With local sourcing no longer serving as a trend, but increasingly as the status quo, restaurants are making their commitments to sustainability more visible to diners than ever before, with specific design elements at the forefront of their efforts.
— Ally Spier
How do you let someone know you care when words won’t do? You show them. And so it goes in the restaurant world, as much as in a relationship; restaurants are making their eco-conscious practices more visible than ever, through design features that will become increasingly evident in the coming year.
Local sourcing and seasonal menus have been more or less trending since chefs like Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower put it on the map decades ago. But sustainability efforts have continued to evolve as technology has allowed them to, and a longstanding commitment to environmentally-conscious practices has manifested in myriad ways beyond the fine print citing local farms on menus. If a farm-to-table approach means restaurants can cut out the commercial middleman, new sustainable practices have made his former existence all but a distant memory.
What You See Is What You Get
Today, sustainability isn’t just a marketing ploy, but a sincere ethos embraced by future-minded chefs and restaurateurs looking to minimize their global impact by reducing waste and carbon footprints in the face of climate change. Take The Perennial in San Francisco, for example. Partners in both their restaurant and lives outside of it, Karen Leibowitz and Anthony Myint approached the restaurant with their newborn in mind. Posited by many as the most sustainable restaurant in the country when it opened in early 2016, The Perennial features an on-site aquaponic system; worms compost food scraps before they’re fed to fish and clams that fertilize the water, from which nutrients feed plants that are served to customers.
An untraditional farm on premises is not unique to The Perennial, though. The National Restaurant Association’s annual chef survey aggregated the input from 700 participants to identify its top predicted concept trend for 2018 as “hyper local” food, picked and processed on-site, and plenty of other examples already exist to support this hunch.
Farm.One, an indoor hydroponic farm facility, began growing things in April 2016 at the Institute of Culinary Education. Its second location opened just last month in TribBecCa, where visitors can take a tour of the subterranean science lab for $50. If you dine at Atera, a restaurant located just above the space the farm occupies that sources some of its ingredients from Farm.One, you may be able to convince someone to show you the place as you’re digesting dessert.
There’s also Smallhold, a new company running a distributed farming network of mushroom mini-farms. They’ll install one of their units wherever a client wants them to. This past October, at Mission Chinese in NYC, that request was for a prominent front-of-house location, above the bar, for the first time. Diners can clearly see the glowing blue box as they sweat over their thrice cooked bacon. Adam DeMartino, one of the two “fun guys” behind the startup, explains the appeal: It’s “one thing to get produce from the farmer’s market, and another to have it growing inside of your restaurant. There’s an instant connection between customers and what they’re eating.” Other restaurants his company will be working with have now also asked for front of house installations.
This in-your-face approach to sustainability ranges from high to low tech in the design realm. The Perennial serves its cocktails with straws made of— you guessed it— actual straw instead of the more common (and wasteful) plastic alternative, and its dining room includes a rug whose fibers came from recycled fishing nets and marine trash. Graffiti Earth in NYC uses week-old newspapers as place mats. And The Grey Plume in Omaha, Nebraska, goes so far as to identify on its website, beneath a list of sustainable furnishings and building materials (including bread plates made from recycled wine bottles), a photo of the Iowan barn from which wood has been reclaimed to make the restaurant’s furniture. And at Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen, an early adopter and long-term stalwart of sustainability, it’s sometimes the things that you don’t see that make a commitment to the cause most visible; certain juices and citrus don’t exist on the bar’s menu, for example, “in keeping with the restaurant’s commitment to regional sourcing,” Baltimore Magazine explains.
It looks like the concept of sustainability in restaurants is actually pretty, uh, sustainable. But efforts are more focused now than they’ve ever been before, supporting a desire to not only reduce waste, but also to create systems that will be indefinitely self-sufficient.
Spike Gjerde, the chef and restaurateur behind Woodberry Kitchen, a place so committed to minimizing waste that it collects its oyster shells every week to be returned to the Chesapeake bay, perhaps summed it up best in an interview with the Baltimore Sun this past June: “I just think going into a restaurant that announces its farm-to-table intentions with a pitchfork in the corner, deviled eggs on the menu and a list of farms they may or may not be sourcing from is kind of over… taking that sourcing and creating something… is what it’s about now.”
Skift Table contributor Ally Spier is a Brooklyn-based writer and designer who studied ergonomics at Cornell, and architecture at Pratt. Her background in design informs her love of food and travel… and vice versa.