Dollars and Sense: Restaurants find it’s good business to be good to the environment

When Schlafly Bottleworks opened in 2003, the brewpub didn’t look at its parking lot just as coveted parking space in crowded Maplewood, but as a spot where it could make a positive difference for the environment through the creation of a community garden. “The company wanted to incorporate environmental considerations into its breweries and restaurants. What better way than to devote half an acre of precious parking space to a garden?” said Hally Bini, manager of Bottleworks’ Gardenworks. “The space allows us to grow almost all of our herbs and supplemental produce for seasonal specials. Growing on-site means zero fossil fuel usage for delivery. The garden also allows us to compost the majority of our kitchen and brewery waste, and opens up our business to the community by sharing some of the space with our neighbors and employees who want to grow fresh veggies.” Like a handful of other St. Louis restaurants and food stores, Bottleworks is making an extra effort to practice sustainable agriculture and recycling. While these restaurants are making a number of sacrifices, they know it will have a positive effect on the community at large. Choosing environmentally friendly meals When it comes to ingredients, some St. Louis restaurants use produce, meats and grains that are not only delicious, but also are supplied by farmers in the region, some of whom practice organic farming methods. Fresh Gatherings, a restaurant at Saint Louis University’s School of Allied Health Professions, for instance, uses vegetables grown on campus and turns to suppliers throughout Missouri and Illinois. Eddie Neill, Fresh Gatherings chef and manager, said, “With our proteins, we make sure the animals are raised by humane methods. The animals do live a life in the field. They’re treated and cared for properly. In addition, all of the grains we use are organic. We prepare a great array of breads and other goods with ingredients right from nature.” At Terrene in the Central West End, general manager John McElwain and chef Dave Owens, co-owners, take special care when choosing seafood for the menu. “We use only sustainably managed seafood, nothing that is endangered, overfished or in short supply,” McElwain said. Bottleworks, as mentioned, grows many ingredients onsite, but also works with farmers who provide locally raised meat, eggs and cheese. In addition, the restaurant connects consumers with many of its suppliers during the Maplewood Farmers’ Market, held Wednesdays from 4 to 7 p.m. in the Bottleworks parking lot, where farmers sell produce, meat, honey, bread, mushrooms and more. While local ingredients are fresher – and often tastier – because they are shipped locally, restaurants and suppliers also save considerably on gasoline costs, which helps conserve energy. Plus, less travel means fewer emissions – great for the environment. Waste not, want not While their preparation of organic foods helps protect the health of both consumers and the environment, “green” restaurants and food stores are also dedicated to preventing waste. According to Stephanie Williams, community marketing coordinator at Wild Oats Market, one of the store’s most unusual features is its use of “corn-tainers” – a corn-based resin alternative to landfill-clogging plastic and Styrofoam deli containers. “The 100 percent natural-based containers are derived entirely from annually renewable resources, and fully degrade in industrial compost conditions.” In addition, Wild Oats ensures that it wastes as little food as possible. “Representatives from the Ebenezer Food Pantry in Berkely come by the store twice a week to pick up a multitude of non-sellable, but still perfectly edible goods, including bakery products, grocery items and just about everything else,” Williams said. “We wind up giving between $6,000 and $10,000 per month to the pantry.” Like Wild Oats, Fresh Gatherings works toward eliminating waste. The restaurant buys produce in season, and if it can’t be used now, Fresh Gatherings uses a sous vide machine to extend the product’s life and allow customers to enjoy fresh flavors all year long. Wait, sous vide? French for “under vacuum,” this is a preservation method in which foods are vacuum-packed into individual pouches, cooked in those pouches and then frozen or chilled. For instance, a tomato farmer may have excellent tomatoes, but ones that might not make it to a grocery store produce bin. “If a farmer has an overrun of tomatoes, can’t sell them at market or they split right before harvest, we buy what they have, put them in tomato sauce and freeze it,” Neill said. Customers enjoy delicious results and nothing goes to waste. The restaurant also offers compostable serviceware, a composting program and a thorough recycling effort. Terrene takes recycling even one step further. Not only does it send its kitchen scraps to New Roots Urban Garden in St. Louis city and Biver Farms in Edwardsville, Ill., for composting, but, “We take our used vegetable fryer oil to a neighbor and she uses it to make biodiesel for her car. She doesn’t have to buy it; we don’t have to pay to dispose of it,” McElwain commented. Are there any downfalls? Sustainable practices aren’t always cheap and easy. If they were, more restaurants would jump on the environmental bandwagon. But for those places that practice sustainable agriculture, the benefits outweigh the costs. Some restaurants cringe at purchasing local foods because of higher prices, but Neill said that there are hidden costs when buying food from other sources. “For any extra costs, you have extended life. Our produce is coming from local farms, when greens we normally used came from California and Florida and would be weeks old by the time we got them. The [local produce] prices are offset by longevity of the produce.” Neill also noted that changing menus to coincide with fresh produce can be a pain for many restaurants, but he relishes it, creating new dishes that appeal to both customers’ appetites and their health needs. Bottleworks, too, continues to move ahead with new green efforts, including a compost program for consumers. Said Dan Kopman, vice president of Schlafly, “The other activities ongoing and in the future are all about a common desire to sustain and conserve. We hope that this makes sense financially and as we go, we will discover what works and what does not.” Many green restaurants realize they could save money by turning away from sustainable practices, but that would conflict with their values and possibly alienate customers who have come to respect such an uncommon approach to dining. “The feedback has been wonderful,” McElwain said. “We get asked a lot, ‘why don’t more people do this?’ and I don’t really have an answer. Our customers love the food and the experience, and everything we do as a business to take care of our earth is just a bonus for them.”