Eco-friendly eateries look beyond the menu
So keen on getting green is chef Maria Hines, she even painted her restaurant that shade. Plywood from sustainably grown bamboo tops the...
Seattle Times staff reporter
So keen on getting green is chef Maria Hines, she even painted her restaurant that shade.
Plywood from sustainably grown bamboo tops the tables and bar inside Tilth, nestled along a busy street in Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood. In the restroom you'll wash your hands with eco-friendly soap and dry them on washcloths. The surfaces get cleaned with a bleach alternative. If these walls could talk, they'd tell you to breathe easy, since the paint is low in toxic emissions.
"I figured if I was going to open up a restaurant, I wanted the restaurant to be a part of my lifestyle, because I own it and live it and breathe it," Hines said.
As more eateries add organic, locally raised and/or sustainably grown foods to their offerings, others are looking beyond the menu for ways to ease their industry's impact on the planet.
This month, Ballard's Snoose Junction Pizzeria behind delivering its pies by bicycle. Agua Verde Cafe and Paddle Club is testing takeout utensils made from potato starch to reduce landfill waste. Elliott's Oyster House is funding efforts to restore Puget Sound shellfish beds. Volunteer Park Cafe is growing many of its own vegetables, flowers and herbs for the ultimate in local produce.
It's been in the past few years that restaurants have really begun to take a hard look at their total impact on the environment, from water use and farming practices to pollution and waste, said Michael Oshman, founder and executive director of the Green Restaurant Association.
"What's important is what is better: To put a bunch of chemicals and pesticides that cause diseases into the soil, or not? The goal is really to look logically at what we are doing and to shift over to a solution," Oshman said.
Sometimes, the menu itself is part of the solution.
Snoose Junction gets its menus printed at a shop that uses only environmentally friendly inks. Customers sit on basketball bleachers salvaged from Roosevelt High School and eat at tables made from the glossy boards of the late Leilani Lanes bowling alley. Recycled denim insulates the building. Interior bricks hail from a South Carolina train station, and old gas piping serves as a picture rail for images of old Ballard.
The restaurant's quirks have become a boon for business, said Mark Ball, who runs the pizzeria with business partner Emily Pickering. While saving money was an initial inspiration for recycling so many materials, Ball says treading lightly on the environment has since become a full-time philosophy.
At Seattle's Volunteer Park Cafe, chef/owners Ericka Burke and Heather Earnhardt compost everything possible and often send customers home with china and flatware rather than to-go packaging and plastic forks and spoons.
"We haven't lost anything," Burke marveled. Some days, she comes to work to find a little stack of clean plates waiting on the doorstep. "So cute!"
The effort to be green is germinating in many aspects of the food industry. Seattle Central Community College launched a mandatory new course — Sustainable Food Systems Practices — as part of its culinary program in 2005. A new Web site (www.palore.com/Green.aspx) guides those who want to eat at greener restaurants. A James Beard Award, the culinary world's version of the Oscars, went in the food-writing category to Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma," a tome concerned with sustainability.
"Chefs are the keepers of the food system, and we felt a responsibility to make sure our students understood their responsibility for the health of the planet for future generations," said Linda Chauncey, associate dean of the college's Seattle Culinary Academy. "As time goes by and more restaurants embrace that similar mission, our students will be uniquely prepared to accept those jobs."
What does it mean to be green? That's up for debate right now. Most restaurateurs say they figure they're on the right track so long as they buy locally and/or organically grown and raised food whenever possible, stick with eco-friendly products and materials, and cut back on energy use and trash.
For the past 17 years the Boston-based Green Restaurant Association has set a standard by which it hopes aspiring earth-friendly restaurants will measure. It calls for gradual, continual improvement rather than an initial all-or-nothing approach. Restaurants must reapply for certification every four years. And it does keep the bottom line in mind.
"Let's say for some reason they don't want to use linens. We're not going to say, 'Use a flimsy, single-ply napkin that's more appropriate for a burger joint for your restaurant or you can't be part of the program,' " Oshman said. Instead, he'd look for the best fine-dining napkin that has the most recycled content.
"We don't want them to come in and want to be a certified green restaurant and they're saving all this water but the toilets don't work. Or, it's great that they're using these napkins, but I had to use 500 of them to wipe off my face after eating ribs."
With climate change dominating world and local news, Oshman says the industry is seeking him out, driven by consumer demand. The association recently certified the nation's largest privately held coffee chain, The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, as a green eatery. Locally, the Lake Crescent Lodge in Olympic National Park is the lone Washington restaurant to make the cut.
Change comes with challenges. Agua Verde discovered its organic compost service — Maple Valley's Cedar Grove Composting — doesn't take their brand of experimental flatware, said founder Bill Stewart. Hines' bamboo tables may be sustainable, but she had to use conventional varnish to protect it.
"Unfortunately, there's still a lot of work that needs to happen in those areas as well and I think as there's a show of consumer demand the more we'll start seeing things," Hines said.
The last time global climate change was water-cooler fodder — and the ozone layer became a household phrase — Seattle vegetarian oasis Cafe Flora heeded the call.
It opened in 1991 with a skylight in its kitchen for lighting that's easier on the eyes (and the electric bill). It has composted its green waste since before most people knew what composting even was, buys its produce from local farmers, filters its own water to reduce the number of plastic bottles headed to landfills and recycles its cooking oil for cars fueled in part by restaurant grease. That's just the tip of the melting iceberg.
General manager Nat Stratton-Clarke said the restaurant aims to get greener, and to inspire others to join what he hopes isn't a passing trend.
"I'm hoping that this wave is going to last a long time. Hopefully it'll be a typhoon."
Karen Gaudette: 206-515-5618 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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