To celebrate this past Earth Day, Lyons Group, a Boston-based restaurant group that operates more than a dozen establishments across New England, announced that all of their restaurants would be going strawless. (Guests can request a 100-percent renewable, compostable straw, however, if they must.)
Their decision is part of a welcome trend in the industry, spurred largely in part by the #StopSucking campaign, which aims to eliminate all plastic, single-use straws, thus reducing pounds and pounds of waste—much of which ends up in our oceans.
This changing of the tide (pun intended) is gaining traction at restaurants and bars across the country, where efforts to put eco-friendly, sustainable practices in place are becoming popular. We checked in with just a few establishments who are working to go green.
Table 301 Restaurant Group in Greenville, South Carolina, is another group dedicated to reducing their collective carbon footprint. Various initiatives include repurposing old wine and liquor bottles into decorative candles, composting food and paper waste at three venues (with more to follow), using only eco-friendly to-go containers, donating surplus brunch buffet food to area soup kitchens, and working with local farmers to source organic ingredients.
“Table 301 is committed to pursuing sustainable, eco-friendly opportunities. Our long-standing dedication to sustainable practices, from creating less waste for our landfills to buying locally grown products, has allowed us to act as stewards of the environment as well as of our community,” says COO Steve Seitz. “We know that Table 301 guests acknowledge and appreciate our efforts along with those of other similarly-minded businesses in the city. In turn, we hope that our actions will provide influence and motivation for the entire Greenville community to elevate its support of sustainable, ‘green’ initiatives.”
At Buunni Coffee, a small cafe in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York, to-go coffee is served in compostable cups, along with compostable straws and lids. Customers dining in are encouraged to bring their own mugs to reduce waste, and are given a 25-cent discount on each coffee as incentive.
“Sustainability and being a responsible business is one of our core values. We want our business to be good for people—coffee farmers, customers, employees—and the planet,” says co-founder Sarina Prabasi.
And people are responding in kind. “Customer response is positive on the compostable cups. People mention it in conversation and on social media,” Prabasi says.
Ultimately, she hopes to see these initiatives taking hold at larger shops and corporations.
“What I would like to see is the bigger chains leading the way in making it easier to compost and recycle coffee cups and coffee grinds, which are an awesome soil conditioner that you can use directly on plants,” she says. “The bigger companies have the scale to create a system for this. Many of us smaller independent shops would be happy to participate, but don’t have the clout or resources to make change on a large scale.”
“One of the most exciting things about growing a restaurant group is realizing that you have the power to make real change in terms of sheer volume and numbers,” says marketing and branding director Sara Deseran. “Getting rid of plastic straws means that just our own restaurants are diverting 180,000 straws a year from landfill and oceans.”
Deseran stresses that even though the Bay Area is a fairly eco-minded community, change takes time and effort.
“Using plastic straws has been standard practice even for San Franciscans. They’re so small that I don’t think people have seen one little plastic tube as any kind of burden on the environment,” she says. “It’s taken the work of groups like our partner the Surfrider Foundation to bring awareness to the fact that one little straw times hundreds of thousands actually does create environmental havoc. However, since we eliminated plastic straws in January from all five Tacolicious locations and our sister bars, Mosto and Bar San Pancho, we haven’t received any pushback at all—celebration if anything.”
Also in the Bay Area, Indian fast-casual spot Curry Up Now, is repping the fast food contingent, limiting their waste by using real plates and silverware in-house. They also will only provide straws upon request. Founder Akash Kapoor says he decided to go green after transforming his food truck into the brick and mortar it is now.
“The options for serving food on the truck were limited to disposable items, so I witnessed a lot of unnecessary waste,” he says. “When we opened our first brick and mortar location, I wanted Curry Up Now to set the standard for ‘green’ fast-casuals, and looked for ways to reduce everyday waste in the restaurant.”
And while customers are often confused whey they don’t automatically receive a straw with their fountain drinks, Kapoor says they’re usually pleasantly surprised when they hear about the green reasoning behind the hold-back.
At New York’s Oaxaca Taqueria, owner David Schneider and his team have developed an entire plant-based, vegan menu to encourage customers to eschew beef in favor of more environmentally-friendly ingredients.
“It is important because in this day and age, our industry needs to think outside the box on how to eliminate waste and help the environment,” Schneider says. “Plant-based proteins will lessen our carbon footprint and help down the supply chain. We believe there is a better way to feed the planet and, while we cannot eliminate animal proteins from our taquerias completely, we are dedicated to improving human health, positively impacting climate change, conserving natural resources and respecting animal welfare.”
In turn, Schneider says he’s seen his efforts have a positive effect on his business. “The customer response has been terrific. Meat-eaters, vegans, vegetarians or just someone looking to try a new protein, they have loved it and we see a lot of repeat customers,” he says. “We have begun expanding these options into our catering also due to many requests.”
At San Diego’s Fishmonger’s Market, chef Frankie “The Bull” Terzoli is dedicated to changing the industry by educating guests and sourcing sustainably. Terzoli spent years fishing the oceans as a licensed ship captain to learn all he could about where his ingredients came from, and to learn to source them more responsibly. Since then, he has developed his own point-of-source fishing digital program app, which tracks both when a fish is caught and how it’s caught, and follows it until it reaches the plate (or the fish market) to ensure that it is sourced locally, ethically and sustainably.
Terzoli says this commitment to sustainability is so important to him “because I’ve been involved in the fishing industry and community and watched the collapse of an industry due to overfishing, illegal and unreported fishing, and mismanagement of our ocean resources.”
Bars are getting in on the action too, as with Bluewater Organic Distilling bar and bistro in Washington, where just about everything is local and sustainable, and they use 100 percent compostable paper products. What’s more, they limit waste by repurposing excess juices and herbs from their cocktail bar in kitchen for marinades and sauces.
“Environmental conservation has always been a part of who I am. I find strength in the outdoors and with this comes stewardship and great awareness of the impacts of modern life,” explains founder John Lundin. “We sacrifice profit to do the right thing, because I was frustrated with the amount of waste in the restaurant industry.”
Lundin says he’s found their business model to successful, however, and that the business grows 25 to 30 percent every year. That said, “Even if the metrics were more elusive, it’s still the right thing to do and we’ll never change who we are.”
LA’s oldest craft distillery, the all-organic Greenbar Distillery, has built a business model around going green: They’ve partnered with nonprofit Sustainable Harvest International to plant one tree per every bottle of spirit sold. That partnership has resulted in almost 700,000 trees planted in the rainforests of Central America in the past 10 years, which they say has erased the one-day carbon footprint of 12 million Americans.
“When we committed to make Greenbar Distillery spirits solely with organic ingredients, we did if for the amazing flavor they gave us,” explains co-founder and spirits maker Litty Mathew. “When we dug deeper, we realized our growers were embracing organic farming because it left the land in good order for their children and grandchildren. We were inspired by them to do our part by removing the pollution we create. We did this by planting trees. If we can make responsible, everyday choices easy for clients, we are more likely to see positive changes. That’s why our tree-planting initiative is so important to us.”
And while their customers are “thrilled” with the program, it’s the tangible results that really make it all worth it for Mathew. “A few years ago, Florence Reed, the founder of our partner, Sustainable Harvest International, showed me a before-and-after photo,” she says. “The first was a haphazardly denuded hillside with jagged red and brown edges where the rain had washed away the soil. The next photo was the same area after a few years of tree-planting. It looked amazing even with the still-young trees. The soil erosion had dramatically decreased. I’ve never forgotten those pictures, and that the trees we plant also help local farmers to grow shade crops under—like cocoa and coffee. It’s a win-win in my book.”