Washblog

Jeff Fairhall Dreamed Big and Delivered

Seattle recently lost a visionary--the rare sort who actually manifested many of his visions. Jeff Fairhall, a successful entrepreneur in "green business" before the term became popular, died in early September of brain cancer. He was 49.

Jeff was passionate about creating a more sustainable society, particularly with respect to food and agriculture. This passion led him to create a business out of his kitchen in 1988 making rice and vegetable wraps that he called "Essential Sandwiches," using local, organic ingredients. He called his business Essential Foods, which soon branched out into making salsa and other items as well. In 1994 he founded the Essential Baking Company, making organic artisan breads, which became even more popular than the sandwiches. The company quickly outgrew its original space and moved into the old Orowheat Bakery building in Fremont. An attached café was started that would host many community meetings and gatherings.

Flush from these successes, Jeff went on to purchase the old Red Hook Brewery building in Fremont to start a chocolate factory, roasting organic, fair-trade cocoa beans--a first in the United States. As the factory was just starting up, the building also was made available to the Fremont Arts Council for events and workspace. Another part of the building was turned into a community gathering space that would be used for Seattle Thunder concerts and other activist events.

While achieving great success as an eco-entrepreneur, Jeff showed little interest in personal fame or fortune; he was always more focused on how he could use his resources to make the world a better place. I first met Jeff in 1989, just a little more than a year after he started Essential Foods. He had already made much more money from his business than he was able to use for his humble lifestyle. So his first thought was to put it toward creating other useful community institutions.

In 1990, he started a store called Earth Goods in a Roosevelt storefront, selling eco-friendly products, just as the concept was beginning to gain public awareness (probably a little ahead of its time, actually). Simultaneously, in a building next door, Jeff launched a nonprofit called Intentional Future, which would be a community resource center for various kinds of positive social change (part of the building was also rented out to other activist groups, including Earth On the Air radio and forest action groups). It was there that I found a home for the project I had come to Seattle to start--a monthly multi-issue activist newspaper called Seattle Community Catalyst. Without Jeff's support that paper might never have seen the light of day. Earth Goods, Intentional Future, and the Community Catalyst only lasted for a few years, but made an impact in their time.

Never one to rest on the success of his last project, Jeff was always looking forward to the next one. In the early years of this decade Jeff turned his attention to better understanding the system of money and finance within which he had flourished as a businessman. He decided that the system was fundamentally flawed, that there was a better way, and began to work toward creating that better way. His ambition was nothing less than to create an alternative monetary system that would undermine the capitalist financial institutions that he saw as the source of so many of the world's problems. He seemed unfazed by taking on this enormously ambitious project just as he was launching his new chocolate factory.

Sadly, around the same time, Jeff began experimenting with psilocybin mushrooms and other psychedelic drugs, which fundamentally destabilized his ways of thinking. He flipped from an almost saintly humility to the most extreme self-aggrandizement: His psychedelic "enlightenment" led him to believe he was the second coming of Jesus Christ who was put here to battle the forces of the Anti-Christ, represented by Bush and Cheney. As his delusions grew more extreme, his resources enabled him to publicize every twist and turn of his thinking in full-page ads he purchased in The Stranger and Seattle Weekly during 2004-2006, calling himself "The Messenger." It was a tragic turn.

While much of Jeff's behavior during his final years seemed extremely out of character, the one consistent thread was his driving passion to make the world better. In that regard, he left behind a long trail of accomplishment. He will be truly missed by many.

< Conversation with a dry side farmer | Not One More Dime - Not One More Life >
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My first husband and I moved to Seattle from suburban NJ in 1989.  We were living on savings for awhile and so we had to be careful about money.  Right down the block from where we lived in Capitol Hill there was this deli that sold -- I'm pretty sure it was Essential Sandwiches.  I lived on those things for months. Really.  Some days I had little else besides one or two of them.

I even wrote "back home" (parents? friends?) about these sandwiches, utterly charmed as I was to come to this new city with all the bright green moss in the winter and these delicious "bean sandwiches".  It wasn't only the beans, but the hot peppers in there, too.  And the real wheat in the wraps.  Packaged sandwiches always had for me the slight taste of something both artificial and slightly moldy.  Not this stuff!  This was the kind of food that you ate just a little of and it lasted you all day.  Perfect when 1. you're poor and 2. you've got to have your wits about you to find housing/job/friends, etc.

Anyways, these sandwiches made my first few months in Seattle much better.  Thank you Jeff Fairhall!

It seems to me that these wrap sandwiches started a trend --- and others followed.  I always looked for the original kind, though.  

I'm sorry to hear about Jeff's death.  49 is way too young.  Here's a Seattle Times story.  Amazing guy.  Thank you for writing about him here.

by noemie maxwell on Mon Sep 24, 2007 at 09:30:01 AM PST

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This is the type of entrepreneur the world needs more of. Being an ambitious, innovative capitalist doesn't have to equal "selfish and ruthless".

I wonder: if Jeff died from a brain tumor, that wouldn't explain the dramatic personality changes in his last years, as much or more than his use of psychedelic drugs.

by dinazina on Wed Sep 26, 2007 at 10:08:03 AM PST

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