Over the past two years, sustainability has taken a backseat at most restaurants. Navigating shutdowns, to-go business, supply chain gridlocks, and staffing shortages left operators with minimal bandwidth for anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary for survival. Plus, the somewhat loaded topic has long fallen in a gray zone between being an abstract value and a tangible practice, making it doubly tricky to address.
For some restaurants, sustainability means eliminating leftovers and food waste. For others, it’s about sourcing within a 30-mile radius. And for some yet, it’s an ongoing quest to become carbon-neutral.
Although COVID pushed environmental concerns out of the limelight for a while, it also recalibrated how businesses think about sustainability. They saw firsthand just how much single-use plastic and waste go into takeout orders. They also came to understand the fragility of lengthy supply chains. On the heels of the latest U.N. Climate Report, there’s also a renewed sense of urgency in the matter.
All these factors are spurring restaurants and their partners into action, whether it’s doubling down on pre-pandemic initiatives or creating new ones from the ground up.
The four restaurants that follow are each pursuing sustainability in a way that makes sense for their brands. Their respective stories illustrate just how much white space operators have in crafting a more eco-friendly path forward.
In the affluent Buckhead district of Atlanta, an old Blockbuster is finding new life as a wine bar/café. The building has been gutted and retrofitted, but the original structure remains.
And so too does a bit of the building’s history: One wall is entirely lined with old VHS tapes.
This personal touch is the calling card of the restaurant in question, Postino, a Phoenix-based concept under the umbrella group Upward Projects. The Buckhead location, slated to open in early summer, represents the brand’s easternmost outpost in its nearly 20-unit system. Each restaurant boasts a one-of-a-kind wall filled with paraphernalia. At one Phoenix store, it’s matches. In the Denver location, it’s books. And in a Houston unit, it’s old-fashioned keys.
“It’s a huge wall of these glittering keys. They’re all donated by our customers, and it creates an interesting thing to look at,” says Lauren Bailey, CEO and cofounder of Upward Projects. “Usually the art wall has something to do with the history of the building. The one in Denver was an old bookbinding building, so we did a wall of books.”
The quirky practice can be traced back to the first-ever Postino. The team wanted to decorate a wall with cassette tapes but didn’t have the time or money to hunt them down. So instead, they recruited customers to donate their own cassettes in exchange for a gift card, and thus a tradition was born.
Although no two walls are the same, the objects share a core theme.
“They’re often, for some reason, items that society is gearing away from in some way,” Bailey says. It’s in this space where Postino excels in an unconventional approach to sustainability. The three Rs of recycle, reuse, reduce are the most common edicts, but “repurpose” and “restore” are arguably just as valuable. For Postino, that means transmuting random (sometimes obsolete) objects into art and renovating buildings as needed.
With the exception of the dining tables and chairs, the brand rarely buys new furniture, opting instead to bring in second-hand pieces and castoffs. The light fixtures are all vintage, while its credenzas and shelves are lined with salvaged curios.
When opening new units, Postino seeks out existing spaces rather than new builds. Not only does this strategy offer inspiration for the art wall, it also keeps the chain from sliding into a cookie-cutter template.
Needless to say, it’s an involved process for Upward Projects and its partners on the ground.
“We lovingly torture our brokers in our real estate markets to find these buildings and then continue to torture ourselves with bringing them back,” Bailey says. As an example, she points to Postino’s Montrose location, which was once the largest gay bar in Houston. The building was in such poor condition that it couldn’t be sandblasted, which made for a slow, meticulous restoration.
“We’ve gotten really good at it. It is painful—I’m not going to lie—but the product of that and preserving these buildings across the country is something that we’re insanely passionate about,” Bailey says. “It pains me deeply to see these buildings being scraped. I’m all about growth—it’s a wonderful thing—but to have the gift of the restoration of these spaces is something that we’ve held really dear since the beginning.”
Other facets of sustainability have evolved over the years, sometimes in rather serendipitous ways. Back in the mid-2000s Postino was approached by Ray DelMuro, owner of Refresh Glass, a then-fledgling company that created glassware through recycled materials. He was interested in taking the restaurant’s old wine bottles off their hands. Even after Bailey clarified the sheer volume—some 900 bottles every week at each location—DelMuro was still game.
“At that time, there wasn’t—and still isn’t, really—a great commercial glass-recycling program in Phoenix,” Bailey says. “I was so excited because it was devastating to watch that many bottles go into the landfill every week.”
Once business took off for Refresh Glass, Postino started using the glassware at its six area locations, a tradition that continues today.
By Bailey’s own account, this was an organic step toward sustainability. When COVID hit, the restaurant, like so many others, was forced to hit the accelerator on multiple fronts, particularly carryout. At one point, she recalls seeing a location’s 20,000-square-foot basement completely packed with single-use to-go utensils and receptacles. Even that massive amount would only last the restaurant a short time, she says. Postino quickly adopted compostable and recyclable materials for its to-go boxes. By the end of 2020, it had customized them to read, “Good Food, Good Mood,” with the Postino logo underneath.
Upward Projects restaurants also tweaked their online ordering page so customers would have to select whether or not they wanted utensils. That small change had a big impact, Bailey says.
“I think [restaurants] try to do everything and that’s problematic because it can become overbearing, not only from a price standpoint but just implementation,” she says.
It’s also easy to become hung up on more common sustainability practices without thinking outside the box. On the surface, targeting old buildings and collecting cassette tapes might not seem like an eco-forward pursuit, but by eliminating the need to build new restaurants or buy new decor items, Postino is cutting down on waste. It’s still sustainability, Bailey contends, just a different shade of it.
“It wasn’t purposely about sustainability necessarily, but it is. It’s sustainability in a different way,” she says. “Of course, it’s important to preserve the environment, but it’s also important to preserve the very buildings and places that make these communities vibrant.”
The domino effect of COVID hit supply chains hard, to the point that recovery is still ongoing. The situation has led many operators to consider shortening the route from producer to restaurant.
Vintage Hospitality Group had a leg up on that front. The company, which will soon encompass three restaurants and an event space in Montgomery, Alabama, grew some of the produce for its original restaurant, Vintage Year, in an on-site garden. But the region’s scorching summers and unpredictable weather translated into a limited growing season and stunted output.
“Montgomery is kind of on an island. All of our produce and a lot of our deliveries and distributors come from Atlanta, Birmingham, even Tennessee,” says executive chef and vice president Eric Rivera. “But what we were finding was that the produce was not top quality once we got it.”
This prompted owner Jud Blount to visit the horticulture department at Auburn University, where he spoke with the department head, Desmond Layne. Blount wanted tips for the traditional garden, but Layne encouraged him to explore Freight Farms, an agriculture tech company that manufactures containers for hydroponics use. As it so happened, the electric utility, Alabama Power, was testing a unit just over half an hour from Montgomery and was interested in seeing how the farms would perform in a business setting.
The utility company convinced Freight Farms to relocate the container to the back of Vintage Year in 2019. The restaurant group later purchased a second container, and now the two sit stacked atop each other about 70 feet from the original restaurant. Although the operation is part of the umbrella hospitality group, it’s adopted its own name: MGM Greens.
“It went from a crazy idea to a no-brainer after we saw how much produce these shipping containers could produce and the variety of things that we’re able to grow in them,” Rivera says. “It really put a lot of control back in our hands, and we think that was one of the best parts about the whole thing.”
That control became even more crucial during the pandemic. When business slowed, Vintage Hospitality could adjust its crop accordingly rather than being locked into a distribution contract for a set quantity. The same is true in normal times; the group can ramp up production during busy seasons and tap the brakes for slower months.
This flexibility does still necessitate some advanced planning, especially when Rivera wants to flex his culinary muscles. “I wouldn’t even say it’s tricky, [but] if you want to do a menu change, you have 5–6 weeks of a growing season to get something out in production,” Rivera says.
So far, the Vintage team has grown a number of vegetables, greens, and herbs, including peppers, squash, zucchini, radishes, sorrel, swiss chard, kale, romaine, arugula, and basil. At present, about 65 percent of lettuces, 15–20 percent herbs, and nearly all the garnishes are grown in the Freight Farms. The hope is to get it closer to 80–90 percent of all produce.
Even though the containers aren’t yet at full capacity, Rivera and Blount already foresee a point when they’ll purchase another unit. The group opened Vintage Café in 2021, and this year it’s debuting Ravello, an Italian concept housed within its new event space, City Fed.
“Having one was great, [but] we knew we were going to have more restaurants, so we got the other model because we wanted to stay ahead of where our business needs were,” Rivera says. “These systems can grow with your business, which is really important.”
While Rivera and Blount say the return on investment for the Freight Farms is relatively quick, operating them does require an ongoing investment of time and energy. Vintage Hospitality even hired a local sous chef as farm manager.
“He’s in charge of scheduling and seeing what the chefs need and what menu changes might be coming up,” Blount says. “Some of our other chefs will go in and work with him.”
While Blount and Rivera stress the importance of having a dedicated manager for these systems, they add that the time commitment isn’t excessive—about 20 hours per week per container.
Container farming is still a novelty, but these urban gardens are starting to crop up in more places. In spring 2021, Auburn University acquired two Freight Farms of its own. MGM Greens also welcomes visitors, ranging from local gardening clubs and schools to businesses who are analyzing the operation as proof of concept. Even curious restaurant guests who spy the opaque containers out back will inquire about a tour.
“When you’re outside of the container and you look at it, you would have no idea that there’s a vertical hydroponic farm inside,” Blount says. “It’s blue and red LED lights and vertical farming, which most people have not seen. And when we first got it, it was literally like seeing something at Epcot.”
Though Vintage Hospitality might be quick to name the practical business reasons behind investing in urban container farms, the drive goes beyond profit margins and supply chain logistics. Chefs and others in the F&B space tend to be more attuned to environmental shifts since they source what goes on the plate. That’s why, from Rivera’s perspective, restaurants should champion environmentally beneficial practices.
“It’s definitely a chef’s responsibility to act in the best interests of the guests, and that’s not only with the quality of food but also the healthiness of the food we serve and ensuring we don’t cause any more additional supply chain issues,” Rivera says. “If there’s any way we can make a positive impact, [then] in the long run, it makes it easier on us as owner-operators and owner-chefs.”
Across the country, the Bay Area is home to arguably the most fervent consumer base when it comes to social and environmental responsibility. While guests to Vintage Hospitality’s restaurants or Postino are intrigued by their eco-friendly practices, patrons at Bombera in Oakland, California, downright demand it.
“This is not a crowd you can talk down to or sell lies to because they can see through it really fast,” says chef and proprietor Dominica Rice-Cisneros. “They always want to see people pushing the envelope, thinking of new ideas and how to fine-tune them. They’re never shy about writing a long email telling you what is working and what is not working. So that’s kind of great—consulting fee, not necessary—and it’s super helpful. For me, I love all that.”
Bombera, which opened in May 2021, was Rice-Cisnero’s second concept after her first restaurant, Cosecha, closed. Like its predecessor, Bombera draws from Mexican and California culinary traditions and operates in an environmentally conscious manner. Rice-Cisneros has standing orders with vendors at the local farmer’s market; she composts and recycles. She’s also on a perpetual mission to reduce the business’s landfill waste. It was a harder task at Cosecha, which was located in Oakland’s Swan Hall, where it shared bins with six other concepts. She’s proud to now report that Bombera, which is open for dinner four nights, only fills 60–90 gallons each week, about the same amount as a single household.
“We have our compost bins picked up twice a week. … The recycling comes up to around three bins per week, but the landfill throughout the whole year has still remained at once-a-week pickup,” Rice-Cisneros says. “So that has been really huge. We’re going to make it a smaller bin if we can.”
Although recycling has long enjoyed an eco halo, the practice has faced hurdles in recent years, spurred largely by China’s ban on the import of plastics and other materials (back in 2016, the country received 7 million tons from around the world, with an estimated 700,000 coming from the U.S.). The policy of outsourcing recyclables also came under fire; many wealthier nations send their waste to developing countries, where the process often exacts a financial and environmental toll.
Aware of the dark side of recycling, Rice-Cisneros was keen to explore alternatives, which led her to a partnership with Dispatch Goods.
Launched in the back half of 2019, the San Francisco–based startup provides restaurants and businesses with reusable containers while also managing the drop-off and pickup logistics. Originally conceived as a packaging service for the downtown lunch crowd, Dispatch Good targeted urban employers as its customer base. Then COVID hit, and most of its partners shut down their offices. The company hit reset and when it relaunched in August 2020, the focus had shifted to delivery and takeout to homes rather than offices.
The overhaul was a challenge at first, but not because consumers were skittish over using reusable containers at the height of the virus. If anything, they were eager to do so.
“I think the shift [to homes] was the largest obstacle. We thought it would be the perception of reuse, but consumers got over that really quickly. In fact, it seemed to be an increasingly larger pain point for customers because they saw how much waste they were creating at home,” says Lindsey Hoell, cofounder and CEO of Dispatch Goods.
While some restaurants, like Bombera, jumped at the chance to partner with Dispatch Goods, many didn’t have the bandwidth. “A lot of the ones that we have been talking to before, it was very clear that they were just trying to pivot their business to survive, and sustainability couldn’t be a top priority for them,” she adds.
But 2022 is showing consistent signs of improvement, and Hoell has noticed restaurants beginning to prioritize sustainability once again. Plus, supply chain gridlocks have only strengthened Dispatch Goods’ curb appeal. As operators struggle to source to-go containers, turning to a local purveyor simplifies the process. Not to mention, the products are easy on the eyes; Bombera’s Rice-Cisneros commends Dispatch Goods for putting such care into both aesthetics and utility.
Still, Hoell points out that it is Dispatch Goods’ infrastructure, rather than its containers, that sets it apart.
Restaurants and CPG brands needn’t use the company’s proprietary receptacles to work with it. What Dispatch Goods really offers businesses is a streamlined retrieval process. The burden isn’t on the restaurants to collect containers, nor is it on customers to return them. Instead, customers scan the QR code on the container to schedule a pickup from their homes, with Dispatch Goods servicing most Bay Area neighborhoods. The same goes for offices, too, as more employers welcome their staff back.
“The system we’ve been designing is a lot more universally applicable because what we learned is people are getting their food and then going to a bunch of different places,” Hoell says, adding that the process must be very clear and easy to ensure consumer buy-in. “It’s just about making that shift where reuse is the next thing that people need to be participating in.”
Like many disruptors in the sustainability space, Hoell’s drive to change the status quo is rooted in personal experience. An avid surfer, she would notice microplastics in the water while living in Hawaii. She joined a nonprofit that helped restaurants transition to more sustainable products (often compostable), but eventually wanted to do something that would have a greater impact.
“The more I investigated, the more I learned that reuse is kind of the gold standard,” she says.
When Hoell pursued her MBA, she met her future cofounder, Maia Tekle, and within six months, Dispatch Goods was underway.
Less than three years after launching, Dispatch Goods is already growing its Bay Area operations and has even opened a facility in Baltimore. Market indicators are also promising. Last December, Dispatch Goods announced it had raised $3.7 million in its latest investment round.
“Dispatch is moving more and more restaurants toward having reusable as the default option. It has streamlined operations for our restaurant partners,” Hoell says. “I am grateful that we don’t have to just make a sustainability case, that there’s a pretty strong business case for reuse. [It’s] mostly because of how activated consumers are right now to reduce their waste and make more sustainable choices.”
The core mission
Few major restaurant chains can claim to be founded on a sustainability platform, but in the case of Ted’s Montana Grill, that’s precisely how it came into being.
The first location opened its doors in Columbus, Ohio, in 2002. And while Ted’s had the obligatory beef, chicken, and pork dishes, there was no doubt as to the menu headliner: bison. Despite being native to North America, bison was a rarity in restaurants and grocery stores just a few decades ago.
Following near extinction in the late 19th century, conservation efforts have since brought numbers up to the hundreds of thousands. While some populations reside on federally protected land, the vast majority are livestock. And for conservationists like CNN founder, Ted Turner, eating bison might be the best way to save them.
“So here comes Ted Turner, the media mogul, who decides that bison belong on the Great American Plains and that he wants to be responsible for bringing bison back,” says Ted’s cofounder and CEO George McKerrow. He adds that Turner was also driven by a desire to prove that bison ranching could be a commercially viable business and to protect his own property, which spans multiple ranches and comprises some 45,000 bison.
“The answer became, quite obviously, that there had to be an economic engine behind it, and that economic engine was putting bison on America’s table,” McKerrow says. The hope was that by winning over guests at the restaurants, it would have a trickle-down effect on grocery store purchases.
Often considered a forefather of the casual-dining category, McKerrow was perhaps best known as the founder of LongHorn Steakhouse back when he and Turner teamed up two decades ago. At the time, he says, efforts to bring bison into the mainstream had failed.
“Like a lot of things, it sounded great on paper, but the consumer wasn’t ready to embrace bison. They didn’t know what it was; they didn’t know what to expect. They had maybe had it in places where it was not very good, where it was cooked improperly, or the value wasn’t there because it was very expensive,” McKerrow says.
Even though herd populations had significantly improved by 2000, McKerrow says that only about 25,000 bison were being taken to market each year. Due to dismal sales, a fair amount of product ended up in the ranchers’ freezers, he adds.
While he was still chairman of the board for Rare Hospitality (which then included LongHorn, The Capital Grille, and Bugaboo Creek Steak House), McKerrow pushed bison as a niche category that could differentiate it from competitors like Outback and Texas Roadhouse. Company leaders, however, didn’t share in this vision.
But Turner did and was willing to run the risk. The two cofounders knew that quality and consistency would be non-negotiable in swaying public opinion. They also committed to selling bison dishes at the same price as beef in the early years, even though that meant eating a bit of the cost. The restaurant wasn’t promoted as a “bison restaurant,” McKerrow says but rather a restaurant that served a variety of foods including bison. In fact, the bison’s branding visibility was the only area where the two differed somewhat.
“I didn’t want the logo to be a buffalo, but Ted did, so he’s the winner,” he says. “Now the logo works well because it distinguishes Ted’s Montana Grill.”
The brand, which celebrated 20 years this past January, has grown to about 40 locations across 16 states. On the sustainability side, Ted’s has achieved what it set out to do.
“The bison ranching industry is thriving. It went from a dollar a pound on the rail to $4.50–$4.80 on the rail. It’s economically sustainable, herd sizes have doubled, bison is available in just about every grocery store in the United States and elsewhere, and demand is harmonious with supply,” McKerrow says.
He adds that the benefits go beyond saving a species. Bison is generally considered a healthier alternative to beef, thanks to higher levels of iron and omega-3 fatty acids and half the fat and cholesterol. Plus, bison’s roaming nature is more in sync with the landscape.
“We really have a species that’s easy on the environment. They aren’t like domesticated animals. They don’t go to feedlots. They don’t stand around in the riparian zones and devastate the area. They only eat grass,” McKerrow says. “They roam at least five miles a day. If you’ve ever observed a bison herd for any length of time, they really never stand still; they’re constantly moving.”
This might be the heart of the brand’s sustainability mission, but its eco-friendly initiatives extend to other facets. From the very beginning, Ted’s Montana Grill wanted to use paper straws, even though this required McKerrow to hunt down a company that billed itself as the original inventor of the product. The manufacturer hadn’t made the straws since the 1970s but dusted off the old machine and sold the product to the restaurant for a nickel apiece. The straws, once made of beeswax, have since become sturdier and more affordable.
The success of Ted’s Montana Grill wasn’t instant and required not only an upfront financial commitment, but also patience. Sustainability rarely brings instant gratification, but at the same time, it doesn’t have to be a loss leader. McKerrow thinks that if more C-suite leaders can get onboard with a similar mentality, the restaurant industry could significantly move the needle.
“Oftentimes an investment in sustainability practices yields a long-term return on your investment, but it may not be overnight,” he says. “It’s well worth it in the long run because not only are you doing the right thing, but you’re also saving yourself money in the long term.”