist maybe today but anyway, creating that kind of context and innkeeping just seemed to be a natural way to go. Anyway, it was the way we ended up looking for jobs. We started helping run an inn in Carmel, California, and that’s how we got into innkeeping but the idea was an integrated life where you put everything together, small town and so on.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, I’m on your website and I want our listeners to follow. If you want to follow along while Jeff visits with us today, please go to www.stanfordinn.com. It is a beautiful website and I’ll tell you what. I want to fly across the country and check in right now because the views, both the interior shots and the exterior shots on your website are just beautiful so you started with your wife, Joan, this eco resort about 34 years ago so can you talk a little bit about the blocking and tackling of starting this kind of back then truly visionary eco resort?

JEFF STANFORD: Well, it wasn’t as visionary as it sounds. It was just the kind of decisions that we made. What we did is after our experience in Carmel that wasn’t completely satisfactory, that’s quite a different kind of community, some friends suggested that we check out Mendocino and we had very little money of our own. They actually helped us buy this property and we needed to buy an existing motel that would actually generate revenue that we could build from within, so to speak, and that’s what we did. We bought the Big River Lodge. Joan was pregnant with our first child and the owners were really excited to sell this thing to a young couple with young children, actually not really any children at all at this point. A dog and a cat is what we had and they sold it to us and lent us a big hunk of the down payment. They still live on a part of the property that they segmented out but in any case, we came here feeling that the energy, and it sounds very hippy, I know, but the energy was right for us to be and that’s how we got here. Then when we made improvements to the property, every decision that we made was well thought out as to be the least damaging to the environment or the most sustainable, which wasn’t the usual way of thinking, I suppose, but it didn’t seem strange to us. It was the way we did things. Where that came from, I’m not so sure. I think it came from working as an anthropologist. Maybe it also came from the fact that I practice a form of meditation that was taught by a guy named Christopher Merde, which just says you look at what you do, basically, and pay attention to it and choices become obvious. There’ s no choice because you’ll move in the right direction and so we created by the late '90s, mid-2000s, some place in that 10-year period, we were discovered to be the first green ecological couple doing this kind of thing but we had never done it for that purpose.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s so interesting. Can you share with our listeners just what has evolved over the 34 years? Share some of the green practices that exist today on your wonderful property.

JEFF STANFORD: Well, the first one would be when we took over, we were kind of highly leveraged. We owed a lot of money so we wanted to reduce all our costs so the first thing we did is change all the heaters in the rooms and it’s something I could do because I had worked as an electrician so I put in different kinds of heaters that made people feel warm and got rid of all the baseboard heating and it reduced heating costs. It actually cut our PG&E bill, which they said was going to be doubling. It actually reduced it by a third. That was the first kind of decision. We were always researching and by the way, researching back then was going through catalogues, making phone calls, no internet, and we discovered the first small compact fluorescent bulbs. They didn’t have their own valise. You had to buy the valise separate but it would sit in the light fixture and we put those things in. That helped reduce our electrical bills. On diapers, I read a British report that said that in specific circumstances, cloth diapers were far more damaging to the environment and explained why and in terms of water use, horrendously damaging and we had very low water. We kept running out of water here so we went to disposable diapers but picked out the ones that would tend to break out the most though that wasn’t rated. You just had to kind of think about it. You had to look at it and be aware of that kind of process. Those were the kind of things. My wife says I over-research things but basically, that’s what we did. We looked at each decision that we made. We looked at the best decision that we could make and sometimes, it was very much tempered by money but at least you’re aware that you did that. You’re not hiding from it. You’re looking directly at that decision.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it, got it. Can you talk a little bit about your restaurant at The Stanford Inn, Raven’s? Talk a little bit about the kind of produce that you use and the kind of food that you prepare for your lucky guests.

JEFF STANFORD: Yes, well we use the produce from our garden and then we buy from jobbers and so on. Excuse me. That’s my son’s dog. Actually let’s start at the beginning. We started at Big River Nurseries in 1985 as a way to deal with landscaping on the land. That’s about where we were and so we made an organic nursery and I first was going to grow flowers and then one of my friends here said, ‘You ought to go to this organic garden.’ I had never heard of an organic garden, where they grow broccoli and such, so we went out there and it looked great so I decided that instead of growing flowers and plants to decorate the inn, we would grow vegetables and sell them so that’s how we got into it and of course, we did it organically. We didn’t want to use snail baits and anything that was toxic because there are wild animals here. We didn’t want them getting into it so we picked up the snails and put them in the woods, that kind of an activity. Well, that caused us to have an awful lot of produce. We had to get rid of the produce and to do that, we started selling to restaurants here. The economy wasn’t so great. We didn’t get paid so we opened other farmers to the first farmers markets in Mendocino county to off the vegetables, so to speak, and then when we were moving forward and we were able to add on to the property, it just took us 15 years before a bank would loan us any money. We wanted to put in a restaurant and we made a vegetarian restaurant because, of course, we were vegetarian at that time. Later on, we became vegan. I learned what was going on upstairs. I had no idea. I actually had no concept of what was actually going on then so that caused us to make it a vegan restaurant and the restaurant is really just the only place we would eat. The only thing we do is vegan there and I don’t know what else to tell you except that if I’m going to have a restaurant, I can’t do any other kind of restaurant than one that’s consistent with my own beliefs, from what I’d feed my own kids.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Yeah. Because now veganism seems to be picking up a lot of steam across the United States, as is vegetarianism, as part of one of the great things that your restaurant does as opposed to other vegan restaurants is that you’re producing so much of your own produce on site and able to serve that really farm fresh on your own tables at Raven’s?

JEFF STANFORD: No. Actually, I would imagine that most hotels back about 100, 150 years did that, farm fresh food from the backyard out here in the west. I don’t know how unique that is but I think what is unique in the vegan world is that most of the food that we use is whole foods. I’m a proponent of not using processed foods of any kind. I’m not even big on tofu like they have at a lot of vegan restaurants. We have some of that for those people that are used to it but the emphasis in our dining room is whole foods and that’s different and that is because it’s more sustainable. You have less resource imports to produce it and it tastes good. You just have to construct it in a way that’s appealing to the eye and people will eat it and because it’s whole food, it’s going to give you sustenance. It’s going to fill them but it’s not going to make them logey. They’re going to walk out of the restaurant feeling a little bit lighter and a little bit brighter.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: I love it. For our listeners who just joined us, we’ve got Jeff Stanford on. He’s the co-owner and co-founder of The Stanford Inn by the Sea and the Mendocino Center for Living Well at The Stanford Inn and you can also check out his website, www.stanfordinn.com. Jeff, talk a little bit about your inn’s wellness center and The Mendocino Center for Living Well at The Stanford Inn. What does that really mean to you and what does that mean for your guests? What was your vision when you created this?

JEFF STANFORD: Well, it actually starts a long time ago when we bought a livery business, which is actually part of an illegal operation here on the Mendocino coast. There was all kinds of things going on. It was years ago and we had already started renting bikes to our guest just as an amenity and I did all the bike repair work and all the tuning of the bikes because every time the bikes come back, you want to check them out so when somebody puts on the brakes that they’re borrowing a bike that actually works. I decided to attach that to the canoe livery and when I did that, I had two guys working here who had been working for a bike shop and one, that was his primary job and the other one was also working as a server in town and I decided that we’d open a bike shop so that they had full time work because the canoe livery was only five months a year so we were able to build a staff by building jobs and that’s how we got going with it. In 1990, a long time ago, this woman from Thailand came to me and said, ‘How about doing a little massage?’ Well, I had never heard of it and back then, everybody made jokes about massage parlors because they weren’t really about massage and I said why not? She was legitimate. She had an M.A. in Sociology from Ohio State, and that’s where she’d come from and she had left a marriage and had gone off and done massage because of her ability to do Thai massage and she just retired two years ago at about 70, but she did an awesome job for us and that caused us to begin the Center for Living Well. The following year, we started yoga here because somebody needed a place to do a yoga program and we had just built a pool, which opened in ’91, that they could do yoga around the pool and they just thought it was a wonderful thing so that was how the wellness center began. It began by allowing our neighbors a place to practice and also to have gainful employment and work so it was really just sort of somebody comes to us, it’s a great idea. We say okay, let’s go with it and eventually we have an integrated program that’s got acupuncture, Tai Chi, and a variety of other programs, which are listed in there, nutrition cooking classes and so on.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow, so in 34 years, how many rooms do you have at your eco resort, Jeff?

JEFF STANFORD: Forty-one rooms.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Forty-one rooms, and is this the largest and most successful and longest-running eco-resort in America?

JEFF STANFORD: The only one. Eco-resort, by definition, would have to be vegan because of this carbon footprint and we’re the only one. There is no other one. There are some vegan bed and breakfasts, without a question, but there are no vegan resorts and we didn’t do it to be the only one. We were the first one because it was a conscious decision of ours to make a business and create a business that was consistent with our belief system and not only that. We’re able to enlarge on that by involving other people, as I said. Now we have six almost full-time massage practitioners here.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Holy Toledo! Plus the yoga, plus the acupuncture and all those other things so you have a lot going on at any given time. What is the feedback from your guests? What’s the typical feedback that you get and has the internet helped? With the democratization of information on the internet, has the helped fuel your business?

JEFF STANFORD: That’s a good question. I don’t have an answer to that. I think that most of the services that we do in terms of acupuncture and yoga are locally based. I know a lot of our guests use that but they’re just local people that use it and there’s not a huge population here. Our middle class left years ago when the logging stopped and the fishing industry stopped. There had been a toilet bowl cleaner. That sold and moved out here. Women and Weather, that catalogue, they sold and they moved to Pennsylvania. All these businesses left and when they left, the people had no jobs. It’s just service jobs and government and hospital and so therefore, there’s hardly a middle class here so we get very few people because there’s just very few people that are interested in it.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Do your guests come from around the world?

JEFF STANFORD: Yes, a lot. Of course, this isn’t around the world but it’s far from us, New York, Washington, DC, Florida, and places like that. A lot of people come here for the fact that it’s vegan. We just had some people leave from Boston, Massachusetts. They had gotten married there. They’re vegan and they had no other place to go but the west coast to get away from the east coast, which can be vegan heaven if you know where to go, like Philadelphia has Veg, one of the best restaurants in the United States, but they came here because there’s an awful lot of vegan opportunities so they landed in San Francisco and they’re working their way up to Portland or Seattle as part of their honeymoon and they’re having a great time because they can actually eat.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Nice. I love it. I love it. Hey, we’re down to the last minute or so. Jeff, can you share any of your pearls of wisdom to our listeners who are interested in starting their own businesses and how to align their own business, as an entrepreneur, with their personal values like you and your wife did?

JEFF STANFORD: Yes. Decide what’s important in your life and that’s what we did and what was important is that a total life is possible and how to understand what that is was through a process of meditation so start a practice and it doesn’t have to be that onerous of a practice. You don’t have to have a passion. You can just breathe and let your breath go and when you let your breath go, see how you feel. That’s a good place to start. It’s like a two- to three-second — if even that long — meditation. Just start paying attention to yourself and pay attention to what feels right for you. Don’t comment on it or judge it. Just pay attention and it’s a flow. You just start flowing in that direction. It doesn’t necessarily happen overnight but it happens fairly quickly and it’s life changing.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Thank you, Jeff, and I’m sure you’ve helped change many lives at your beautiful Stanford Inn. Jeff Stanford, look him up and look up all the great things he’s doing at The Stanford Inn at www.stanfordinn.com. Thank you, Jeff, for being an inspiring sustainability entrepreneur and trailblazer. You are truly living proof that green is good.

JEFF STANFORD: Thank you very much.