What Green Means to Us

It’s always an interesting conversation when a guest reveals to us they’ve discovered that we’re “green.” Usually, the discovery is made in a conversation with their server about the meat that we source, or our local farmer network that brings in everything from goat cheese to carrots and lettuce, but it often comes up when talking about our seafood sources, or the handful of Southern suppliers we work with to get staple pantry items like organic hominy grits, cane syrup, and popcorn rice.

Often, we are told “you need to talk about this more, people care about this stuff, and you should be recognized for doing it. I had no idea!”

Since long before we opened, this has been a topic of office discussions between myself and Mark, and our staff and managers. Honestly, we haven’t done the horn-tooting because we don’t strive to be green for recognition. We do it because it’s the right thing to do. Everyone has to do it.

If everyone was going green in their food buying, packaging, and utilities management, it wouldn’t be noteworthy that we are. Besides, we thought it might be a bit boring to tout our 90-afue furnaces. It would be far more exciting to cook, pour wine, brew coffee, and let what we do speak for itself. We also think the concept “green restaurant” is a bit of an oxymoron, but further thought does lead to the inevitable conclusion that we can be a greener restaurant every day, and that road would surely lead us to someday being a truly green business.

The fact is that the restaurant business as it happens today in America is an environmental catastrophe. I’d hoped to write earlier about the Chicago Green Restaurant Coop’s annual meeting, which is a crack group of restauranteurs, chefs, caterers, fishmongers, and suppliers, that is determined to shape the future of the restaurant business to be more environmentally benign. At the heart of this effort, Dan Rosenthal announced the closing of a real estate deal for a 60-acre site on the far south side to compost biological waste from restaurants. This is huge. The amount of food that gets thrown into landfills from even conscientious restaurants is staggering. Yes, we separate and recycle all of our glass, metal, and paper (most restaurants don’t do it all) but a lot of food goes to the landfill, because that’s where the city will let us send it. Some farmers will pick up vegetable scrap, and our used cooking oil goes into biodiesel, but food left on plates, dairy, bones, etc. can’t be composted by farmers growing food crops. That’s where this recycling facility comes in, and we are excited to see it come online.

Our goal from the beginning was to be green to show that you can have a restaurant and take care of the land, air, and water. But really, we wanted to do it for ourselves and the community we serve. Then the bell rings, “you have to talk about this,” otherwise how does anyone see our example for one they can use?

The next obvious question is, how green are we? Well, we’ll find out soon, because we have decided to seek certification by the Green Restaurant Association. The greatest appeal of this association is that they require you to do better every single year in order to keep your endorsement, and we appreciate that challenge. I wake up every day to make our restaurant better, and greener is definitely better.

There is one area in the certification process that gives me a great deal of pause, and that is packaging. Conventional Wisdom currently holds that the greenest carry out packaging is compostable cellulose packaging. I’m not so sure, but the certification really gives us no choice. The green triangle teaches us first to reduce, then re-use, then recycle. Cellulose packaging (coming from corn and soybeans) is necessarily extremely carbon dioxide-intensive to produce, and it is diverting plant materials that can provide either food or green manure, into the trash heap (soon the compost pile on the south side, definitely an improvement.) It does biodegrade, ensuring it doesn’t wind up in the Pacific Garbage Patch, but in the end it doesn’t reduce consumption, or re-use anything, and therefore accomplishes the minimum by being recycled (assuming people dispose of it as intended.)

While many of us continue to drive cars, there are large volumes of resins left over from the refining process that yields gasoline. Many of these get made into plastics. I guess I like to challenge conventional wisdom because my willingness to do so led me down the farm-to-table path, organics, and biodiversity advocacy. Wouldn’t using these resins reduce our waste stream? Should we be using our purchasing clout to demand 100% recyclable plastic packaging, and make our efforts in educating people about how to properly dispose of them so they can be recycled? High-quality plastic can be recycled many, many times. Cellulose, few, and in many cases, none.

It’s true plastic doesn’t biodegrade, and can therefore wind up in the Pacific Garbage Patch. Maybe public education is the answer? It is much more carbon-neutral than cellulose packaging, and makes better use of a product everyone uses every day in one form or another: oil. This is a question we’ve wrestled with, up until now using recyclable-plastic and post-consumer paper packaging. Apparently, for our certification, we will be changing to cellulose packaging, and hope for the best. If you’ve ever wondered why we don’t more aggressively push carry out business, it’s because we would always rather serve you in our restaurant on reusable plates and flatware, with our reusable linen napkins.  Carry out makes a lot of garbage. My years I spent at Hi Ricky were eye-opening. We very aggressively pursued carry out and delivery business, and the quantities of paper and plastic that came in every day to eventually wind up as garbage were staggering.

Still, carry out and delivery are convenient options for all of us, and that portion of the restaurant business continues to grow. Kudos to everyone who is trying to do the right thing and reduce their environmental impact. My only wish is that there was a more open discussion and more open minds and less dogma when it comes to what we need to do.

After looking through the GRA certification process, we quickly realized that since we did everything with the environment in mind from the beginning, we won’t need to make many changes, just tweak a few things (and change our packaging program.) We still have a lot to learn, and that’s part of the process. It’s a learning process, an evolution. Always trying to do better. It’s very much how we approach our cooking. It takes me back to what we really wanted to show everyone from the beginning: green food tastes better.