The #strawban has gone national. Some states have banned single-use plastic bags. Your coffee shop may even offer discounts when you bring a reusable mug. But how do we, as diners, make eco-friendlier choices when we eat out? And what can we realistically expect from leaders in the field? I sat down with three entrepreneurs in New York City to learn how they’ve built sustainability into their business plans, where local infrastructure has helped (or hurt), and what diners should know about where they can make an impact.
The first entrepreneur was Chloe Vichot, founder of Ancolie, a West Village shop serving predominantly plant-based fare in reusable glass containers. When it comes to eco-friendly eateries, Ancolie’s concept falls on the furthest end of the spectrum, eliminating all disposable food packaging. “We opened right when Trump got elected,” Vichot laughs. “I was thinking, ‘This is the worst timing ever.’ But it was a blessing in disguise, because people realized if he wasn’t going to do anything, we all had to act individually.”
At Ancolie, your iced coffee comes in a jar. Your hard-boiled eggs come in a jar. Your salad, in a jar. The food prices are—surprisingly—more reasonable than other takeout options in the neighborhood, but guests pay a $2 deposit to cover those glass containers. If they return them, they receive a full refund—or $2 toward their next purchase. “The first year we charged $1 for the jar deposit and got a twenty-seven percent return rate. When we shifted to $2, we saw a forty percent return,” Vichot tells me. “Part of it is education, and part of it is providing an incentive.”
That strategy of low-priced—but on-trend—food is strategic. “Most of the time, people are first interested in finding something healthy and delicious,” Vichot notes. “We want people to see the price and think this is the best option, whether or not it’s served in glass. And when they have a good experience, they start participating and bringing the jars back.”
Presently, Ancolie’s jars are only available at their West Village flagship and a single vending machine in WeWork’s SoHo location (which also allows diners to return their jars). But this summer, New Yorkers will start to see more vending machines pop up in downtown transit hubs or Midtown office spaces. “Unfortunately most people are not willing to inconvenience themselves to do something good for the environment,” Vichot says. “So it needs to be relatively convenient to get people to change their habits.”
At Ovenly’s flagship in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, co-founder Erin Patinkin is also trying to shift daily habits. Typical behavior at her shop involves a customer ordering a baked good “to-go,” only to see the bag it’s served in thrown out on-site. “We’re simply starting to ask, ‘Do you want this cookie with [or without] the waxed paper bag?’” Patinkin explains. Shifting away from the standard “to stay or to-go?” seems negligible, but it can make a big impact.
During Earth Month, Patinkin has asked the staff at each of Ovenly’s four locations to choose their own sustainability goal. “Our Greenpoint team wanted to use 150 less baked good bags this month,” Patinkin shares. “Three days in, and they already surpassed that goal.” Customers are invited to join their efforts, receiving discounts for bringing in a reusable tote, tupperware container, or cup.
Yet Ovenly has never relied purely on customer engagement to green their company. Since opening in 2012, sustainability has been a core part of the business plan. “When you run a bakery or coffee shop, there are some realities you can’t get around—like the fact that chocolate, coffee and vanilla don’t grow in the United States,” says Patinkin. “There are better and worse options, but rarely a perfect choice.”
To help make those hard choices, Patinkin has worked with numerous supply chain experts over the course of Ovenly’s growth, learning that using organic pistachios from the Middle East is better for the environment—despite the geographic distance—than using industrially produced nuts from California. She’s had to evaluate the question of sugar, debating between beet sugar (which is GMO) and cane sugar (which uses more land). And then there’s the question of compostable or recyclable to-go cups. “In the end, our customers were throwing compostable cups in the recycling bin, so it ended up being greener to stick with firm recyclable plastic—especially as [compostable] bioplastics require more water to produce,” Patinkin explains.
When she initially began composting at Ovenly, Patinkin also caught her expensive commercial carrier throwing carefully sorted food waste in dumpster-bound trucks. “When we went through a formal supply chain evaluation, we learned we could reduce our landfill waste by sixty percent if we trained our staff properly,” she says “But that only works if you can find a reliable partner—like we [finally] have, in Avid Waste.”
Restaurateur Camilla Marcus of west~bourne in SoHo agrees. “It’s ridiculous that New York City, being a thought leader globally, does not have recycling and composting on the city level,” she says. “We initially wanted to offer composting for our whole neighborhood, but it’s by weight and already expensive. As a small business, we can’t afford to provide that.” Marcus and Patinkin both noted NYC’s seemingly inexistent regulation of independent waste carriers as a continual battle—bordering on consumer fraud.
As the proprietor of the city’s first zero-waste restaurant, Marcus is deeply invested in shifting the expectations and habits of her customers. Boasting recycled denim napkins, metal cutlery, and ceramic plates, the only disposables diners will find at west~bourne are compostable straws and to-go boxes. “There are fine dining restaurants with James Beard awards that still use paper napkins, but our team doesn’t know a world without compost,” she says.
Having previously worked for some of the city’s leading restaurant groups and real estate investment firms—Union Square Hospitality Group, among them—Marcus has intimate experience with balancing priorities in the low-margin restaurant industry. She tells me, “Many years ago, I was leading value engineering for someone else’s budget, and they proposed a chemical dishwasher. It was a moment of, ‘Over my dead body!’ That would be so hazardous to the staff and the customers. It’s the opposite of the care we bring to sourcing and preparing quality ingredients.”
Speaking of ingredients, Marcus notes that fostering partnerships with farmers and distributors is crucial. “TJ Murphy, the CEO of Baldor Specialty Foods, lives in the neighborhood. I met with him and explained our concept—that we will live and die by what product we can get, especially as a vegetable-forward restaurant,” she says. “He’s proven to be an incredible partner, and has even brought on suppliers that we’ve wanted to work with, but who needed distribution.”
Business owners who don’t have Murphy on speed dial can still take a page out of Marcus’ playbook. “Guests no longer want you to shave down a potato and cut it into perfect cubes. There’s a swing away from pristine, tweezer fine dining, and that opens a lot of possibilities when it comes to avoiding food waste,” she says. west~bourne’s team has taken that challenge to heart, brainstorming ways to use leftover bits of vegetables in soups or jams, for example.
Still, there’s only so much you can communicate to a customer in a ten-second interaction. Asked what she wishes her customers—and fellow business owners—knew about sustainability, Marcus answers, “Most headlines are red herrings. Rather than focusing on straws, we need to educate consumers about policies that prevent us from properly disposing of food waste recyclables.” She also notes that we can’t regulate business practices without offering real alternatives: “You can’t tell people to switch to compostable strawless tops if there is currently no large-scale producer for them.”
Asked the same question, Vichot pivots from plastic, noting that consumers have no idea how landfills really work. “If you put regular food scraps in a landfill, it’s terrible for the environment. A single head of lettuce takes twenty-five years to decompose and creates methane gas worse than our cars.” She supports the development and enforcement of composting for all local businesses, as well as a better network of resources for those who compost at home.
Considering how to motivate customers to support eco-friendly businesses, Patinkin notes the interest is already there. She recently surveyed Ovenly customers about their awareness of the company’s mission, distinguishing factors in the market, and sustainability goals. Very few were aware of Ovenly’s “radical responsibility” initiatives, but one hundred percent of respondents said they were willing to pay more for Patinkin’s products, knowing what they know now. “We’ve been quiet [about sustainability], because we don’t want to be seen as ‘doing good for the world,’” Patinkin explains. “To me, this is the baseline of how you run a business. I don’t feel the need to make an economic argument. But if you look at the data, it’s all there.”