Food With a Conscience

From Local to Chain, Who’s Going Green?


More and more restaurants, both locally and on the national stage, are going green.

Local restaurants Café Brenda, Lucia’s Restaurant and Wine Bar, Birchwood Café, Restaurant Alma, Spoon River, Red Stag Supper Club, Ecopolitan, Hard Times Café, Galactic Pizza, French Meadow Bakery, Holy Land Bakery and Deli, and a host of natural food co-ops and Minnesota farmers’ markets offer healthy options that are socially and environmentally responsible. Big chain restaurants Chipotle Mexican Grill, Big Bowl, and McDonald’s have taken significant steps to address environmental issues. Food service directors at many area colleges, schools, and hospitals are trying to do the right thing by sourcing a majority of their food from within a 200-mile radius of campus.

The ideas aren’t new, but they’re gaining momentum thanks to renewed interest in the environment and diners who care about sustainability, ecological health, and food safety.

It’s a way of thinking that goes back to Laura Ingalls Wilder days, says Tracy Singleton, owner of Minneapolis-based Birchwood Café. In order to return to a mentality of respecting the land, Singleton says, “We had to lose sight of our ideals to see what we’d lost.â€

“The more our society ‘progressed’ in the past few decades, with concepts of ‘more’ and ‘bigger is better’ driving our economy, the less attention we paid to sustainability,†she explains. “We sacrificed the balance between the needs of humans and the world we inhabit, and now we’re paying the price.â€

Never before has it been so imperative to rethink our relationship with Mother Nature.

 “I don’t think this is a trend, but a real growing movement,†Singleton says. “We still have a ways to go, but it’s encouraging to note the changes taking place.â€

Respecting the animals, the land, and the farmers

A commitment to animal welfare and socially responsible, sustainable food is the foundation of Chipotle’s “Food With Integrity†initiative, meaning it seeks out “ingredients that are sustainably grown and naturally raised with respect for the animals, the land, and the farmers who produce the food.â€

Every Chipotle nationwide serves naturally raised pork, 85 percent serve naturally raised chicken, and all 44 Minnesota locations now serve naturally raised beef. “Naturally raised†means the animals are raised humanely, never given antibiotics or growth hormones, and fed a pure vegetarian diet.   

The pigs are free to roam open pastures rather than live in confined Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), used by some factory farms. Pigs in CAFOs are crowded so close together they often don’t have enough room to turn around in their crates, let alone experience the outdoors. Because they live in such close quarters, they are given an antibiotic at a young age to avoid the spread of infection. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, American pork producers use 10 million pounds of antibiotics per year to keep their confinement raised pigs from getting sick–more than an estimated three times the amount used to treat all human illnesses.

And while there’s no conclusive evidence from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention proving that CAFO substances, such as antibiotics, adversely affect human health, there’s no conclusive evidence showing that they don’t. And to Steve Ells, the founder of Chipotle, that’s reason enough to avoid them altogether.

Today Chipotle serves more naturally raised meat than any other restaurant in the country, consistently pushes for more sustainable practices in produce farming, and works with dairy suppliers to eliminate the use of added hormones from their operations. All of Chipotle’s dairy  products are made with milk from cows that are not treated with the synthetic hormone rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone). In addition, about a quarter of its beans are grown organically, an amount that increases as additional supply becomes available.

The company also encourages glass and plastic recycling (the bowls they use are made from 99 percent recycled content), and various restaurants feature tankless water heaters, high efficiency HVAC systems, and recycled drywall.

Big Bowl, the casual Asian restaurant and bar with locations in Minnesota, Illinois, and Virginia, seeks out and uses seasonal vegetables from local markets and farmers, serves only naturally raised heirloom pork, all-natural, antibiotic-free chicken, seafood only when in season, and organic fair-trade coffee. Their paper products are from recycled content, and their menus are printed on paper from The French Paper Company, a Michigan-based family-owned mill. The paper is made from 100 percent recycled content, and the mill is powered by hydroelectric energy, a 100 percent renewable resource.
Both Chipotle and Big Bowl support Niman Ranch, a network of U.S. family farms raising all-natural beef, pork and lamb through traditional farming methods, without antibiotics or added hormones.

At first glance McDonald’s, with a staggering 31,000 restaurants in 18 countries, may seem more like part of the problem than the solution. This mammoth fast food chain, though, is taking steps to reduce its carbon footprint.

When the public became concerned with Mickey’s D’s packaging (remember those bright yellow polystyrene containers?) the company partnered with Friends of the Earth to eliminate the containers and reduce the amount of waste produced. McDonald’s offers bags, cups, and napkins made from recycled material, and powers various fleets on biodiesel made from recycled cooking oil. The firm implemented “environmental scorecards†for suppliers and joined a Greenpeace-led moratorium on buying soybeans from deforested areas in the Amazon. These green initiatives–made in the name of combating climate change–are enough to warm Al Gore’s heart. And while the changes are promising, so much more needs to be done.

Is Going Green Profitable?

Why are there still so few restaurants going green? What’s the hold-up?

While most restaurants support a green concept, for many it comes down to a question of profitability. Unfortunately, it’s not cheap to make major earth-friendly adjustments in an overly cautious restaurant industry. (According to Knapp-Track, a survey of casual-dining chains, comparable restaurant sales and guest counts remained mostly negative throughout 2007.) And while investing in energy-efficient restaurant equipment can pay for itself in two to five years–with the potential of trimming gas consumption and electricity by as much as 10 percent–far too many owners, investors, and accountants look only at short term returns rather than long-term savings.

The truth is, many restaurant owners are too worried about sacrificing already threatened profits to invest in green initiatives.

What they might not realize, however, is that many guests would justify the price hikes if they knew why they were paying more. According to a survey by the National Restaurant Association, 64 percent of adults said they would pay more for food grown in an “environmentally friendly way.†

“Buying local and organic, in the short term, might cost more, but the savings on the other hand–human health and the environment–are immeasurable,†says Tracy Singleton of the Birchwood Café.

Singleton supports area farmers through buying fresh, locally grown organic produce and grains. Her to-go packaging is recyclable, she offers a coffee discount to those who bring in their own travel mugs, and she’s currently in the process of moving toward zero waste through an organic food-composting program. The restaurant is–as one reviewer stated–“looking out for humanity’s health.â€

The Birchwood menu reflects “good real food†grown in season, harvested at the peak of ripeness and flavor, without pesticides or chemicals. Food grown by local farm families not only tastes better, it encourages a connection with nature and the environment. It helps reduce the waste, energy, and materials needed to ship foods. It’s better for the soil, better for the consumer, better for the farmer, and better for the local economy.

Singleton comments, “Hopefully, as people become aware of the importance of supporting local food systems, they’ll be more conscientious about where they choose to dine out. Supporting local restaurants keeps more money in the local economy, it’s a full circle thing.â€

Whether restaurants are part of a chain or independently owned, restaurant owners can’t afford not to implement green programs. According to the Green Restaurant Association, a nonprofit environmental consulting group trying to make the restaurant industry more sustainable, there are nearly 1 million restaurants coast-to-coast, with each one generating 50,000 pounds of waste, and using an average of 300,000 gallons of water every year. Restaurants have a mighty big impact on our environment.

 “It isn’t enough to take advantage of the trendiness of buying local, or ‘greenwashing’ your menu by adding a few token local items,†Singleton says. “It’s a mindset and a preference you have to back up with your buying habits, even in the face of a slow economy, rising food prices, and other restaurant closings.†

Running a socially and environmentally responsible restaurant is simply the right thing to do, Singleton says. The environment isn’t going to “save itself.†Everyone needs to step up. “We all have to do our part to be the change we want to see for our future.â€