Restaurants generate mountains of garbage. No surprise, right? Produce that goes bad before it can be used, napkins and other paper products overflowing waste bins, and perfectly good food that goes back to the kitchen, uneaten, and inevitably tossed. No doubt about it, restaurants are faced with managing a lot of waste.
We asked chefs and owners at several local restaurants how they minimize the waste they create and manage whatever waste they have, responsibly and sustainably.
Daisies: Don’t Trash That Produce… Ferment It!
Daisies in Logan Square is well-regarded for its veg-forward menu. There are some tasty meat-centered dishes, but the vegetables are superb, many coming from a farmer in Prairie View, Illinois, who also happens to be the brother of Joe Frillman, Daisies chef/owner. Frillman tells us he’s come up with an ingenious way to turn excess produce into delicious beverages.
“Daisies’ robust no-waste and fermentation programs are made possible by the HACCP license we secured through the city of Chicago,” says Frillman “The designation permits chefs to take on bumper crops — produce that’s yielded an unusually productive harvest — and unsold ingredients from trusted purveyors for use in our fermentation and preservation programs. We offer house-made sodas created using whey left over from making ricotta; and we make lacto-fermented kombucha from Klug Farms raspberries that would have been lost but, instead, were frozen for later use.
“We bought 200 gallons of apple cider at a discount from Klug Farm where the apples were too warm when they were pressed, so they started fermenting. Daisies turned this fermented apple cider into a sipping vinegar that’s currently on the menu; it’s called the Cider Press, and it’s made from apple cider vinegar, soda, and orange peel.”
Formento’s: Place Fewer Orders
In the now uber-hip Randolph Street restaurant zone, Formento’s serves some of the best Italian food we’ve had in Chicago (and this is an Italian-American talking over here!). Pastry Chef Sarah Howlett is “the sustainability expert at Formento’s,” and she has found that simply taking the time to order smart can be a huge advantage to those trying to reduce waste.
“I try to minimize the number of times I place orders in a week,” says Howlett. “I can compare the amount of product we sell to the amount of batches we make (for example, we can get 16 chocolate cakes out of one batch of chocolate cake batter) and I know that in a batch of chocolate cake we use roughly half a bag of cocoa powder. Adding in the other items on our menu that use cocoa powder, I can calculate how much I’m going to need as a baseline. Long story short, on our big order day I will have 95% of my weekly orders accounted for and may only have to order for pop ups or surprises. By limiting my ordering to once or twice a week, this cuts down on the numbers of miles my food has to travel, the amount of gas used by trucks to come to the restaurant, etc. It also cuts down on the number of cardboard boxes left behind that the product was carried in on (we do our best to recycle these, but none is still better than one).”
Good Eats Group: Pick Biodegradable Packaging
Good Eats Group is the Chicago-based team behind Sociale, Burger Bar, and Café Press in Chicago; Sono Wood Fired in Columbus, Ohio; and two virtual concepts, Sono Wood Fired and CHARRED Wing Bar.
Chef Martin Murch, co-owner of Good Eats Group, is doing his part to reduce waste responsibly and sustainably by choosing biodegradable packaging that has a minimal impact on the environment, telling us: “Customers demand more eco-friendly packaging for carryout and delivery. Just as importantly, we as a company wanted to be the best citizens of the earth that we could be. So, we decided to make the investment in 100% eco-friendly, compostable, oceanic-friendly packaging for all our Good Eats Group restaurants.
“We also increased the quality and structure of the plastic packaging. For example, we use biodegradable plastic packaging with compartments and small containers for sauces so that the dish you order and prepare at home is as close as possible in presentation to how you would get it at the restaurant. We find containers (all eco-friendly) that fit the product or dish. Our goal is to maintain the handcrafted authenticity of our cuisine all the way to the guest’s home. We’re always evolving based on our customers’ needs, and we’re even exploring right now a new biodegradable plastic package that can withstand longer microwave times for our holiday meal kits and other carryout offers that are meant to be picked up and reheated later. We’re always looking for the latest technology with the lowest environmental impact.”
Galit: Source the Right Products from the Right People
Galit in Lincoln Park is perhaps Chicago’s premier Middle Eastern restaurant, owned and operated by Andres Clavero and Zachary Engel, a James Beard Award-winning chef. The menu leans heavily toward seasonal and local meat and produce.
“During the pandemic,” says Engle, “we switched to almost exclusively compostable takeout containers or recyclable bags. We always used compostable spoons and straws, but now our utensils are made by The Sustainable Agave Company. They take agave pulp [created, for instance, during the production of tequila and mezcal], and they turn it into disposable utensils and straws. It’s more expensive than paper, or the regular white plastic spoons and forks from Solo or wherever, but it’s around the same price as are a lot of the other compostable products, which we’re already using. So, it’s not like we are spending too much more.
“One of the things that people don’t really think about is the sustainability of the cuts of meat they buy. Farmers often need to sell certain cuts of meat that don’t move, so they have to grind it up and charge less per pound. We work with our farmers to create menu items that use cuts of meat that the farmer has not sold. So, I have these conversations with farmers like Louis John at Slagel Family Farm. I’ll say, ‘Louis John, what do you need to move right now?’ He’ll be like, ‘Well, I need to move brisket.’ So, I’ll buy them and use them on my menu. We have two dishes on the menu right now that use brisket: a pastrami and a brisket hummus. It all that works out for the farmer and for us.”
Bloom Plant Based Kitchen: One Answer Is a Biodigester
Bloom Plant Based Kitchen is Chicago’s vegetarian/vegan restaurant; their website explains, “Not only is eating a more plant-based diet healthier and more forgiving to one’s body, but it’s also significantly better for the environment.”
Chef Rodolfo Cuadros tells us “Diners reduce their own carbon footprints with every plant-based meal they eat. We’ve also just installed an ORCA Biodigester that allows us to turn any food waste into an environmentally safe liquid that goes down the drain and is disposed of using the existing sewer infrastructures of Chicago. It’s rare for an independent operation to have such a thing.
“For us, it all falls in line with our mission and our reason for being. We’ve always had the core belief of being as good as possible to oneself and to the earth. I opened Bloom because of that desire. Our installation of the biodigester speaks to that. We’re one of the only independent restaurants in Chicago to have such a system on site, which just adds to our goal of complete sustainability. We wouldn’t be meeting our mission if we didn’t take these extra steps.”
Robert et Fils: Making Fermentation Work with French Cuisine
Rob Shaner of Robert et Fils, like Joe Frillman of Daisies, is “heavy” into fermentation, and though French food is not a natural match for the sometimes aggressive flavors of many fermented products, Shaner is finding a way to make it work.
“Typically, aside from wine and cheese (though those are major to French cuisine), there are not a lot of fermented products in French food. Our motivation for the fermentation is to use vegetables that may be headed past their prime or are not usable, but that will work within the context of French cooking. For instance, we trim the bases off the asparagus, we peel them and then it all gets fermented. With white asparagus, I make a sauce out of all the ferments and use that to finish some crudo. Fermentation adds so much complexity. When a first-time cook gets to experience that process of fermentation, it’s always exciting for me because they see that fermentation adds so much flavor. And nutritionally, the probiotics in the ferments aid in digestion.”
Hannah’s Bretzel: It Goes Beyond Just Business
Hannah’s Bretzel, the über sandwich maker, has the tagline, “start with quality ingredients and follow with a conscience.” From their five locations in Chicago, Hannah’s Bretzel serves wonderful and inventive sandwiches, and they seem to care as much about being responsible citizens as they do about making us happy with their casual, two-fisted culinary creations.
Florian Pfahler, CEO of Hannah’s Bretzel, tells us that: “We back off house compost and separate it out for recycling. We invest in electric solar and wind electricity. We’re very advanced when it comes to sustainability, but I don’t approach it from a business sense. We need to change the way we live, and we need to change the way we go about things. Global warming is a big thing, and we need to be smarter about our resources. It’s a serious issue and we can’t *not* care. People need to wake up, and as individuals, take responsibility for helping the environment. It’s good for our brand, but it’s also good for the community.”
Edzo’s Burger Shop: Customers Like You to Do Good
Edzo’s Burger Shop, a Best of 2022 winner, has been the place kids drop by after school and that families come to for a quick and high-value dinner of all-American hamburgers and fries. It’s a community gathering place, and the community is critically important to chef/owner Eddie Lakin.
For Lakin, good waste management is good business.
“It’s part of being a responsible member of a community…a good corporate citizen,” Lakin says. “This is something that doesn’t have an immediate financial return but is probably more important financially than all the advertising you can pay for. More and more customers consider these intangibles about companies before patronizing them. More and more customers care about waste management and other issues, and they’re increasingly connecting and mobilizing their efforts online to tap into their collective power. In our current political world of bottomless corporate donations and elections where we choose the less bad of two uninspiring options, consumer buying power is probably the single most influential source of power that we can draw from to impact/change our society.
“I have also been using an app-based service called Too Good To Go, which crowdsources a network of ‘waste warriors’ that purchase and eat any food we would’ve otherwise tossed into the trash at the end of the day.”
What You Can Do: Too Good to Go
The app Too Good to Go is designed to connect restaurants with surplus food and customers who want restaurant food at radically reduced prices. Working through an app on your mobile phone, Too Good to Go helps reduce food waste worldwide. Founded in Denmark in 2015, the Too Good to Go app has now reached almost 58 million users who order food from 154,000 establishments.
Here’s how it works: the Too Good to Go user launches the app on his or her mobile device to see what nearby restaurants and other food outlets are offering, which could be pizzas, baked goods, and whole meals. There’s usually a 30-minute window when the products will be available, but here’s a quirky consideration: you go to the restaurant, finalize the transaction on your mobile phone, and receive a “magic box” that contains surplus food at a very discounted price… but you don’t know what it will be until you open the surprise package. It’s kind of fun, and it helps reduce the amount of food that goes into the garbage while generating additional revenue.
Too Good to Go is a good way for restaurants and consumers to work together to get what they need in a way that minimizes what goes into the landfill.
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David Hammond is Dining and Drinking Editor at Newcity and contributes to the Chicago Tribune and other publications. In 2004, he co-founded LTHForum.com, the 15,000 member food chat site; for several years he wrote weekly “Food Detective” columns in the Chicago Sun-Times; he writes weekly food columns for Wednesday Journal. He has written extensively about the culinary traditions of Mexico and Southeast Asia and contributed several chapters to “Street Food Around the World.”
David is a supporter of S.A.C.R.E.D., Saving Agave for Culture, Recreation, Education and Development, an organization founded by Chicagoan Lou Bank and dedicated to increasing awareness of agave distillates and ensuring that the benefits of that awareness flow to the villages of Oaxaca, Mexico. Currently, S.A.C.R.E.D is funding the development of agave farms, a library and water preservation systems for the community of Santa Catarina Minas, Oaxaca.