Do you ever toss a plastic bottle in the trash—it’s gotta go somewhere and where is that recycling bin?– and feel guilty about it? Don’t feel too bad. It’s as much an infrastructure issue a lack of consumer effort. We need more recycling bins. And Amelia Ekus of Epicurean Management Company noticed that restaurants do, too.
What those of us who want to be green, and eat green might not realize is that even something as small as recycling can take a lot of work, especially when it involves changing the flow of service that makes a restaurant run smoothly and successfully. In the end, environmental sustainability is important only as long as the restaurant is economically sustainable. If the restaurant fails, all efforts are for naught. Ekus, who studies activism in the food industry at the Gallatin School of New York University, realized that much could be done to make the restaurants greener. However, as a waitress without a budget to make sustainable changes, she had to start small and reasonably. No recycling bin behind the bar? Ekus put recyclable materials into a plastic quart container that was already back there, and dumped the contents into the larger recycling bin at the end of each shift. No money required. No extra space necessary.
These little changes and her passion eventually got Ekus her role as Director of Community Development for Epicurean Management Company (EMCo.), which manages L’Artusi, Dell’Anima, and Anfora restaurants (the latter is a wine bar with nibbles), all located in the West Village of New York City. One part of her job is to make sure the restaurants are as sustainable as possible.
If a food business wants to get serious about going green, the process to get certification can be arduous, but the result is a guarantee to the restaurant and its customers that the business is truly sustainable. The Green Restaurant Association (GRA) is a non-profit organization that requires a minimum degree of sustainability within seven different categories, and upon the achievement, the restaurant is granted a GRA certification of one to three stars. (Categories are water efficiency; waste reduction and recycling; sustainable furnishings and building materials; sustainable food; energy; disposables; and chemical and pollution reduction). As composting is an automatic requirement for certification, it was one of the first tasks Ekus set out to accomplish. It proved especially difficult in dell’anima because of space limitations in their small kitchen. Where were they going to put a separate trash bin for compost when space was already cramped during the hectic service hours?
“I’m face to face talking with the managers and unfortunately they’re worried about 800 different things and the last thing on their mind is, ‘where are we gonna put a trashcan for compost?'” said Ekus in an interview at L’Artusi. For that reason, it is Amelia’s full-time job (on a part-time schedule) to think about these small but important changes toward greater sustainability. The solution in dell’anima was to convert the trash bin into a compost bin, along with the elimination of almost all potential trash from the dining experience—even the straws are biodegradable. The staff was trained on the specifics, and suddenly all uneaten food from dell’anima (and L’Artusi) is recycled back into the soil to grow more food.
Dell’anima and L’Artusi are both three star restaurants, from the GRA that is (check out the list of other GRA restaurants here). They changed their lightbulbs, purchased energy credits, replaced bathroom hand dryers with more efficient ones, and are working on their sustainable food purchases. While most people, most locavores anyway, think of food as the key component of sustainability within a restaurant, it is actually the most challenging aspect, according to Ekus. People go to a restaurant for the food, and it has to be of high quality and taste good. At the same time, the food is what brings in the money, so to survive they have to maintain a margin of profit. Local food can be more costly in both money and time, and it doesn’t necessarily taste better than food with higher mileage attached.
Take local chicken, for example. If chef /owners Gabriel and Katherine Thompson were to use local chickens, one of their options would be BoBo chickens, from upstate New York, which arrive with the head and feet still attached and intact. At this point, the economic cons of the extra time and labor it takes to prep the chickens outweigh the pros of local purchasing. Budget is the bottom line. If the restaurant is sustainable economically, it isn’t sustainable in any respect.
Ekus’s approach is to go ingredient by ingredient. If she comes across something delicious, she brings it in and hopes the chefs will salivate enough to replace their non-local ingredient with its more sustainable counterpart. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
“At the end of the day, cash rules,” said Ekus, “and what’s cheaper is going to win out. There are things that we do spend more money on because they’re better quality.”
Most people automatically assume that local will be tastier. It may often be true, because on smaller farms, certain varieties of plants are chosen for flavor qualities rather than their ability to be shipped, or their aesthetic characteristics (think shiny, bright-colored yet tasteless apples). Also, local produce is picked ripe and consumed more quickly than foods that have to be shipped much further. But Ekus points out that proximity and better taste do not always go hand in hand.
“You can get a Pennsylvania peach or you can get a Georgia peach, at the end of the day the Georgia peach, no matter what, is gonna be better,” said Ekus, quoting self-titled “bestovore” and NY Times writer Mimi Sheraton. People come in to eat good food, so that is what the chefs want to deliver. Sustainability comes second. Whereas other restaurants may win over customers because they serve local or organic food, EMCo restaurants do not advertise if their products are local or organic. But that doesn’t mean they don’t try to incorporate local foods.
“I have big, lofty goals of having almost everything sourced from the best and the closest,” said Ekus. But she knows it’s not easy, and it might not be possible just yet. “It’s really hard from a restaurant perspective because it depends on farmers and it depends on distribution companies…it’s a really difficult situation but the most I think that we can do is go ingredient by ingredient, try to work it out and do as much as we can, and that’s an ongoing process. That’s why I’ll never have a slow day at work!”
Ekus is extremely aware of the infrastructural shortcomings that make local food inaccessible and expensive for restaurants to use. The seasons also come into play. We are not in sunny California, after all, and local purchasing is much easier in the summer than in the sparse winter season. But even seasons don’t have to limit local eating. The answer? “We need more four season farming.” Amelia is both hopeful and practical, realist and idealist. She knows what it’s like to work in a restaurant, and that is key to her ability to make change from the inside.
“I can go in and say, look, I know that you’re gonna need a trashcan that can fit in this area, and this is the size that I have for you, and it eliminates this sort of back and forth of having someone coming in who doesn’t know what they’re doing, and wants to put a 64 gallon tub in the middle of the restaurant because it’s right for the environment.”
When you go into one of the restaurants to order, you might not realize your food will be composted (along with your straw), or that certain ingredients are local. They work behind the scenes, and do not flaunt their achievements. Why not, I asked Ekus, if it can attract the growing corps of hungry locavores? Ms. Ekus doesn’t believe that the greenwash gaurantees sustainability. The farm name does not reveal the farming practices employed there, and is the consumer really going to sit there and look up the farm on their smart phone before ordering to see if it is organic, biodynamic or local? When it comes to sustainable purchasing, Ekus believes that the research is up to the restaurant, not the diner. “I think it’s something that just should be done and should be an industry standard.”