Serving Up Sustainability

Pam George

Bison, Boraxo and biodegradable coasters: Are green restaurants the wave of the future? Some local eateries are giving it a try.

On a blustery fall morning, members of the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce gathered at Ted’s Montana Grill in the Christiana Fashion Center for the restaurant’s grand opening ceremonies. It was only 10 a.m., but that didn’t stop servers from passing copper mugs filled with “Hendrick’s Mules” and diminutive burgers speared with tiny American flags. The crowd gathered to watch Ted’s CEO, George McKerrow Jr., and chamber President Mark Kleinschmidt cut into a steak so large that it easily dwarfed a cheesecake.

Just another restaurant opening near the mall? Not quite. The ceremonial steak and sliders are bison, which is the star attraction at Ted’s Montana Grill. Sodas, which come with wax-coated paper straws, are placed on 100-percent biodegradable coasters. Want yours to go? Takeout cups are made with cornstarch. In the bathroom, soap dispensers contain biodegradable Boraxo.

McKerrow and his partner, the media mogul Ted Turner, are dedicated to sustainability in the restaurant industry. “We started the conversation,” says McKerrow. In 2008, they spearheaded “The Green Restaurant Revolution” tour.

But they’re not the only ones making an effort. Several Delaware-based establishments are also stepping up to the plate. It’s not easy. Most restaurants lack the resources of Ted’s Montana Grill, which is fueled by Turner’s convictions, McKerrow’s 40-plus years of industry experience—he also founded LongHorn Steakhouse—and some serious buying power; Ted’s is now in 16 states.

But even Ted’s bows to some consumer preferences, practical considerations, and an industry that has yet to catch up.

Blackened blue catfish from NorthEast Seafood Kitchen in Ocean View, one of nine restaurants owned by Rehoboth Beach-based SoDel Concepts. All nine feature the fish, which is threatening the ecosystem in the Chesapeake Bay. Photo Pam George

Blackened blue catfish from NorthEast Seafood Kitchen in Ocean View, one of nine restaurants owned by Rehoboth Beach-based SoDel Concepts. All nine feature the fish, which is threatening the ecosystem in the Chesapeake Bay. Photo Pam George

On the Plate

Turner—who is an avid outdoorsman—and McKerrow decided to feature bison to help increase the threatened animal’s herds. The population, which numbered up to 30 million at one time, dwindled due to habitat loss and overhunting in the 19th century.

As more consumers become aware of the health benefits of bison (it’s higher in nutrients and lower in calories than most meat), they will increase the demand—or so the theory goes. Ranchers, as a result, will grow their herds, which can be good for the environment. Able to withstand harsh weather conditions, bison are natural foragers that thrive on grass outdoors; there’s no need for feed and artificial shelter. They calve without human interference, and their natural heartiness requires fewer vet visits than cattle.

Their grass diet results in meat that is slightly sweeter than regular beef and much leaner. The taste and the health benefits have whetted the public’s appetite, which is evident by the number of bison burgers in many local restaurants, including Buckley’s Tavern in Centreville. Of course, both Buckley’s and Ted’s also offer standard beef burgers and steaks.

Supporting the growth of an endangered species is one way that restaurants can be sustainable. Another is to create dishes with creatures that are causing an imbalance. Take, for instance, the wild blue catfish, which was introduced into the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries in the 1970s for anglers. The fish, however, has few predators other than man, and it exhibited a voracious appetite for just about anything on the bay’s bottom.

“It’s a pesky fish, but it is delicious,” says William Hoffman, who with his wife, Merry Catanuto, owns The House of William & Merry in Hockessin. “We try to serve it as much as we can to try and help balance the ecosystem in the bay.”

Farm-raised fish have been getting a bad rap for the fish’s unhealthy habitat. Disease not only can affect the farm-raised fish but it can also drift into the wild fish population.

But not all aquaculture practices are detrimental to the ocean. Brian Ashby, the owner of 8th & Union Kitchen in Wilmington’s Little Italy, features Verlasso salmon, which is raised on Patagonian farms that follow sustainability standards established by the World Wildlife Fund. He also sells specials with cobia that’s raised in open-water farms.

These new methods encourage containment in the deep ocean, where the currents can flush the pens. The containment mimics a natural habitat as much as possible, right down to including species such as mussels, which consume waste.

Hoffman offers alternatives to overfished species like swordfish, tuna and salmon. “There are so many species out there that aren’t overfished, but that people don’t know about,” Hoffman says.

In the House of William & Merry, diners expect to find new ingredients prepared in innovative ways.

Buckley’s Tavern, known for its comfort food, recently offered parrotfish, which are threatening coral reefs. But at the Big Fish Grill restaurants, customers stick to the familiar, says Eric Sugrue, the managing partner. “It’s challenging because obviously, we want to do the right thing, but we also want to put items on the menu that people like and can afford to eat,” he says.

The price point is also a factor for the restaurant’s cost, Sugrue adds. Joe Van Horn, owner of Chelsea Tavern, might agree. “We use reputable vendors, and purchase the most sustainable [ingredients that] we can, while continuing to offer the price point that we do,” he says.

What’s more, many restaurants won’t take a risk on an item not selling because diners refuse to try it. Sugrue says there’s been no noticeable uptick in customer concern for sustainable fish or new species, even in the market adjacent to the original Big Fish location in Rehoboth Beach.

Recycle & Reuse

Sourcing sustainable food is not the only way that restaurants can benefit the environment. The reclaimed wood that makes 8th & Union Kitchen’s décor so distinctive likely came from a tobacco factory, says Ashby, who noticed the aroma when the workers were cutting the wood.

Van Horn says that his restaurants recycle paper, cardboard, plastic. glass, metal and fryer grease.

(Using services that manage and recycle kitchen oil has become a common practice.)

Along with reclaimed wood for the dining rooms, using services that manage and recycle kitchen oil has become a common practice.

Brian Ashby, owner of 8th & Union Kitchen, says the restaurant's reclaimed wood decor likely came from a tobacco factory. Photo David Norbut

Brian Ashby, owner of 8th & Union Kitchen, says the restaurant’s reclaimed wood decor likely came from a tobacco factory. (Photo by David Norbut)

Reducing food waste is also a practical priority. Home Grown Café in Newark orders small quantities to make sure that everything is used, says owner Sasha Aber, who also buys as much of her seasonal food as possible from local vendors.

Restaurants like Home Grown and 8th & Union Kitchen that make items from scratch can be resourceful. “There is very little that goes to waste in this kitchen,” Ashby says. “Nearly every vegetable scrap is used in our mushroom pho. Meat scraps are almost always incorporated into other dishes. There is always a veg scrap bin in the walk-in.”

Some Delaware restaurants once participated in a composting program with the Wilmington Organic Recycling Center. But that business was ordered to cease operations in 2014 due to neighbors’ complaints about the smell.

At Harry’s Savoy Grill, the leftover prime rib is donated to Emmanuel Dining Room and other charities. Oyster shells are sprinkled in garden beds. From plastic to glass bottles, everything that can be recycled is recycled at The House of William & Merry.

Ted's Montana Grill at the Christiana Fashion Center. (Photo by Joe del Tufo)

Ted’s Montana Grill at the Christiana Fashion Center. (Photo by Joe del Tufo)

Materials Matter

With their plastic straws, coffee stirrers and takeout containers, restaurants can generate a lot of waste that collects in landfills—and stays there. When McKerrow and Turner decided to open Ted’s Montana Gill, they wanted to do something about that problem. In 2001, McKerrow researched paper straws online and found a company in New Jersey that invented the product in 1833. He called and talked to the third-generation owner.

“He said: ‘George, we haven’t made a paper straw since 1970,’” McKerrow recalls. It was possible, however, that the machine was still around. The owner called back to say the engineers had indeed found the machine and could make it work. With packaging in hand, the straws arrived at the first Ted’s in Columbus, Ohio, in trash bags. Unfortunately, they quickly turned to limp noodles in the soda.
The motivated company found a biodegradable polymer to make the straw and stirrer last an hour.

Today, the company also sells the products to cruise lines under the name Aardvark Straws. Being responsible does not come cheap. Regular straws cost less than a penny when purchased in bulk. A package of 24 paper straws is $4.99 online.

Ted’s originally used all biodegradable takeout containers. Without clear plastic lids, though, servers mixed up the orders. Plus, some foods quickly soak through cardboard. The restaurant conceded that aluminum with a clear lid was better for some items.

As for building materials, low-flow toilets, no-water urinals, and high-pressure/low-volume water sprayers deliver a return on investment and help promote sustainability. These are additions that customers, who can press restaurants to do more, cannot see. But for those committed to sustainability, there is too much that they do notice.

Yasmine Bowman, for one, is watching. The realtor and Wilmington resident says she is dedicated to being a responsible consumer. On her Facebook page, she writes, “‘Sustainability’ will be my personal word and cause for 2017.”

“I tend to stay away from restaurants that do not recycle. I prefer to frequent establishments that are in line with my value systems. I also do not go to fast food restaurants that put hot food in plastic containers. The health dangers of BPA leaching into the food are a huge health threat. I would also like to see more restaurants offer organic, cruelty-free and gluten-free options. This is the future. Those who find a way to accommodate this sooner will thrive; those who don’t will slowly fail.”

So, what do you think? Please comment below.