In Brooklyn, New York, Rhodora Wine Bar evokes a neighborhood watering hole transported from Europe. Details like distressed wood, mismatched chairs and marble tables honed matte with wear suggest the passage of time. A pared-down menu of tapas and natural wines is framed by second-hand furnishings, while upcycled tiles that adorn the bar suggest an ethos of resourcefulness.
However, resourcefulness manifests itself through more than décor and dining: Rhodora is a zero-waste establishment.
Zero waste is a small but critical movement growing within the hospitality industry. Forward-thinking wine bar and restaurant owners are hoping to transform, if not eliminate, the unsustainable waste produced by bars and restaurants. It’s a philosophy that advocates the redesign of resource life cycles for reuse, one that mirrors nature.
The theory? Send nothing to a landfill.
The statistics are staggering. A 2018 report from ReFED, a nonprofit organization that targets food waste, found that U.S. restaurants generate 11.4 million tons of organic trash each year, at a cost of more than $25 billion.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), food waste and packaging account for nearly 45% of trash sent to U.S. landfills. The agency also estimates that among food-service providers, from 4–10% of the food they purchase lands in the garbage, rather than on customer plates.
Henry Rich and Halley Chambers, owner and deputy director of Rhodora, respectively, were inspired by the work of Chef Douglas McMaster and his zero-waste “pre-industrial food system” restaurant Silo in London. Both share concern for the volume of plastic floating in oceans and how food waste contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.
“At a certain point, it felt irresponsible continue with business as usual and not take a radical stand,” says Rich.
Consumers are starting to take notice. In a survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association, around half of respondents claim a restaurant’s recycling and food waste program factors into dining choices. However, whether the larger dining public factor these initiatives into their purchasing decisions is another question entirely.
Camilla Marcus wants to tap into that concern. As Manhattan’s first zero-waste establishment, West Bourne runs on the triple bottom-line principle of “people, planet, profit.” To Marcus, sustainability objectives do not conflict with running a successful business.
An all-day restaurant and wine bar in the SoHo neighborhood, West Bourne partners with the Robin Hood Foundation to donate 1% of every purchase to The Door, a nonprofit that supports local hospitality training for youth. West Bourne hires most of its team through the organization.
Marcus, a native of Los Angeles, created a menu and wine list in homage to Californian cuisine. Many of the wines she sources are natural and/or sustainable options from the West Coast, and she ensures bottles are recycled. During the planning phase, Marcus consulted with FoodPrint, experts in waste hauling, to find a vendor who recycles and composts properly.
As many Americans now know, not all recycling, whether glass or cardboard, is processed appropriately. Wild Olive, an Italian restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, prefers compostable packaging that the staff can handle themselves, in line with the restaurant’s ethos of “farm to table…table to farm.”
Wild Olive became South Carolina’s first Certified Green Restaurant in South Carolina in 2013. The Chef, Jacques Larson, with Owner Doug Godley and General Manager Jason Parrish, find local sources for the bulk of their products. The restaurant recycles or composts 85% of its waste, more than 1,000 pounds a week.
However, challenges to reaching 100% remain.
“Zero waste is difficult because of the necessity of plastic wrap,” says Parrish. “As much as we despise it, there is nothing else that seals as well and is as cost effective.”
Every year, Parrish invites Christina Moskos, Charleston County’s recycling coordinator, to speak to his staff on the how and why of composting and recycling.
“It’s amazing how little actual trash a restaurant can produce if everyone is focused on this goal,” says Parrish.
To run a low or zero-waste business poses challenges beyond just recycling, reuse and composting. Sometimes, it’s the little things, like plastic tape.
Rich and Chambers asked a vendor to switch from plastic tape to paper, a change the vendor made for all its accounts. Others who wouldn’t conform to Rhodora’s packaging guidelines were dropped. A baker that delivered in plastic was replaced by one that biked bread to the wine bar in linen bags.
At West Bourne, Marcus believes her success depends on working with vendors aligned in ethos. She sources beans from Counter Culture Coffee, which operates with sustainable practices and publishes transparency reports. West Bourne’s largest supplier, Baldor Foods, began steps toward zero waste output in 2016.
There’s no single legal definition or regulation for “zero-waste.” However, certification groups have begun to pop up to provide guidance and support.
After two years of effort, including 12 months of compiling waste-tracking data, West Bourne became a TRUE Zero Waste Silver-certified business.
“You have to demonstrate that 90% of what you throw out is diverted away from landfills,” says Marcus. “If you miss this goal for a month, you start again.”
Dispatch, opened recently in St. Catharines in the Niagara region of Canada, is a recent entrant to the movement. Chef/Co-owner Adam Hynam-Smith took inspiration from Silo, as well as Matt Orlando’s Amass in Copenhagen.
“I started to question the sustainability of the industry and my own cooking techniques,” says Hynam-Smith.
Served alongside a thoughtful selection of regional Canadian wines, Dispatch’s menu riffs on North African and Middle Eastern mezze. Rather than simply compost scraps, the kitchen flexes its creative muscle to upcycle byproducts. Stale bread becomes a base for miso. Dehydrated onion scraps become powder for dusting dishes. Food trimmings are used to flavor shrubs, or drinking vinegar, with flavor for sodas and cocktails.
Hynam-Smith says he estimates Dispatch recycles around 90% of its waste.
For many customers, education is required to support these new models.
“We need guests to learn that less is more when it comes to eating,” says Hynam-Smith. “The Western world overindulges…too much food is being served and tossed in a bin.”
Rhodora’s Rich and Chambers hold monthly meetups covering topics like urban farming and sustainability at home.
“It is not lost on us that we are just one small bar in Brooklyn,” says Chambers. “We must build strong partnerships, collaborations and engagement with our community and with similarly mission-driven businesses in order to create the global movement that we are manifesting.”