Eating Green: Philly's favorite restaurants go the extra mile to be local and sustainable

It seems that in recent years,  no other setting is as apt for a discussion on sustainability than the dinner table. A conversation about the steak on a plate becomes one about industrial cattle production and greenhouse gas emissions. The roasted potatoes spawn a debate on pesticide use or the implications of monoculture. Sautéed spinach seems suspicious in light of food safety concerns, and the iced tea might remind us of the rights of workers on sugar plantations.

The plate has become political, and many have adjusted their habits to reflect that. Eaters everywhere are growing their own in community gardens, subscribing to CSAs, supporting farmers markets, and eating less meat or different meat — or no meat altogether.

But even the sustainably–minded consumer can sometimes forget (or forgo) these principles when dining out. The food-service industry is less agile than the individual consumer, and greening a restaurant is an investment, a process, and a moving target requiring evaluation and updates as technologies and sources improve.

Nonetheless, eco-conscious entrepreneurs are incorporating sustainable business practices into the work of serving food, be it a cup of coffee, a brick-oven pizza or some of the most elegant meals in Philadelphia.

Environmental Entrées

Judy Wicks may be the founding mother of Philadelphia’s sustainable restaurant community, but she and the kitchen of the White Dog Café have inspired countless other entrepreneurs who build upon her legacy.

There was a time in Philadelphia where a restaurant was considered sustainable — and remarkably so — just by avoiding food from conventional distributors. Instead it may have bought from Glenn Brendle’s Green Meadow Farm, Paul Tzakos’ Overbrook Herb Farm, Mark and Judy Dornstreich’s legendary Branch Creek tomatoes or Chester County pasture-raised Angus beef from Bill Elkins.

Angie Vendetti, owner of Mugshots Coffeehouse in FairmountAngie Vendetti, owner of Mugshots Coffeehouse in Fairmount, recalls a decade ago “When we first got our order from Green Meadow I had no idea I was getting a whole, raw turkey … I was like, ‘What do I do with this?!” She figured out how to cook the turkey, occasionally wheeling it down the street to another restaurant when the bird was too big for Mugshots’ oven.

Since then, local food sourcing has become simpler, even compulsory. Ellen Yin, who owns Fork in Old City, asserts, “You can’t be in this level of restaurant and not … At one point I just took all the farms off the menu … it should be assumed that you’re using local ingredients.” But Yin is clear that finding local food has become easier.

Sheri and Kip Waide, owners of Southwark in Bella Vista, agree. “We had to use many more different purveyors to get the core for everything on menus, especially for produce," says Sheri, referring to 2004, when Southwark opened. "Now …  it’s a lot easier for restaurants to find farms  … Common Market, Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, Zone 7 … you can almost do away with other suppliers.” Nick Macri, head chef at Southwark now that Sheri is spending more time growing food on their Cape May homestead, is able to source almost everything locally, except for specialty vinegars, olives and some dry goods.

In addition to sourcing from local producers and purveyors, some restaurants, including Southwark, Supper and the Jose Garces empire, are actually growing some of their own food as well. Be it herbs on a patio, beehives on a rooftop or vegetables on a farm off-site, growing some portion of a restaurant’s food shortens supply chains and creates opportunities for collaboration. Southwark’s neighboring restaurants, Bistrot La Minette and Little Fish, are the first ones they call when they have too much of something from their field.

While local sourcing has become deeply ingrained in the Philadelphia food community, some restaurateurs approach sustainable eating from a different angle. The plant-based menus of vegan restaurants Vedge, HipCityVeg and Blackbird Pizzeria commit to sustainability by feeding guests lower on the food chain, aware that the carbon footprint of a cow looms far larger than that of a cabbage.

Beyond the Plate

Though food sourcing is perhaps the sexiest side of sustainability, it’s by no means the end of the story. What goes on behind the scenes has a major impact on a restaurant’s overall footprint.

Restaurants use a tremendous amount of water, and reducing that usage is an important part of a sustainable operation. Fork recently converted 60 tabletops to wood, doing away with tablecloths in a move that not only looks modern, but also conserves water (and saves the restaurant money) by eliminating a huge amount of laundry. Vedge saves water with dual-flushing toilets in the customer bathrooms and Kennett boasts 1.1 gallon pressure-assist toilets, which owner Johnny Della Polla is convinced are the “most efficient” available.

Other utilities are also important parts of the equation, and many restaurants are purchasing clean energy. Mugshots, however, has taken it one step further, running its furnace, water heater and even its EnergyStar–approved electric convection oven all on wind power from Clean Currents.

Reducing unnecessary production of new items reduces resource consumption and also diverts waste from the landfill.

Instead of the polyester or poly cotton blend restaurant linens, Wash Cycle Laundry helped Kennett invest in cloth napkins made from recycled bottles.

Earth Bread + Brewery in Mt. Airy and Kennett in Pennsport invoke that same ideal in the green design and construction of their buildings. At Earth Bread, each bathroom stall is fashioned from old doors, and when Kennett refurbished their chairs, they stuffed cushions with shredded blue jeans. Everything else in both restaurants, seating in church pews, tables, walls, flooring of repurposed wood, paints, polishes and finishes — is as green as possible. Even the bricks that built Kennett’s pizza oven came from taking down a wall in the space. Della Polla, who named Kennett after the owner of the property in 1924, likes to joke: “We reused everything, even the name.”

The effort to reduce consumption, waste and Exterior of Fork restaurant in Old Citypollution can manifest itself in almost every facet of restaurant operations. Washing glasses for cocktails, water, wine and beer is necessary for every bar and restaurant in our craft-beer-crazy city, but Fork opts out of the harsh chemicals used in most commercial dishwashers. Instead, they use a machine that sanitizes glasses, plates and other dishes using 180-degree water. Facing the same issues, Peggy Zwerver of Earth Bread + Brewery collaborated with Norristown-based Sun & Earth soap company to develop a non-toxic alternative to industry-standard bar soap. Casual restaurants HipCityVeg and Breezy’s Café skip fossil fuel in favor of human-powered bike delivery. Kennett reduced their use of solvents with a steam floor cleaner, and though pest control services are required by law for restaurants, Kennett works with Westin Pest to make sure that it is chemical-free. That means traps instead of sprays and bait instead of poison. According to Della Polla, “the guy will actually come in with a jar of peanut butter.”

While the delicious food at all of these restaurants induces most diners to clean their plates, food waste remains another unavoidable fact of restaurant life. Bennett Compost picks up food scraps from the vast majority of green-leaning restaurants in Philadelphia (Philly Compost services Earth Bread + Brewery), and with good reason: diverting food waste from prep and from diners’ unfinished plates makes for less trash and fewer trash pick-ups, which can save any restaurant money. But a few restaurants have thought through waste-reduction even further. Breezy’s Café doesn’t hand out straws or condiments until a customer requests them. Kennett sends out to-go orders of pizza in compostable boxes (sourced through a local company called Save Some Green) and encourages customers to bring the boxes back to be composted. Kennett doesn’t sell bottled water, but gives away filtered water for free. And even fancy dining establishments are replacing paper towels with efficient hand dryers in bathrooms.

Restaurants and bars also go through a huge number of glass bottles, which even when recycled still amount to a huge volume of single-use waste. Earth Bread + Brewery is reducing that waste by purchasing wine in kegs from Karamoor, a local winery, and serving it on draft. As a bonus, the pressurized keg also keeps the wine better than an open bottle would.

While all of these restaurants are working to find ways to make their operations more sustainable, not all are coming to the same conclusions. After considerable research, Mugshots is no longer using compostable cups. Recognizing that most customers would be unable to actually compost the cups (home compost bins won't accumulate enough heat to break them down), they’re switching back to recyclable plastic for their cold beverages and coated paper cups for their hot ones. They are however, working with the supplier of their cups, Lansdowne-based Union Packaging, to develop a way to recycle used cups into materials like floor or ceiling tiles. Mugshots also offers a discount to anyone who orders a beverage in a travel mug.

The Gray Area in Eating Green

It is tempting to label restaurants as green or not in a black and white way, but restaurateurs aiming to operate green eateries end up in a gray area. They must consider myriad factors while striving to balance the expense of implementing sustainable practices with profitability in an industry in which it is famously challenging to succeed.

Ellen Yin has 16 successful years behind her as the owner of Fork. Even so, she acknowledges, “this business is so hard. The margin is so small, and the risk so high.” Countless restaurants come and go, struggling to be successful at all, much less profitable on three seemingly disparate bottom lines.

Vendetti illustrates the balancing act of the green entrepreneur with the example of take-out spoons. “A box of [biodegradable] spoons is 36 dollars, [whereas] a box of plastic spoons is seven dollars,” and no matter which you choose, customers are likely to use the same quantity.

Exterior of Kennett Restaurant in PennsportThis extra expense of sustainability coupled with its increasing popularity as an issue means that in the restaurant industry greenwashing is rampant. Della Polla is proud of his thorough approach to sustainability at Kennett, where it informs “everything we [do] … from the first nail we hammered to the soap in our dishwasher.” But it’s frustrating to see competing businesses claiming greenness without doing the research and the time-consuming and sometimes costly work of implementation. “I have to charge a little more for a burger or a pizza … because I buy organic flour and local beef,” he says. And customers, comparing his prices to a similar restaurant that sources ingredients differently, don’t always understand or trust the reasons behind those extra few dollars.

Beyond the price, the expectation that the customer is always right still rules, and sometimes green restaurateurs bump up against the expectations of eaters who might not share their priorities. When Mugshots first started making sandwiches, Vendetti adhered to a seasonal menu that included no tomatoes unless it was tomato season. Customers balked — demanding tomato on their sandwiches — and she conceded. Now, the tomatoes are local when in season, but the rest of the year they’re coming from elsewhere.

Additionally, restaurateurs face structural obstacles to greening. In the city, where they are more likely to rent commercial property than buy, they’re often stuck with existing fixtures and equipment, and landlords who may not share their sustainable ambitions are often unwilling to share the cost of building improvements.

The city's infrastructure can also limit what an individual entrepreneur can do. “We’ve been here 16 years and we’ve had an electrical outage at least once a year,” says Yin. “… It’s possible that it’s because [the wiring] is old [and] overloaded.” She would love to install three-phase electricity at Fork. Each chandelier that lights the dining room glows from more than a dozen bulbs, and the update would conserve electricity and save the restaurant money, but “unless PECO comes in and says, ‘We want to conserve electric and we’re gonna partner with you,’” she will likely never be able to invest the  hundreds of thousands of dollars that the shift would require.

Setting a Table for Sustainability

In an attempt to quantitatively define and standardize green restaurant practices, the Boston-based Green Restaurant Association (GRA) has established a set of comprehensive standards that includes many of these categories. They also offer, for a fee, the opportunity for a food business to become green restaurant–certified in order to inspire consumer trust. Instead of attempting the black or white divide where a restaurant is either sustainable or not, they operate on a point system.     

“It’s much better to do something rather than nothing,” says Michael Oshman, who founded the Green Restaurant Association in 1990. “When I started it, we were doing everything … [now] we’re not going in there looking for organic chicken packaging … we’re reviewing purchasing invoices.” Instead of digging through dumpsters, the six-person team analyzes data. They aim to look past what a restaurant says it does — that line on the menu about “sourcing from local, sustainable farms whenever possible” — to actually examine its practices. “We know [that] they’re not recycling if they’re not paying a bill for recycling pick-up,” he adds. By actually purchasing things like sustainable linens, fixtures, equipment or food, a restaurant gains sustainability points, resulting in a system that recognizes progress while encouraging perfection. 

Though the certification has gained traction in restaurants elsewhere, including those belonging to the likes of Mario Batali and Rick Bayless, it hasn’t yet become the gold standard in Philadelphia. This may be because local businesses are perhaps more likely to have invested in becoming members of our own sustainability-focused organizations and certifying organizations: Fair Food, the Sustainable Business Network and the Wayne-based B Corp.

One support system a little closer to home is the Philagreen Hospitality Association, created by Francine Cohen in 2008  to support food entrepreneurs through implementation of sustainable practices. Cohen hosts speaker seminars for hospitality professionals, both in the local hotel and restaurant industries, to educate and inform about ways to increase sustainable restaurant practices.  “My two loves are the environment and food,” says Cohen. “… I knew there was a lot of waste in the hospitality industry, and I felt there was a need to educate.” She takes care to stress that there’s often a dual benefit in establishing sustainable restaurant practices in terms of both cost-savings and environmental benefit.

Della Polla supports that idea: “You can do it right, [and] it’s almost just as easy to do it the right way as to do it the wrong way … in another five years, it’ll probably be easier … that old concept of ‘this is how we’ve always done this’ has got to go away.” In a town that loves to eat as much as Phiadelphia, the work of these sustainably-minded restauranteurs indicates that we're already on our way. 

Story by Emily Teel | Photos by Albert Yee