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Restaurateurs Relish Sustainability

Call it sustainable development or call it tastier, more robust, safer food. According to the Chefs Collaborative, a national network of more than 1,000 chefs and other members of the U.S. food industry, more restaurants are banking on sustainable cuisine. The network says procurement of more environmentally friendly ingredients helps many restaurants attract customers and increase the efficiency of food purchasing and preparation. Chefs Collaborative director Amy Bodiker explains why restaurants should get to know local producers, and season the bottom line a pinch at a time, to taste. By Kelley Kreitz.

Kelley Kreitz: What is your vision of an environmentally friendly restaurant?

Amy Bodiker:
The Chefs Collaborative began as a collection of chefs interested in securing local food, so that they could offer, for example, strawberries from local farmers on their menus. We help restaurants connect with regional producers to purchase local seafood, meat, dairy, and eggs. We are also concerned with green-building materials, living wages for restaurant employees, and reduced energy consumption. My vision would be one that encompasses all of these elements.

To give an example, chef Stan Frankenthaler of Salamander restaurant in Boston recently re-opened his famed Asian-influenced restaurant and used much of what he learned in his experiences with the collaborative to create an ambiance respectful of the environment: He furnished the restaurant using pieces made from sustainably farmed bamboo and reused materials; his menu choices feature cod caught by the hook-and-line method and organic produce from local farmers.

We recognize, however, that restaurants operate on a tight margin. We’re all in transition. It’s the small steps forward that matter. Even many of our most stanch advocates of local agriculture still supplement their ingredients with conventionally grown products. Restaurants need to be profitable to survive.

KK: Smaller restaurants appear to lead the sustainable-cuisine movement. Is there a business case for larger restaurants -- with greater supply needs -- to insist on locally grown food?

Yes. The industry of locally grown food is growing and local farmers are now able to meet the larger demands of bigger institutions. The next hurdle will be getting universities and hospitals to make some of those bigger contracts. There are colleges and restaurants out there that are doing this. One success is the Chipotle restaurant chain, which has a contract with Neiman ranch, a producer of organic pork, to provide their pork.

KK: What is the industry's biggest challenge to achieving sustainable cuisine?

Transportation: Our ability to ship perishable products means that most food is shipped great distances in this country. And a lot of money goes into keeping perishable items -- freezing them, genetically modifying them to last longer. As a result, such food is not the freshest or the best quality, and it leads to mass amounts of fuel consumption and water subsidies.

The industrial agriculture model has lots of inputs into the product, so that the farming process becomes the development of a commodity rather than the growth of a natural product. The problem is when this becomes extreme, when you introduce radiation and GMOs that ultimately affect the quality and flavor of a product, and the integrity of future crops.

KK: What challenges would a restaurant face in switching to sustainably grown ingredients?

Many restaurants can be overwhelmed by purchasing locally grown food. The number of vendors can really be a handful. Communicating with all of them, understanding their distribution systems and payment options, can be confusing. But when these restaurants experience the superior taste and quality of such food, it starts to make sense. When customers start to inquire about the local farms listed on the menu and taste the dishes with those fresh local ingredients, the awareness and excitement builds. It becomes about celebrating your community.

KK: Locally grown food might not always be the least expensive investment for a restaurant. How can a restaurant see a stronger bottom line?

This doesn’t have to be a white-tablecloth issue. Many of our members are small coops, diners, and pizza parlors. It’s true that they may pay higher prices per pound, but one of our members likes to point out that there are other ways of cutting costs. He has trimmed costs elsewhere, by eliminating waste, and buying whole birds instead of parts. It becomes a process of making the entire restaurant more efficient in its use of ingredients.

Another example of a smaller restaurant the has successfully incorporated environmental considerations into its practices is Hot Lips Pizza, a pizza shop that has three locations in Portland, Ore. Owner David Yudkin buys fresh produce and other organic ingredients from local farmers, and he incorporates other environmentally responsible practices into his business plan.

KK: What advice do you have for a restaurant interested in greening its supply chain?

I don’t think that it has to be overwhelming. Just start with a relationship with one farmer. Learn the nuances of working with a smaller supplier. Learn their distribution quirks, and get to know their quality. This will make it easier to eventually begin working with more local suppliers.

Many states produce lists of local farms and local farmers markets that can help restaurants get started. The key to this whole process is to build a relationship with a local farmer first.


By Kelley Kreitz, a staff researcher and writer. Copyright 2002 Green Business Network, all rights reserved.



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